Baseball card days  JUL 25 2006

Dave Jamieson used to collect baseball cards and recently uncovered his stash when he cleaned out the closet of his childhood home. In attempting to recoup some of the time and money spent in his youth on this cardboard, Jamieson found that baseball cards aren't as popular or as lucrative as they used to be:

Baseball cards peaked in popularity in the early 1990s. They've taken a long slide into irrelevance ever since, last year logging less than a quarter of the sales they did in 1991. Baseball card shops, once roughly 10,000 strong in the United States, have dwindled to about 1,700. A lot of dealers who didn't get out of the game took a beating. "They all put product in their basement and thought it was gonna turn into gold," Alan Rosen, the dealer with the self-bestowed moniker "Mr. Mint," told me. Rosen says one dealer he knows recently struggled to unload a cache of 7,000 Mike Mussina rookie cards. He asked for 25 cents apiece.

Close readers of kottke.org know that I collected sports cards too. I got involved in this prepubescent hobby later than most; I was 14 or 15 when a friend and his older brother -- who was around 24 and collecting for investment -- introduced me to it. And I loved it:

I still have them all somewhere, in boxes, collecting dust faster than value. The Ken Griffey Jr. Upper Deck rookie, the 130 different Nolan Ryan cards, the complete 1989 Hoops set (with the David Robinson rookie), and several others I really can't remember right now.

I used to spend untold hours sifting through them, looking up the values in Beckett's Price Guide, visiting card shops, flipping through commons to complete sets, looking for patterns in Topps' rack packs (I scored many a Jim Abbott rookie with this technique), chewing that ancient bubble gum (I bought a pack of 1983 cards once and chewed the gum...it was horrible), and keeping track of the total value of my collection with a Lotus 1-2-3 spreadsheet on my dad's 286. It was a lot of fun at the time (as the Web is fun for me now); I guess that's about all one can ask for from a hobby.

Recently I stumbled across The Baseball Card Blog and was hit by a giant wave of nostalgia for my old obsession. One thing led to another -- you know how that goes -- and before I knew it, a package was speeding its way to me from a card shop in Pennsylvania containing several 1989 Fleer & Donruss wax packs, a 1989 Topps rack pack, and a couple of 1987 Topps wax packs.1

I've been opening a pack every few days since they arrived. Smell is the sense most powerfully associated with memory, so getting a whiff of that cardboard is really sending me back. Like a wine connoisseur, I can even smell the difference between each brand of card; the smell of Topps cards holds the strongest memories for me...the 1989 Topps set was my favorite. I opened the '87 Topps packs with a fellow ex-collector, but when we tried to chew the gum, it tasted like the cards and turned to a muddy dust in our mouths. But that was mostly what happened even when the gum was new, so we were unsurprised.

Because of the aforementioned slump in the baseball card collecting economy, the card packs I ordered were the same price I paid for them as a kid (factoring for inflation), even though they're almost 20 years old and way more scarce. Back then, I used most of my $5/week allowance on cards, and it took weeks and months of patience to buy enough packs to complete a set, procure that Griffey rookie card, or amass enough Mark McGwires to trade to a friend for a desired Nolan Ryan.

As an adult, I have the cashflow to buy any card I want whenever I want (within reason). Or several boxes of cards, so as to compile complete sets instantly. Or I can just purchase the complete sets and skip the intermediate step. I could buy an entire box of 1989 Upper Deck packs -- at $1.25 per pack and nearly impossible to find in rural Wisconsin, an unimaginable extravagance for me as a kid -- right now on eBay. When I think about the financial advantages I now have over my 16-yo self in collecting the same exact cards, I feel like the NY Yankees (and their monster payroll) competing in a Single A league. It's unfair and even thinking about collecting cards in that manner takes a lot of the fun out of it for me. If I do start collecting cards again, I'm going to approach it like I did back then: by hand, a little at a time, and treating even the essentially worthless commons with care. Unless Nolan Ryan is involved...in that case, the sky's the limit, although I might have to sell my bicycle to get it. In the meantime, I'm waiting for the next household footwear purchase so I can put my newly purchased cards in the shoe box for safe keeping.

[1] A quick note on terminology. A "wax pack" is a basic pack of around 15 cards (plus gum, when cards still had gum packaged with them), so-called because the packages used to be sealed with wax. (Now they're all probably packaged in plastic and whatnot...I don't know, I haven't kept up.) The bottom card in such a pack is called a "wax back" because the card got a thin layer of wax on it from the sealing process. A "rack pack" is a hanging triple pack made of see-thru plastic. A "common" is an ordinary card not worth very much, as opposed to cards or rookies, hot prospects, all-stars, and the like. A "box" contains several wax packs, typically 20-40 packs/box. A "complete set" is a collection of every card sold by a company in a particular year. The '89 Topps set had 792 cards. Sets were sold in factory-sealed boxes or were compiled by hand from cards acquired in packs.

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There are 30 reader comments

Rob Stevens08 25 2006 1:08PM

I don't think it would be any surprise to learn that collectible card games started to take off as baseball cards were on the decline. You get the same thrill of "the open", plus you can do things with the cards afterwards. Not to mention that they're appreciating in value faster. Wizards of the Coast (WOTC) really clued into a potential market with Magic, and now they're riding that donkey like it's going out of style.

The World of Warcraft CCG is going to be even bigger than Magic, since some cards will grant items in the MMORPG as well. That's going to be a massive draw.

Dave Selden23 25 2006 1:23PM

I am amazed at the cards' drastic decline in value. Of course as any investment broker will tell you, high-risk investments require cool nerves to ride out dips in value over a long period of time. Hopefully, they will appreciate again.

I just bid on a box of 1986 Topps cards. I was also a big fan of the 1987 wood-grained cards, but 1986 was the classic year for me.

pinder46 25 2006 1:46PM

change the word "baseball" to "hockey" and Topps to O-Pee-Chee in the above and it's pretty much my story, only Canadian.

much like for comics, i think ebay had a lot to do with the decline of value for sets/rookies. cards/comics that were once rare in your own town are now easily available, and there's many more of them (7,000 Mike Mussina rookie cards!)

crazymonk50 25 2006 1:50PM

Yeah, I just recently had a similar experience dipping into my large box of basketball cards from the late-80's and early-90's and finding the brunt of them to be worthless, including my factory-sealed collection of Upper Deck's first foray into basketball.

The operating factor here is two-fold:
1) We here commenting aren't the only ones who were collecting then -- almost every town had a hobby shop.
2) We knew from the stories on TV and from our parents and from Beckett's that cards from decades past were now extremely valuable, and, like all young solipsists, assumed that the same would apply to ours in the future. Of course, it turns out that *everyone* was saving their cards and leaving packs unopened, making the whole endeavor futile.

I kinda had the feeling when I was collecting that it would lead to naught, financially, but I did while away many an hour in backwoods Maine trading cards with my closest friends. The time I spent on it was only second to playing Nintendo.

stevo51 25 2006 1:51PM

I used to collect a lot of different cards until at the age of 15 I realized what an insane activity it is. Cards were like some weird drug and the baseball card companies knew how to get you addicted. I recall thinking what if they had card collections for something as assinine as trees (e.g The Larch card) or cereals. It was as meaningless as baseball cards really. I never picked up another card. Nor will I.

dave58 25 2006 1:58PM

I used to collect a lot of different cards until at the age of 15 I realized what an insane activity it is.

No more insane than collecting anything else.

I recall thinking what if they had card collections for something as assinine as trees

Unless you loved trees. Baseball cards are wonderful. Buy them for an investment? Insane. As a hobby? A look back at your childhood? Wonderful. You can treat it as crack if you want to. Mine brought me, and still do, nothing but joy.

Sacca09 25 2006 2:09PM

Such a great post. Immediately took me back to those days.

I was a slow learner back then. I would consistently scrounge up $5 or $6 to buy a wax pack hoping to find that coveted Canseco rookie from an open box. I never realized that the dastardly old men who ran those shops had removed the pack already because it was in a predictable spot in each box. Best I could ever make out was a Kal Daniels Rated Rookie.

Sheer poverty forced me to abandon my Canseco pursuit and settle on the Bash Brother value play - McGwire. Oh, the irony.

I have to say though, I took the same nostalgic trip recently when I bumped into Jose Canseco at a Grammy party in LA. I humbly recounted to him the tale of my futile efforts to acquire his rookie card and what a fan I was. He totally blew me off.

It was at that moment I took some guilty pleasure in noting that Jose's professional value has essentially depreciated along the same trajectory as the cards themselves.

COD10 25 2006 2:10PM

When I was in deep into baseball cards (mid to late 70s) I became convinced that my grandmothers attic 10 miles from Fenway held untold millions in Ted Williams baseball cards. So I spent a weekend in 100 degree heat crawling through the attic doing a crime scene worthy search of the premises, looking for my dad's card collection. I found two cards, Johnny Van de Meer, and Gus Bell - both 1954 IIRC.

I still have those cards, plus about 7000 others, more or less organized in boxes in the back of the closet. Every once in a while a pull them out and sift through. I tried to get my son into baseball cards, and although he is a big baseball fan, his interest never really extended beyond collecting cards of his favorite team.

pfil23 25 2006 2:23PM

Finest/Happiest card moment:

I used to save up my money and buy a box of wax packs when the card show came to the local mall. I think it was the early 90's, I went and bought a box of donruss cards, and the burly card shop owner told me about a promotion where ryne sandberg had signed something like five cards and they were randomly in packs.

My mom always let me open one pack on the spot, and the first card in the pack was a signed ryne sandberg card!!! I felt like charlie opening up a wonka bar, except that i was a cardinals fan and refused to collect cubs players. Sold it to the card shop owner on the spot and after a series of lucky investments (and 10 years) it turned into a big part for the down payment on my house.

bill26 25 2006 2:26PM

I think it all went downhill with the creation of crad grading service companies.

The same card that is a 10 grade is sooo much more valuable than a 9
It takes the phun out of it.

I can still remember my 2 year old sister cutting my 1975 Topps cards in half before dinner one day. Robin Yount,George Brett, nooo not my Steve Swisher !!!!!!

She did get over the limp ....

pinder46 25 2006 2:46PM

actually, I'm still looking for the Carl Yastrzemski baseball card from 1973 when he had big sideburns.

Chris Rogers52 25 2006 2:52PM

Great post. I used to get the complete set of Upper Deck cards each year. The first one was 1989, I believe, and contained the Ken Griffy Jr. rookie card. They're piled in a room somewhere... I'm hoping the market swings back around, but that seems unlikely with the current steroid situation in baseball. Kids and adults are looking elsewhere for roll models and heroes.

Another card collecting highlight was a Michael Jordan rookie card for baseball (I wish I had the basketball one) when he played briefly for the Chicago White Sox.

And, of course the day I dropped my Chris Webber rookie card between the wood slats of the deck and lost it forever. Not a big deal now, but I went to the Univ. of Michigan and was kind of fond of it... until we found out he was getting paid to play and sent us into sanctions-ville.

dave kellam10 25 2006 3:10PM

Great article, brings back lots of memories for me. The first set I remember putting together by myself was 1986 Topps (although it was '89). I loved the chunky black border and bright lettering at the top.

Nicole12 25 2006 3:12PM

My brother was into baseball cards and, by association then, so was I. We used to play a baseball card board game. Jose Canseco and George Brett always had to be on my team.

After not thinking about baseball cards for over a decade, a couple years back, I randomly decided I had to have the Topps 2002 Oakland A's team set. It took a whopping $1 to purchase this gem. And the Wally Szczerbiak rookie card.

Trent51 25 2006 3:51PM

I've been winding my way through a similar experience, though I have been mixing nostalgia (1987-1989 Topps and 1989 Upper Deck for me) with packs of newer sets (somewhat at random, just to get a sense of the hobby right now).

My wife thought it was particularly peculiar when I announced to her that I intended to hand-collate a set of 1989 Upper Deck out of packs slowly over the next year or so. And so I shall, with a few eBay purchases.

COD53 25 2006 3:53PM

Hey Pinder,

I think I have that card. Seriously. Although the effort it would take to find it probably far exceeds it's commercial value ;)

Richard55 25 2006 3:55PM

Some more baseball card terminology:

double: a card you already have
error card: see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Error_card

ssflanders06 25 2006 4:06PM

Cards still make a great gift for a 5-9 year old baseball fan. Opening up a complete box on your birthday from the year you were born is a big thrill, investment value aside. My son (6) loves to "trade" cards with me, where we put together packages (all pitchers, all phillies, all lefties) and negotiate meaningless deals with each other. Collecting and organizing stuff will always be fun for a certain kind of kid.

TrippingBridge25 25 2006 4:25PM

The death of sports card collecting has been documented and analysed many times before. The Christian Science monitor just covered this last August, for one. This topic was also covered in a Washington Times article from last July.

Basically I think three things came together to kill the industry: technology, industry stupidity, and Magic: the Gathering.

Baseball cards, by themselves, aren't much fun. There are more interesting ways (at least flashier, anyway) and interactive ways for teens to spend their time and money. Video games -- especially Madden/FIFA/etc -- and fantasy leagues satisfy the craving to collect and control your favorite players and teams way better than cardboard ever could. And collecting friends on Myspace doesn't usually cost you any money.

Collecting the players you wanted, let alone a team or -- god forbid -- a set was made incredibly difficult by gigantic set sizes (800 cards!?), ridiculous rarities (plus a dozen or more ultra-rare chase series rarities within the set) , shrinking pack sizes (I swear I saw a TOPPS pack the other day that had 4 cards for $5.), and confusing product lines (do you collect Triple Threads, Finest, Bowman, Co-Signers, Chrome, or Series line of baseball cards? and that's just from TOPPS!) .

Finally, collectable/trading card games had almost all of the appeal (they mostly don't have professional athletes' pictures on the cards) of sports cards, but also had the bonus that you could do something with them besides look at the pretty pictures. The industry hasn't succumb to customer-hating stupidity too badly. Well, at least Magic hasn't, though it does have premium foil chase cards and it's most recently released set is a pretty blatent money grab. Magic is still priced competetively at just under $4/pack of 15 cards (that's a bit more than $2 in 1986 dollars), it has a reasonable release schedule of new sets, and sets are sized such that they aren't futile to attempt to collect. The Vs. game from Upper Deck is excellent. Yu-gi-oh and Pokemon are more customer hostile than Vs. or Magic but still have a long way to go to be in the same order of magnitude as TOPPS.

Jason11 25 2006 5:11PM

Jason, pre-war cards are the way to go. Trying to find these bring back the excitement of back of the 1980s and early 90s when the '87 Fleer and '84 Donruss were supposedly scarce.

I bought a box this spring with the intention of starting to collect again. I think I am going to stick with hunting down the older cards. Cards, and all of those damned "flashy" inserts these days lack that certain je ne sais quoi.

szg24 25 2006 8:24PM

My father and I collected for about a decade, from the early '80s until I went to college in the early '90s. We started just collecting Phillies from all eras. That led us into the Tobacco cards from the late 19th and early 20th century. They were truly works of art.

Like must suckers, we have our case of unopened 1987 Topps sitting in the attic. But we also have an unopened pack from 1970 until about 1990. We put together a complete T-201 set.

We were friends with a number of dealers who we would run into at the different shows. We even traveled to the "National" in Anaheim in '84 and again in Chicago in '89.

Collecting with my dad are some of my best childhood memories.

SAS13 25 2006 9:13PM

It almost seems like there is a current wave of appreciation, as epitomized at the Baseball Card Blog, for appreciating the photography and graphic design of the cards. I started collecting in 1979, when I was eight, and I remember going to card shows and being fascinated by cards from previous years, with features like "all-star rookies" that were discontinued by the time I started collecting. Also, for a young kid like myself, those older cards were like a baseball history lesson, seeing players that I only knew as veteran stars pictured as younger men in different uniforms.

As for the cards' value, it seems like an important factor is getting the cards graded. If you look at ebay, cards that are rated as 9's or 10's by the grading companies can fetch something approaching those Beckett book values, whereas ungraded cards aren't worth nearly as much. Maybe this doesn't hold true for more recent years.

Jubal Kessler15 25 2006 9:15PM

Jason:

I was a wheeler and dealer in the late '80s while in high school in the Bay Area. Had a table at many big conventions in town, attended the National a few times, and subscribed to the real Bible of the scene, the weekly Sports Collectors Digest rag. Then the summer before college, a neighbor broke into my place and lifted a few key cards from my dear project, a 1969 Topps complete set in NM to MT range, and I completely lost interest in baseball cards after that. Sold the 250,000 cards I owned over the next year (1990), apparently just before the market really tanked, and I then had a little bit of savings to pay off first year of college tuition.

Regarding the scarcity of 1987 wax packs, etc: The height of popularity for baseball cards was in 1987 or 1988. Topps printed scads more of their cards in that range -- 1984 to 1990, perhaps 1991 on -- than ever before. And, although I'm guessing at this point because I didn't follow the scene after 1990, if the market nosedived, the demand and therefore production must've also nosedived... so today's non-waxies are probably scarcer.

I found this book once in a flea market ages ago. It's the best baseball card book ever, guaranteed to strum your nostalgic strings until you're a blubbering mess: The Great American Baseball Card Flipping, Trading and Bubble Gum Book.

miles24 25 200610:24PM

The (mostly) entertaining people at Page 2 recently came together to indulge on the nostalgia as well: A Pack of Baseball Memories.

Blake Snow37 26 2006 3:37AM

Wow. What a refreashing post. Just last week I was looking at my Uncle's baseball card collection and near-mint Hank Aaron rookie card. The dying popularity of baseball cards and trick-or-treating. What is the world coming to...

Westy41 26 200610:41AM

Another article posted yesterday on the same subject can be found here on Slate.

Great job at bringing back scenes so familiar to so many of our memories. In my case collecting in northern MN, the chance to go to actual card stores was rare, and so nothing beat the thrill of pulling a coveted card from the pack.

Westy43 26 200610:43AM

Ha, try reading the first line of your post, self.
Regardless of my obvious skimming of the intro, good post.

hobbsy52 26 2006 6:52PM

Here in the UK, the equivalent I guess would be Panini football (soccer) stickers... they were a huge craze during the the 86/87 and 87/88 seasons for kids my age (born '78)... they even banned them in schools as they caused too many playground fights.

Everyone remembers: "got got got got NEED got got... etc". Some classic haircuts and ugly footballers... the thrill of finding a 'silver' team badge. I think the reason I learnt my 12-times table so well was because the packs cost 12p. lol.

Also like yourself Jason I re-discovered this passion for a laugh 8 years ago during the World Cup. I decided to start collecting the Panini World Cup stickers, although being able to afford huge amounts at a time did take some fun out of it (and I ended up with a huge amount of 'swaps' and no-one of my own age to trade them with!)

Chris Harrison59 27 2006 7:59AM

Hehe... talk about a blast from the past. I was a huge baseball card collector in the early 90s. I would spend all of my allowance each week buying packs of Donruss, Tops, Upper Deck, Leaf, etc. packs of cards... I'd even go to Baseball Card shows. I finally stopped collecting around the age of 15, when comics became my new interest. Ah, those were the days.

This thread is closed to new comments. Thanks to everyone who responded.

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