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.
 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. ↩