Fearful Symmetries

Witness a machine turn coffee into pointless ramblings...

26 July, 2006

When Topps Was Tops

Yesterday, Slate posted an article called "Requiem for a Rookie Card". The author, Dave Jamieson, who sounds like he's just a bit younger than me, laments the transition in the early 1990s of baseball card collecting from a hobby to a business/investment scheme. He begins by saying that he went through his old stuff at his parents' home and came across thousands and thousands of baseball cards he had collecting during his youth in the 1980s.

So long, old friends, I thought. It's time for me to cash in on these long-held investments. I started calling the lucky card dealers who would soon be bidding on my trove.

First, I got a couple of disconnected numbers for now-defunct card shops. Not a good sign. Then I finally reached a human. "Those cards aren't worth anything," he told me, declining to look at them.

Card-trading was our pastime, and our issues of Beckett Baseball Card Monthly were our stock tickers. I considered myself a major player on the neighborhood trading circuit. It was hard work convincing a newbie collector that Steve Balboni would have a stronger career than Roger Clemens. If negotiations stalled, my favorite move was to sweeten the pot by throwing in a Phil Rizzuto card that only I knew had once sat in a pool of orange juice. After the deal went through, my buddy wouldn't know he'd been ripped off until his older brother told him. He always got over it, because he had no choice: Baseball cards were our common language.

In the early 1990s, pricier, more polished-looking cards hit the market. The industry started to cater almost exclusively to what Beckett's associate publisher described to me as "the hard-core collector," an "older male, 25 to 54, with discretionary income." That's marketing speak for the Comic Book Guy from The Simpsons. Manufacturers multiplied prices, overwhelmed the market with scores of different sets, and tantalized buyers with rare, autographed, gold-foil-slathered cards. Baseball cards were no longer mementos of your favorite players—they were elaborate doubloons that happened to have ballplayers on them. I eventually left the hobby because it was getting too complicated and expensive. Plus, I hit puberty


His story about collecting cards is basically my own excepting that puberty wasn't a factor as I continued collecting until I was 14. I started collecting around 1980. There was a small grocery store that I'd go to after bowling on Saturdays at Montrose and Drake in Chicago. I think I also inherited some older cards from 1978 as well from someone whom I cannot recall. Like Jamieson, I did it for fun. At the time, I was a big fan of Nolan Ryan so I tried to get all of his cards. My friends and I loved to patrol the neighborhood alleys and poke through garbage cans to see what we could find. By sheer luck, we hit the trash of the folks who lived at the end of my block and I hit the motherlode. I guess Ted's mom was punishing him because there were thousands of baseball and football cards there that had been dumped. I rescued them all and found a Nolan Ryan rookie in excellent condition amongst them. By the time I got to high school, I had some different friends who collected sports cards. And, instead of just Topps cards, there was also Fleer and Donruss. We'd get together every once in a while and do some trading. I recall one session at my house in particular at which my friend Sang laughed so hard that he spit soda through his nose. I don't recall why but I believe it had something to do with a trade he and I were in the middle of involving 1986 Topps Floyd Youmans and Ryne Sandburg cards.

I got out of collecting in 1987 after an experience at a card shop across the street from my high school. A little mall had opened up across Addison and my friend Pete and I headed over there one day after school. We walked in and found the guy behind the counter at the back talking to a kind who must have been about 8 years old. We wandered around and looked at the shelves and in the cases. As we did so, we overheard the clerk ripping off this kid. I can't recall the exact card but either the clerk was trying to buy it for a fifth of it's value or selling the card for 5 times what it was worth. We just walked out disgusted. I'm not positive, but I'm fairly certain that the Wall Street Journal had published an article on baseball cards as investments by this time which sent people out trying to hoard Don Mattingly rookie cards with others waiting impatiently to find out which of the 3 card makers would get their Rafael Palmeiro rookie out first. Instead of collecting for fun, it became a futures market. And so people wouldn't actually have to watch games or research the players, the card makers themselves helped out by putting a star with the words "All-Star Rookie" or something like that onto the cards of various prospects. Everyone wanted in on the ground floor of the next Mickey Mantle rookie card.

And so my friends and I lost interest in collecting baseball cards. Trying to collect a complete set by buying wax packs became too expensive. You need that Wade Boggs card so that you've got all the Bosox players? Well, you could either spend a million dollars buy wax packs hoping that you'd get one or a million dollars at a card shop or card convention. Shortly after we lost interest, Score and Upper Deck entered the fray and the market was just glutted with baseball cards. Wax packs were replaced by foil packs and there wasn't a stale piece of bubble gum to be found. Then more cards were issued. Instead of just the yearly sets, at the end of the season special sets were released featuring players who had been traded or been brought up from the minors mid-season. Plus there were the limited edition mini-sets with glossy hologrammed cards featuring players who were on the DL for most of the previous season and batboys and club mascots - it never ended.

Jamieson indicates that there's a push now by MLB to get kids into collecting cards again. I can only wonder what kind of marketing ploy they're using to reach kids these days.
|| Palmer, 1:07 PM

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