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The death of the baseball card

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The death of the baseball card

Postby The Big Train » Thu Jul 27, 2006 4:15 am

You mean to say my '83 Pete Vuckovich card is worth nuttin'?

Requiem for a Rookie Card
How baseball cards lost their luster.

By Dave Jamieson
Posted Tuesday, July 25, 2006, at 6:31 AM ET

Last month, when my parents sold the house I grew up in, my mom forced me to come home and clear out my childhood bedroom. I opened the closet and found a box the size of a Jetta. It was so heavy that at first I thought it held my Weider dumbbells from middle school. Nope, this was my old stash. Thousands, if not tens of thousands, of baseball cards from the 1980s. Puckett, Henderson, Sandberg, Gwynn, and McGwire stared back at me with fresh faces. 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.

"Maybe if you had, like, 20 McGwire rookie cards, that's something we might be interested in," another offered.

"Have you tried eBay?" a third asked.

If I had to guess, I'd say that I spent a couple thousand bucks and a couple thousand hours compiling my baseball card collection. Now, it appears to have a street value of approximately zero dollars. What happened?

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.

For someone who grew up in the late 1980s, this is a shocking state of affairs. When I was a kid, you weren't normal if you didn't have at least a passing interest in baseball cards. My friends and I spent our summer days drooling over the display cases in local card shops, one of which was run by a guy named Fat Moose. The owners tolerated us until someone inevitably tried to steal a wax pack, which would get us all banished from the store. Then we'd bike over to the Rite Aid and rummage through their stock of Topps and Fleer.

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.

It's easy to blame card companies and "the hard-core collector" for spoiling our fun. But I'll admit that even before the proliferation of pricey insert cards, I was buying plastic, UV-ray-protectant cases for my collection. Our parents, who lost a small fortune when their parents threw out all those Mantles and Koufaxes, made sure we didn't put our Griffeys and Ripkens in our bicycle spokes or try washing them in the bathtub. Not only did that ensure our overproduced cards would never become valuable, it turned us into little investors. It was only rational, then, for the card companies to start treating us like little investors. The next wave of expensive, hologram-studded cards didn't ruin collecting for us—we were already getting too old for the game. It ruined baseball cards for the next generation of kids, who shunned Upper Deck and bought cheap Pokémon and Magic cards instead.

This year there are 40 different sets of baseball cards on the market, down from about 90 in 2004. That's about 38 too many. When there were just two or three major sets on the market, we all had the same small pool of cards. Their images and stats were imprinted on our brains. The baseball card industry lost its way because the manufacturers forgot that the communal aspect of collecting is what made it enjoyable. How can kids talk about baseball cards if they don't have any of the same ones?

Seeing as the cards I once prized now fetch a pittance on eBay, I decided not to sell my collection. I figure my Boggs rookie is worth more as a keepsake of my card-shop days than as an online auction with a starting bid of 99 cents. The worthlessness of my collection gave me an idea, though. The card manufacturers and the Major League Baseball Players Association have launched a $7 million marketing campaign to remind a generation of children that baseball cards exist. Instead of spending all that money to tell kids that cardboard is cool, Topps and MLB should convince everyone that cards are worthless, suitable for tacking to the wall, flicking on the playground, or at least taking out of the package.

In that spirit, the other day I opened three Topps packs that I'd stowed away as an investment in the late 1980s. I even tried the gum, which was no staler than I remember it being 20 years ago. And as I flipped through my new cards hoping to score a Mattingly, I felt that particular tinge of excitement that a generation of kids have missed out on.
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Postby number9 » Thu Jul 27, 2006 4:36 am

Interesting timing, ESPN's running a baseball card feature on Page 2 as well..

A card fan's dream come true
By Jim Caple
Page 2 ... ple/060726

NEW YORK CITY -- Clay Luraschi inserts his key into the lock and turns the doorknob to the room -- the room where the Topps baseball card company stores copies of its original card sets.

I anticipated a hermetically sealed vault that includes a retina scan, heat sensors and an 18-digit random-generating security code. Instead it's simply a large supply room with cheap shelving cluttered with boxes and binders of baseball cards, generally two for each set. There are no museum-quality plastics cases, no humidity controls, no armed security guards. Some card sets are even pasted into the binders. The cards are so casually preserved that I'm surprised the entire 1968 Topps set isn't clothespinned to the spokes of a Schwinn Sting-Ray.

Page 2's Card Days
• The unofficial history of baseball cards

• A pack of baseball card memories from Page 2

There are so many baseball cards spread around the room, it's a wonder my mother hasn't come in and thrown them all away.

Luraschi is giving me a tour of the Topps baseball card headquarters in Manhattan, which is a bit like being allowed inside the gates of Willy Wonka's factory. Only instead of Oompa-Loompas waddling around, there are teams of 20- and 30-something baseball fans and art designers studying computer screens of statistics amidst desks scattered with old cards. One editor is poring through minor league stats, searching for the next rising star. Another is looking through photos of Ted Williams for use in a new set of cards. A designer shows me how they use Adobe Photoshop to place new caps and uniforms onto players who changed teams over the winter -- and in Johnny Damon's case, they also give him a George Steinbrenner-approved shave and haircut with a single keystroke.

Jackie Robinson
The first major Topps baseball card set was issued in 1952. A complete set of 407 cards in near-mint condition is valued at more than $50,000.

Is this a great place to work or what? Imagine getting paid to look at baseball cards all day. The only way it could be better is if their 401(k) packages included Albert Pujols rookie cards. The only drawback would be if the same people who make the gum also cook the food in the cafeteria.

"You tell someone you work for Topps, and that's all you'll talk about the rest of the night," Luraschi, the company's spokesman, says with a smile. "They always ask if we still put gum in the cards and if I can get them free cards."

Everyone acts that way when they visit Topps. Even the players. David Ortiz recently stopped by the office and walked away with bags of cards.

Who can blame Big Papi? The odds are stacked against a player reaching the major leagues. But in some ways it's even harder to get on a big league baseball card. While almost every top prospect gets a minor league card -- "That was the biggest moment in my career coming out of Double-A; I really thought I had made it," Gary Matthews Jr. says of his first minor league card -- not every major leaguer gets a card. A-Rod gets multiple cards every year; a middle reliever with a small-market team may not get a single one.

"Every spring training I'll go into a clubhouse and hear someone say, 'Dude, I haven't been on a card in, like, three years,'" Topps rep Adam Zucker says. "You'd be surprised how important it is to them. You get heat for it. You get cussed out. There's a guy, I won't say his name, but he was really getting on me. He was going, 'I've been in the big leagues for 12 years. I have a 3.65 career ERA. I have this many holds. And you're telling me I can't get on a stinking baseball card?'

"And I just said, 'Dude, you're on the Pirates.'"

At least a Pirates pitcher could count on being pictured in the team photo. Not so if he were with the Royals. Every year Topps prints a team photo card for every club. Been doing it for decades. But this year, the Royals' team card is just a photo of the stadium in Kansas City. It seems that for some reason, a Topps photographer didn't shoot the team on photo day during spring training. So a Topps rep called the Royals to see if they could use their team photo instead. The only problem was, he says, Kansas City told him it didn't bother to take a team photo, either.

(Jason Varitek doesn't have a Topps baseball card, either, though that is his choice -- he declines to sign a contract with Topps. Zucker says he isn't sure why, but that it stems from Varitek's card in the 1992 Team USA set.)

Being on a card might be priceless, but it doesn't bring a big paycheck. The licensing contract specifies that each player gets $500 for the use of his likeness on a baseball card. That's it. That barely covers a player's tip money for strippers. "There's no room for negotiations," Zucker says. "It doesn't matter who you are. Everyone gets the same."

Actually, as is usually the case, everyone is the same but Barry Bonds. Because he opted out of the union licensing contract, he was free to cut his own deal with Topps (which he did).

The sticks of gum inserted into old packs of baseball cards were as chewable as a ping pong paddle, but they somehow produced a speculative bubble larger than the Astrodome. And then it burst. Card shops that sprang up like Starbucks shops in a later era closed like steel mills a few years thereafter when the market became glutted. Companies produced so many cards and so many brands of cards that even the most knowledgeable collectors struggled to keep them straight. At one point there were as many as 90 brands on the shelves. Which was a big problem, because who really wanted eight different Joe Randa cards?

The casual fans, particularly kids, were so overwhelmed that many simply stopped collecting cards, which (naturally) crippled the industry. Annual sales dropped from around $1.2 billion at the peak of the craze to perhaps a quarter of that.

"My dad was a designer for Upper Deck, and I had hundreds of Ken Griffey Jr. cards. Hundreds," Blue Jays outfielder Vernon Wells said during an All-Star Game interview. "I could have paid for college with them. But not now."

This might be a good time to point out that the Topps headquarters is right down the street from the New York Stock Exchange.

The market correction could happen this year, primarily because the competition has been reduced to just two companies, Topps and Upper Deck. Fleer went bankrupt last year, and Major League Baseball didn't renew its licensing agreement with Donruss in an attempt to further reduce the amount of product.

"We're getting back to making cards for kids," Topps vice president Warren Friss says. "We've got to build back our base and it's not going to come from adult collectors -- it's going to come by building back the kids."

Which is not to say there isn't a dazzling array of cards to buy. Topps has a set featuring authentic autographs and bits of game-used bats and jerseys that sells for $75 a pack. If that sounds steep, consider that the company is working on a set of premium cards that will sell for -- better remove the gum from your mouth for this -- $250 a pack. That's right, $250 a pack. Well, "pack" is a poor description. The cards come in a cherrywood box (though for $250 they should come with their own numbered Swiss bank account). There will be only 10 copies of each card in the set, and they will include an authentic autograph, even from dead players such as Ted Williams by taking a signature off something else and skillfully transferring it to the card.

(Using this same process, Topps also put out a historic world figure set that included autographed cards of Winston Churchill, Martin Luther King Jr. and Helen Keller. Sure, that sounds impressive, but I just know that if I bought a pack of world figure cards I'd never get Churchill or FDR. Instead, I would wind up with a couple dozen Warren G. Hardings.)

Friss estimates that sales are up 20 percent to 25 percent for Topps this year. At least that's what I think he says. I'm only half-listening because I've noticed an uncut sheet of 1968 baseball cards he has framed along his office wall. I can't help but notice that down near the lower left-hand corner of the sheet is a Nolan Ryan rookie card. Beyond mint condition.

"I never noticed this before," Friss says, "but do you see how this sheet also has Jim Fregosi's card? Ryan and Fregosi on the same sheet, the two guys who got traded for each other. That's pretty cool."

Yes, it is. Friss, Luraschi and I just stare at the sheet, noting each player ("Look, there's Joe Morgan as an Astro"), discussing their careers (Ryan is paired with Jerry Koosman, giving their rookie card a combined 546 career victories) and growing smiles so wide, it's as if our mothers just bought us a case of wax packs and popsicles from the grocery store.

Jim Caple is a senior writer for You can reach Jim at Sound off to Page 2 here.
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Postby Esen » Thu Jul 27, 2006 6:32 am

I still love collecting cards for my sons.

Yje good uniquie ones go in a book and they play with the others.

If you think it is sad that henderson rookie card not worth much. I ve seen a Jay Bruce signed refractor card go for over $600.00
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Postby Beardown » Thu Jul 27, 2006 7:09 am

Great discussion and one I can truly relate to being one of the 80's kids you speak of who began collecting during the big boom. If you were one of the ones who bought "old" and not case after case of '86 Topps your probably still collecting and still sitting on a ever increasing "investment" or great collection to pass on to your kids. It's still a great hobby and one I very much enjoy today as much if not more than I did 20 years ago. Every collector will also encourage you to not "invest" but to collect what you like so as to never even open a price guide but rather pay what the dealer/market warrents and never look back.
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Postby Lofunzo » Thu Jul 27, 2006 8:59 am

I agree. I used to collect cards when it was just Topps and Fleer but all of the other companies as well as the inserts made me lose interest. Not only were they a lot more expensive to collect, it got annoying knowing that I just got the wrong Pujols rookie card. :-t :-t

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Postby teddyballgamemvp » Thu Jul 27, 2006 9:01 am

I recall a few years back that they started making "electronic" sports trading cards. I don't recall who did that or if it's still around, but I just shook my head saying they didn't understand the phenomenon at all-- owning the card is a fraction of the point of it, it's about finding it that is the main thing. I had to quit collecting cards back in 1998 because I was almost addicted to it and it was such an expensive addiction. I spent $1000 on sports card boxes in one 12-month period. I'd probably still have been collecting if the prices hadn't gotten so ridiculous. Though, the 2006 Bowman Chrome Baseball series, released 8/16/06, is calling me with its Siren song, because I really think the rookies and prospects in baseball now are going to be very special.
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Postby Big Tiex » Thu Jul 27, 2006 10:58 am

as a collecter it seems that most of card pre-1999/post 1980 do not have too much value. more recent cards (more specifically bowman chrome ) is where the value is at. they produce many rookies and auto of players like pujols ( ive seen one of his cards sell for over 10,000$). right now on ebay a joe mauer rc is selling for 4,000$. none of these cards appear to be loosing their value but only gain value as they become stars.
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Postby Apollo » Thu Jul 27, 2006 11:04 am

I collected cards for a little while. Then I realized that they just sat in a binder in my room and did nothing. So I bought some Magic cards and actually had fun with my collection.
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Postby jbones733 » Thu Jul 27, 2006 11:20 am

collected tons of cards for years in 80's & early 90's , seems life in general was more wholesome then, I remember going to card shows every weekend, getting all packs of acrds, was so exciting. getting mad at my friend cause he got a Griffey Jr or a Frank Thomas, wow so much fun
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