How old were you when you opened your first pack of baseball cards? For me, it was probably about the age of seven when Topps baseball cards were a nickel…and came with a stick of bubblegum! For boys of my generation, the beautiful fragrance of that gum is something that has stayed with us over the years and would be recognizable even if we were blindfolded.
The wonderful magic of collecting is that the thrill of opening those packs to see if we got Ted Williams or Mickey Mantle is not any different today when collectors look for Mike Trout or Mookie Betts to appear from beneath the wrapper. Of course, the packs are no longer a nickel (and there is no gum) but for a baseball fan, the thrill remains the same.
Card collecting is over 100 years old and the hobby has evolved into a complex and ever-changing marketplace. From the tobacco cards of the early 20th century to the sporadic issues of the Depression era to the post-war cards from companies like Bowman & Leaf, it wasn’t until almost 70 years ago that the Topps Company started the real boom era of sports card collecting. While they issued a couple of playing card style sets in 1951, the 1952 set marked the true beginning of baseball cards as we know them today with over 400 numbered cards that included statistics and player bios. Bowman also issued card sets during this time, but Topps bought them out in 1956 and became the exclusive distributor of major league cards for a period that lasted through 1980.
A court decision in 1980 paved the way for new companies to enter the market and starting in ’81, Donruss & Fleer began to distribute baseball cards and more competitors (like Upper Deck) joined the market during the 1980’s. In the 80’s & 90’s, this highly competitive industry created their own problems by adding too many products and brands, while also over-producing the products they made. Collectors tended to become “investors” (a classic mistake), hoping that cards would increase in value as the players performance improved, but the glut of cards on the market created just the opposite effect. Even today, when I look at collections that people have interest in selling, many of the cards are “bulk junk” from that era.
Out of necessity, the card manufacturers began re-inventing their products in the late 90’s with the advent of higher-priced “premium” items that included autographed cards as well as memorabilia cards (pieces of uniform or bat) and limited edition issues. Today, we have come full circle, with MLB limiting the licenses they issue and Topps once again being the major producer of cards. For fans and collectors, the hobby is still great fun and continues to bring enjoyment to young and old alike.
Interestingly, the hobby has been booming during the time of the pandemic. Could it be that all those people stuck at home spent time finding their cards in closets, garages or storage units? Or did they just miss sports in general and found collectibles to be an outlet? When all the major sports were suspended and ESPN broadcast the 10-part documentary about the Chicago Bulls (“The Last Dance”), the interest in Michael Jordan cards went through the roof. Then in August, the sale of a rare Trout card for nearly $4 Million got everyone’s attention. Now that record price has been demolished as a “Mint” condition 1952 Mickey Mantle card topped $5 Million just last month. While these are certainly exceptions to the rule, even on the eBay platform (where you’ll find my store at id:rotisserieduck), they’ve reported that the trading card category expanded by 142% in 2020.
One of the keys to being a card collector is determining your priorities. Whether you’re a fan of a certain player or team or just enjoy owning a part of the history of the game, be careful to understand the difference between being a collector, an investor or a speculator. If you’re strictly a collector, then fluctuating values are of no consequence to you because you’re buying the item to be part of your collection. If you’re an investor, then future values are also part of your equation for buying cards. The really good news is that you can be a collector and an investor if you concentrate on vintage (pre-1980) cards. With a limited supply and condition differences, a good collection is also a good investment.
Baseball card speculators have been around since the early 80’s and here’s a case study. Recently, a 2019 Bowman Chrome Rookie Card of Wander Franco sold on eBay for about $50. Who is Wander Franco? He’s the #1 prospect in baseball (Tampa Bay Rays) but he’s never had a major league at-bat. For that same $50, you could purchase a ’56 Topps Duke Snider card…or a ’61 Topps Sandy Koufax card…or a ’67 Topps Roberto Clemente card (all in mid-range condition). Would you rather have a Hall of Fame player in your collection or a prospect that might turn into a suspect?