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Reaching the Upper Deck

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Baseball Card Collage
Baseball card collage via baseballessential.com

I remember when baseball card collecting was big.  My dad and I would drive around town in the late 1980s to early 1990s, looking for shops that echoed our primary collecting principle: have fun!  It was a great father / son bonding activity.  We didn’t spend much money on our outings, but we enjoyed them.

Not every baseball card shop was the same.  Some of the shops catered to “investors.”  Cards were all behind glass cases.  Beckett price guides were studied like stock quotes.  Rookie cards were sealed in large, heavy plastic holders, never to be touched by a human hand for fear that a tiny corner crease or fingerprint could lessen its value.  Thousands of dollars might exchange hands in a single transaction.

So, my dad and I could walk in and size up a new baseball card shop pretty quickly.  Usually one question would let us know if we were in the right kind of place: “where is your dollar bin?” would often do it.  We sought out card shops that offered things like bins of old cards, where you could search through and handpick ones that you wanted for ~$.10 per card.  There was little to no value in those cards, but my dad and I had fun doing it.  We stumbled upon some great little shops.  I loved places that were like cluttered, dusty antique shops, with baseball collectibles filling the walls (along with cards).  Maybe we’d end up with an old pin or pennant or button or other trinket, in addition to a few cards that day.  Our collecting interests expanded beyond just baseball cards.

Rather than focus on high-value cards, my dad and I organized albums by themes such as: silly names, funny faces, great mustaches (usually cards from the 70s), ugly uniforms, favorite teams, etc.  And we each had albums devoted to single teams: the Senators and the Astros.  I also had some old ‘Seattle Pilots’ cards.  I loved having cards from a bygone era.  I loved sifting through my boxes of mismatched cards, sorting and resorting them, labeling and relabeling the boxes.  The boxes were neatly stacked in my bedroom closet.  I’d go through hundreds of old colored rubber bands to sort them into different categories.  Sometimes, on rainy afternoons, my dad and I would sit around and trade ‘doubles’ or make deals for a particular card that one of us really wanted.  I’m pretty sure my dad let me get away with pretty good ‘deals’ over the years.

I distinctly remember going over to a dinner party at a family friend’s house one evening.  After dinner, the father showed us his card collection.  It was clear that he viewed the hobby as an investment.  He proudly showed off his extremely valuable cards.  They were in flawless condition.  He had a bookcase filled with them, stored in leather albums encased in protective plastic sleeves.  I’ll admit, I was little envious.  I realized that it was this guy those card shops with the fancy display cases wanted to walk in.  They wanted someone who wouldn’t hesitate “investing” hundreds of dollars on a single card.

Alas, the market bubble burst in the early 1990s, partially driven by overproduction.  For decades, buying a pack of baseball cards meant buying a pack of Topps (a stick of stale, cardboard-like gum included).  They had a virtual monopoly on the industry.  But by the late 80’s, there were several competitors on the scene: Fleer, Donruss, Upper Deck, Score, etc.  Within each major brand, there were spin-offs made just for collectors: cards that were manufactured for their value (hologram cards, “limited” edition series, “gold foil,” etc.).  At the same time, the industry expanded well beyond baseball.  There were cards for every professional sport.  There were cards for pro wrestlers.  There were cards for the U.S. military during “Desert Storm.”  There were even cards for “Cabbage Patch Kids.”  It had all gotten slightly ridiculous.  As a kid, I remember thinking, “do I collect all of them or just focus on Topps?  Is Upper Deck better than Topps?  Do I want to start collecting basketball cards?  This is overwhelming.”

I wasn’t the only one who shared those thoughts – kids and adults were buying cards just to try to make a profit on them.  At its peak in the early 1990s, around 80 billion baseball cards were being produced each year. “That’s about 325 cards for every man, woman, and child in the United States,” notes Dave Jamieson in his book, “Mint Condition: How Baseball Cards Became an American Obsession” (Atlantic Monthly Press).

Soon, it was apparent that the card market was oversaturated.  And the infamous 1994-1995 MLB strike was the nail-in-the-coffin for the industry.  The strike lasted 232 days and wiped out an entire post-season, including the World Series (an unprecedented occurrence in professional sports).  It was a low-point for the game, a bitter pill to swallow, and it would take years to regain the trust of fans.  In the end, I guess the owners and players were both to blame.  As a 14-year-old kid who loved baseball, the strike was hard to understand.  Is the entire game really just about money?

At the time of the strike, card sales were already in decline.  But the value of cards plummeted as fans lost interest (and faith) in baseball during the strike-shortened season.  By the late ‘90s, very few mom and pop card shops were still in business.  A few held on, but they typically sold other items, such as comic books or model trains.  Soon thereafter, a disruptive technology known as “eBay” made it even tougher for those brick and mortar stores to compete.

In the end, the cards that were truly “rare” and featured great players held their value over time.  As anyone who watches “Antiques Roadshow” will tell you, this principal holds true with many collectibles: high-end, rare items are impervious to market slumps (art, furniture, coins, Persian carpets, etc.).  Today, a mint condition 1909 Honus Wagner tobacco card continues to set new records at auction, but the 1989 Upper Deck Ken Griffey, Jr. rookie card encased in a thick plastic holder is probably worth considerably less than the Beckett guide once stated.

The lesson from living through this experience is that investing in anything other than the stock market is highly risky and usually not a great long-term investment.  Another lesson was that my dad always imparted the right philosophy when it came to collecting baseball cards: have fun!  After all, whether collecting baseball cards or not, those are great words to live by.  To this day, I have fond memories of the shared experience of collecting cards with my dad and enjoying every minute of it.

By Alex V. LeBuffe

About the Author:  The author grew up in the Houston area, watching the Houston Astros since the age of seven.  Alex currently works in the energy field in Houston.  He and his wife Jill are the proud parents of two future baseball fans, Liam and Grant, ages six and two.

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