It has been nearly a year now since those know-it-alls at Sports Illustrated essentially declared the notion of baseball card collecting dead. In an article called “The Last Iconic Baseball Card” last August, Luke Winn ably laid out the terminal illness of the pastime enjoyed by so many kids in the 50’s and 60’s. His article pegged the ’89 Upper Deck Ken Griffey, Jr. card as…well, really the last baseball card worth owning. This small piece of cardboard is the true rookie card for the superstar who just retired untouched by any stain from the so-called steroid era. After Junior’s UD RC (as the notation would go), Winn suggested that all is dreck. And the market seems to have verified that view.
How did this happen; is it true as such, and could it be that Stephen Strasburg might actually save baseball cards, just as he is expected to save the Washington Nationals? A miniature history of baseball cards is in order to understand what happened to this business that took in $1.2 billion in 1991, but only $200 million in 2008.
As most people who never even collected know, baseball cards once came five to a pack with a stick of stale gum for a nickel. In the 50’s, male children (and some females) were their biggest collectors, and a nice collection could be made for what was essentially pocket change. Moreover, the cards gave rise to several pre-internet activities that kept kids busy for hours. Cards could be swapped, they could be used in several kinds of throwing (or “flipping”) games, and they could be stuck to a bicycle wheel’s spokes with a hinged clothespin to make the bicycle sound a little like a motorcycle. Of these activities, the trading of cards would be the most important to understanding the history of the business for the next fifty years. In the 50’s and 60’s, the swapping was innocent. The goal was to get the stars on your hometown teams and put them in a sacred spot – perhaps stuck between the mirror and its frame on the dresser in your bedroom. For example, when I finally found a 1961 Roy Face card in a pack that year, there was likely no happier kid in my school. When it was subsequently stolen – a “big kid” simply snatched it and ran a few days later – there was likely no more unhappy child in the entire Pittsburgh area. The “preciousness” of certain cards, then, was both the original rationale for collecting and the reason for the alleged death of the hobby that became an investment vehicle.
Fast forward through the 1960’s and 1970’s: Most of the collectors of these cards lost themselves in other activities – going to college, getting jobs, smoking dope, protesting a war, dodging bullets in Vietnam, and marrying, for example – in other words, growing up. For many, the initial step away from baseball cards involved girls who, as teens, weren’t very interesting in them. For some (as in my own case), there was a shift to an interest in another sport than baseball. While Roberto Clemente was putting together an awesome statistical decade for “my” Pirates, I was focused on dropping my 200-meter time by .2 or .3 of a second.
By the eighties, though, many of the kids who had collected baseball cards two or three decades earlier became interested in them again in a curious way. Obviously, these people were now adults, some had become bored with their jobs, wives, or investment strategies, and not a few of them saw an opportunity to re-make a childhood activity into an “adult” pastime – that is, baseball cards became investments. You could treat them like rare coins or stamps. While dovetailing with a renewed interest in baseball, some could make you some money. And what seemed to be better (but wasn’t), there were all kinds of new card companies springing up. No longer did Topps dominate/monopolize the market; new companies like Score and Upper Deck were producing far more beautiful cards that featured spectacular photography suggesting genuine “collectibility” or investment potential. And this was good thing because, after all, even if the spousal unit had spent $400 on shoes on a trip to the mall, some explanation for a 40-year-old man buying 50 packs of baseball cards at a time was needed. After all, those packs weren’t a nickel anymore. In fact, by the early nineties, some packs were reaching towards $10 each…for fewer than five cards…and no gum.
(I should say here that I was only modestly involved in that sort of collecting in the 80’s. I just didn’t have the money, I made very little selling from my small collection, and I just stopped buying, eventually.)
In any event, though, there were a lot of baseball cards for sale in the 80’s – too many, in fact. It goes without saying that rarity is important in collecting anything if the excuse for collecting it is that it is an investment. And here’s where things started to go wrong. In baseball card circles, the most important card for any given player has always been his rookie, or first, card. This is fairly understandable in a human way – first is first, and such a card usually involves a picture of the player as a young man, sometimes as a teen-ager – “Look how young he looks here!” In other words, it’s distinguishable from the player’s later cards in a definable way that collectors accept as “important.” And by definition, a Chase Utley rookie card is rarer than a Chase Utley card. The problem was that, with the rise of multiple companies (and card sets), what was once a “rookie card” soon became two cards – a “first card” and a “rookie card.” The first was a pre-MLB-days issue – say, when the player was drafted; the second, a card from his actual rookie year. Then, with the real explosion of product in the late 80’s and early 90’s, collectors actually gave up on that kind of distinction because, in a given year, a first-year player could have several “rookie cards,” and who could do the research actually needed to identify the first card? Also, after 1989, nobody beat anybody else (by more than a year) to producing an important card as Upper Deck did by including Ken Griffey, Jr., in their inaugural set that year. In other words this card is both a “first” and what’s now (again, and more simply) called a “rookie” card while the rest of his cards are not firsts. In the long run, however, it will likely be valued for the player involved and its quality photography rather than its curiosity as a “first card.”
By the time Derek Jeter’s rookie cards became available in the early 90’s, he had, as Winn points out, eight such cards. When mega-superstar Albert Pujols debuted several years later, he had 43 rookie cards. What was a collector supposed to buy? To put this another way, if the postal service prints only a few stamps with airplanes flying upside down on them, then those stamps are rare and valuable; if ten million such stamps are printed, then that’s just a really big mistake.
Card companies also annoyed the hell out of collectors by producing weird products – who was the knucklehead, for example, who decided that cutting a player’s uniform into tiny pieces, then sealing those pieces into cards, was a good idea? As investment pieces, such cards may have some value in about a hundred years, and then merely as curiosities. (I have to remember to hand my Michael Young and Randy Johnson uniform-piece cards to my daughter on my deathbed.)
Thus, baseball cards lost any appeal for many people except actual, bedrock baseball fans. While there remains a core of serious collectors of these items – meaning the really higher-end items – most people who still have some baseball cards hold them in the same way they did as kids – as reminders of favorite or important players, or because the card is a curious artifact. Hence, I still have a nine-card Ichiro collection, an Eleanor Engle card, and one of those eight Jeter rookie cards (worth $8 in 2000, $3 in 2004, and who knows how much now – maybe more because nobody’s suggested that Derek has ever used steroids).
In the current milieu, then, I was amused to see a tiny article in the press June 16th indicating that Stephen Strasburg’s rookie card was for sale in an on-line auction, and that the bidding was to begin at $9000. As per an unnamed source, Al Campbell noted that the owner of this autographed card had tried to sell the item on eBay in June, but that effort had to be halted because of absurd offers ($900,000+) that couldn’t be verified.
This is a good thing. It isn’t worth anything like that because, as Campbell suggested by his sub-head, “Shouldn’t he have a career first?”
And no, I won’t sell you my Roy Face autographed card. Ever.
“Baseball Sets and Singles: 1993 Topps.” Tuff Stuff July 2004: 108.
Campbell, Al. “High & Inside: Shouldn’t he have a career first?” The Philadelphia Inquirer 16 July: C4.
Winn, Luke. “The Last Iconic Baseball Card.” Sports Illustrated 24 August 2009: 49+