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Trevor Stone's Journal
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Baseball Cards 
9th-Feb-2009 12:28 am
Trevor baby stare
I just spent several hours condensing several shoeboxes of loose baseball and football cards into a box designed to hold cards safely. Some amusing finds:
  • Buster Rhymes rookie card.
  • ALF trading cards, including Bouillabaisseball Cards, a joke my mom explained to me but I didn't fully grok. I've still never seen bouillabaisse soup.
  • Return of the Jedi trading cards with ™ symbols after character names and locations: "Above The Sarlac Pit™," "Princess Leia™ Intercedes," "Jabba the Hutt™ on The Sail Barge™." Really I think that says a lot about George Lucas's vision in the last thirty years.

I stopped collecting baseball cards when I started playing Magic (and later other CCGs). I certainly don't regret that switch; CCGs typically have better pictures, more thought-provoking cards, and encourage social interaction.

Around the time I started collecting baseball cards, there'd be a story in the newspaper every few months about how someone sold a Mickey Mantle rookie card for $100,000 or sold a Nolan Ryan rookie and paid for college. So in addition to hero worship, baseball cards gave me an opportunity to pretend I'd make lots of money for hoarding small pieces of cardboard. Looking through them today strengthened my suspicions that my collection won't be worth any significant money.

First, the reason the guy could sell a Nolan Ryan rookie to pay for college was because everybody else's parents had thrown away their cards when they went to college, so those cards were hard to come by. My family (particularly my mom) needs no encouragement to keep stuff around with no resale value, so my cards were in no danger of the dumpster, but with all the "mom through out the baseball cards" press, I don't think many other kids my age have lost their sets to overzealous cleaning.

Second, I think the market for $100,000 baseball cards was wealthy boomers trying to recover their childhood. (Boomers are often on a quest to recover whatever part of their life seemed like the most fun; I've met plenty of guys who didn't seem to progress past 1972.) I just don't see people of my generation wishing they had a Barry Bonds rookie card. There's some demand for 1980s video games, but that market is also far from$100,000 for a Mickey Mantle territory.

Third, I didn't understand the secondary market for baseball cards. I thought there was some magic property that once enough decades had passed and enough moms had thrown away enough cards, every card I owned was going to be worth big bucks. So while I've got some cards in photo album sheets, most were sliding around in shoeboxes or held in my sweaty hands as I invented ways for baseball card teams to play against each other. (The Cardinals usually won.) As a result, almost all of my cards have roughed-up corners; some have major damage. Further, the main cards valuable in the secondary market are rookies who later made it big. I've got perhaps a dozen cards in that category in decent shape, but I doubt any are worth more than $40 or $50 because Topps was widely printed (and you could buy a complete set in a box directly), so supply is still pretty close to demand.

There are parents who buy collectibles for their children -- action figures and Beanie Babies, for instance -- and don't let them play with them for fear they will lose resale value. I'm very glad I don't have those parents. The cognitive development afforded me by baseball cards far exceeds the value lost by kid-inflicted damage done to them. Like action figures and other childhood toys, baseball cards were catalysts for the imagination. I'd look at a Todd Worrell card and imagine myself as a major league relief pitcher. I'd concoct various ways to organize the cards, helpful to my later career writing Comparators. I'd create entire new leagues and have teams draft players whose names I'd made up based on two real baseball players' names.

The first season of baseball cards I have in any significant number is 1987 Topps (for the 1986 season). I remembered this set as being the coolest, and sorting cards today reinforced that opinion. Apparently, I'm not the only one. And while I've still got a few dozen "Send this card for a chance to win tickets to spring training" cards, at least the boxes didn't have any stale chewing gum.
9th-Feb-2009 07:55 am (UTC)
"mom through out the baseball cards" has got to be one of the most awesome typos I have ever seen!

I never got into baseball card/comic collecting, and although I had a brief stint as a M:TG player, I never really collected those either. (Now there's where the big bucks are now, apparently -- I think Magic cards are our generation's rookie baseball cards, to tell you the truth.) I also had one very small collection of Pogs, which were sent to me by a well-meaning relative who'd heard that they were a fad, but the Pog-playing contingent at Jamestown Elementary was... well, it was beyond miniscule. I think there was one other kid who'd heard of them.

I did have a nearly-complete collection of Tori Amos' discography including some very obscure and hard to come by singles, most of which I collected during high school and college. I sold it in its entirety to a German fellow over eBay for about $400. I think that just about recouped my expenses, honestly.

I made the transition from packrat to travel light with remarkable alacrity, when I came home from Japan to about 10 large boxes of my stuff that, upon unpacking, I couldn't even make an emotional connection to and about 90% of which I gave away, donated to charity, or just threw out. Walking away from everything you own but one suitcase of your clothes for a year and a half really gives you some serious perspective.
9th-Feb-2009 09:28 am (UTC) - More background: LONG
The other reason is, cards of the era you collected were overproduced, which caused problems for value on several levels.

First, "There's tons of boxes from the nineties unopened even today," says my husband, who is a sports card connoisseur par excellence (which translates to, spends way too much time selling and buying rectangular pieces of cardboard). "There's just more product than demand, even now. Even full, unopened boxes aren't selling--no one wants to pay money for this stuff, some of which is literally not worth the paper it's printed on."

This also means that rookie cards, even for players who DID indeed make it big, are devalued, as well.

"Think of it this way," hubby says. "If there were two hundred trillion Wayne Gretzky cards out there, all in pristine condition, would ANYONE pay $800 for them? Of course not.

"Back when Gretzky was a rookie, there was still small enough supply combined with the idea that back then, there were kids sticking cards into the spokes of their bike tires, ruining the cards. Shortly after that, card companies realized that there was the potential for more than plunking down a quarter for a pack of cards. They started 'fancying them up' a bit, slapping holographs on them and producing them in huge numbers. At the same time, people started getting savvy about the value of cards," partially because suddenly cards from the 60s and so on were selling for a LOT.

Dear Husband thinks that the market is going to reach a point where it cannot climb any longer.

"It'll be interesting to see if the hobby hits a wall in the upcoming years. I think they've set themselves up for a crash. Ever since the memorabilia craze started in the 90s, it's been an arms race to get the most limited stuff out there. It used to be that insert cards that had a print run of 10,000 were considered limited. Then companies started doing 5,000, then 1,000, 100. Now we have one-of-ones all over the place. An item numbered out of 100 isn't even scarce anymore.

"The game-used jersey fad came into trend in the late 90s, and at that time a tiny swatch of a mid-tier player's jersey would sell for hundreds. More companies participated in this and the value of memorabilia dropped. Nowadays, you have jersey cards of some players that you can't give away. Companies are now raising the bar on that by making patch cards, glove cards, and everything else you can think of.

"They keep trying to up the ante, but at a certain point there won't be anywhere else to go. A new trend is 'manufactured patch' cards, which aren't game used. Going in this direction means they are running out of things to do. Now old insert cards, without any memorabilia, are becoming quaint. There is a new focus on design and aesthetics."
9th-Feb-2009 05:18 pm (UTC) - Re: More background: LONG
Well, at least I bought baseball cards during a period of overproduction instead of a house. :-)
10th-Feb-2009 12:13 am (UTC) - Re: More background: LONG
How true!
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