Earlier this week on Episode 3 of the Banished to the Pen Podcast, I told host Ryan Sullivan that I probably hadn’t purchased a pack of baseball cards since 1994.  My reasons could be summed up as follows: The market had become saturated (Upper Deck’s fault); the hobby too expensive (also Upper Deck’s fault); and, to a much lesser extent, I had gotten older (probably not Upper Deck’s fault).

My understanding of the current market is nonexistent.  To get an idea of what it’s like to collect cards in 2015, I exchanged e-mails with my friend Jim who still collects cards.  This is what he had to say:

I still collect, but definitely less so now than I did a few years ago due to having a baby and, directly related, less (i.e., zero) disposable income.  It’s totally different now–basically, Topps is the only company with an MLB license.  All the other companies are completely marginalized.  Panini (who I think owns the Donruss and Score names) makes some sets, but they can’t show team logos, so it’s a lot of airbrushed pictures and player photos with the team’s logo on the hat conveniently cropped out.  Fleer went bankrupt and Upper Deck lost its MLB license.  I want to say they had some legal trouble at some point maybe?  I think there’s a story there worth looking into, I don’t know off hand though.  

Topps though still puts out like 20 to 30 sets a year, including the main flagship Topps base set. 

Thing is though, now, it’s just gambling.  You basically spend $5 on a pack of four cards, most of which are worthless. The only reason to buy a pack of cards is with the hope of getting an autograph or something.  The idea of a regular base card (non-autographed) of a player being worth something is nonexistent.  A lot of the hobby has shifted to prospects, too.  The best selling products are minor leaguers (the Bowman stuff – Topps owns that name). During the late 2000s I spent a lot of time researching prospects, picking out the ones I thought would be good, buying them up, and selling them later when they became popular.  Actually made pretty good money (I made a killing on your boy Jason Heyward) that I would then turn around and buy all of the old ’50s through ’80s Hall of Famer rookie cards I wanted as a kid.  That stuff I still have and collect. 

Having cards professionally graded now is also a big deal.  You send your cards away to a service and it grades them on a scale of 1-10 with 10 being “gem mint,” they encapsulate it in a plastic holder with a label and send it back to you.  It’s actually great for older cards, many of which have been altered, and is necessary to take the subjectivity out of grading cards when you’re buying something online.  What I think is mint might not be what someone else thinks is mint, but if a professional third party says it’s mint that’s hard to argue with.  

I bought the 1989 Upper Deck “reverse negative” error Dale Murphy card not too long ago for like $2 and I think that was a $100 card back then, I believe.  Errors are something else that doesn’t really exist anymore.  The errors are still made, but they just don’t bother correcting them. 

The main problem with the hobby is that it’s not geared towards kids anymore – it’s geared towards weird old dudes who liked to collect when they were kids (like me).  My guess is that it will be mostly dead in about 20 years when the old guys start to get less interested and there’s no younger generation to backstop it.  

Also, good luck finding a local card shop.  I don’t think those have existed for five to ten years.  It’s exclusively online now; e-bay and retailers like blowoutcards.com.

And there it is.

I find this current state of affairs a bit unfortunate.  Now, if the baseball card industry goes completely extinct that is not going to hinder kids from playing, watching, or loving baseball.  But it is still something worth mourning.  Baseball cards were a gateway to socialize with other kids who shared similar interests.  They helped teach basic economics.  And what was on the back of the cards was often a kid’s first introduction to baseball statistics.

I lived in an area that showed exclusively National League games.  So when I was collecting I don’t think I saw Don Mattingly play a single game on television, save for a few innings in an All-Star Game.  But I studied his stats, and I knew what kind of player he was; I knew he hit .352/.394/.573 in 1986.  The back of the card was sort of the first Baseball-Reference, and the final arbiter of a petty argument over how many bases Vince Coleman stole in 1985.  There are now other ways to obtain this information but I can say with a smug confidence that our way was better.

And I still blame you, Upper Deck.  You know what you did.

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7 Responses to “Baseball Cards Are Dying, You Guys”

  1. Matt Jackson

    I could read about late 80’s/early 90’s baseball cards all day. All I cared about was batting average and felt strongly that anyone that didn’t bat .300 didn’t deserve to be in the bigs.

    Upper Deck may have ruined things but they did give us the Michael Jordan SP1 rookie card. I was so pumped to have this card when I was 10 and I can’t believe how little I could get it for now…

    http://www.ebay.com/itm/Michael-Jordan-1991-Upper-Deck-Baseball-Card-SP1-CHECK-OUT-SCAN-BEAUTIFUL-/151555207125

    Reply
  2. Mark Sands

    Upper Deck really ushered in the era of adults pushing kids out of card collecting. And, I blame them for getting rid of the gum. Baseball card gum might be the best smell in the world.

    Reply
  3. Alex Crisafulli

    That was sort of the rub; Upper Deck cards were awesome. I consider that inaugural set a classic. The basketball ones, too. (Basically any MJ card.)

    I cared about batting average, HRs, RBIs, and SBs. Pretty much in that order. Runs scored? Meh. On-base percentage? Double meh. Slugging percentage? Please leave.

    Reply
  4. Alex Crisafulli

    I always liked it when the first few chomps of the Topps gum were crunchy. Like you were eating Grape Nuts. That’s when you knew you had the good stuff.

    Reply
  5. Kosmo

    Once, I bought an older pack of Topps cards. Maybe a 7 year old pack? I decided to try the gum, just to seehow well it aged.

    The answer: not well. Upon contact with my tongue, it dissolved into a million fragments. The texture and flavor were both awful.

    I still collect, but I almost never buy packs. Every few years, I’ll spent $10-$15 to get a few hundred Rockies cards on ebay. I’ve also been given a few other collections from people, although I haven’t actually had the time to catalog everything (we’re talking tens of thousands of cards).

    Mostly, I buy individual cards. I picked up a Sandberg rookie cheap a few years back. I also buy older cards that are in not-great condition (and thus relatively affordable). I picked up a T-206 card about 5 years ago that I love (it’s a nobody – I just like the history).

    I’m a collector, not an investor. I buy cards that I like to look at.

    I have a seven year old daughter and a five year old son. At this point, neither of them have shown much interest in baseball. If they show an interest, I’ll go through some of the older stuff and put together a starter collection for them.

    Baseball cards also served as my main statistics reference.

    Reply
  6. James McKenzie

    When I buy a pack now it definitely has the same emotional response as doing a scratch off lotto card. A pack without a game used shard of bat, or a strand of Napoleon’s hair, is like a losing scratch off… except the refuse goes in my basement instead of the trash. Some of the topps sets are pretty cool, especially Allen and Ginter, although they are nearly all “retro” and derivative except for ugly base sets.

    I highly recommend the book Mint Condition.

    Reply

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