Thursday, August 27, 2009

My Memory of Baseball Cards

Today is fairly slow and I've been busy getting some paperwork done for Committees I apparently need to put together. Anyway, after the news that MLB has awarded Topps exclusive rights to produce its baseball cards, there have been a slew of 'Why baseball cards died' articles. Many of them are by guys just a bit older than I, and I think I have a little bit different generational view of it. Much of what the older guys despise--complete sets, lots of player cards, inserts--were what really got me into the collecting game to begin with. I had always collected baseball cards, though. And with the implementation of 'Inserts' by Upper Deck, it turned into an obsession.

One of the rarely discussed areas of baseball card collecting in the 1990's was that it had the ability to turn mere children into gambling addicts. There is no other way to explain it. Card companies even posted 'Odds' of pulling specific 'Inserts' on the back of the packs. This was my first introduction to probability. I couldn't get enough. When peeling open a pack, the same adrenaline rush came over me that comes over a complusive slot player when they see the wheels start to spin in the machine. Getting a 'Wax Box' was like going all in at a No Limit Poker game. Looking back, it's scary to realize the feelings I had opening a pack of baseball cards. As someone who got into poker in college, I now recognize what those feelings really were.

Soon after inserts came the 'Game-Used' cards: swatches of jerseys, bats, balls, gloves, bases, hats, socks, cleats, pants, and even DIRT on the card. Unfortunately, I never saw a "Jock Strap" swatch card (I can picture the back: "Congratulations! You've just pulled a 1-of-a-kind Game Used Jock Strap card! We personally gaurantee this piece of cloth sat directly next to Todd Helton's left testicle!"). Many of these cards brought a serious premium if you pulled one, and resale value was pretty high. The business of producing sports cards became an arms race. Every company trying to out-do one another and no one really gaining ground. In fact, the financial numbers tell us that overall card revenue was significantly decreasing at this point.

It started out that you would only find a swatch 1 in every 5,000 packs (I believe this was 1997 Upper Deck with the Griffey card netting a solid $5,000 according to Beckett at that time). Things started heating up with Fleer, Pacific, and Topps and they each had numerous 'Sets'. If Upper Deck could do a swatch 1 in every 5,000, Fleer could do it every 2,500. Then Topps could find a way to make sure there's an autograph in every box, only to be countered by Pacific who began putting a swatch of bat or jersey in every pack. Finally, the companies were producing mass sets of cards with multiple swatches and autographs in every pack and charging in excess of $150 for one of these 3 to 5 card packs!

Then it all came crashing down. The card companies saturated the market with these cards, and any 'investment' opportunity baseball cards brought to some was completely gone (if you can even call it that in the first place...I wouldn't). The 'scarcity' was destroyed by the very companies that had artificially put it in place. You'd pay $150 for a pack of 3 cards you could maybe sell for $25 each. And that's if you found the right buyer on Ebay.

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BACKTRACK: Of course, the original downfall of card scarcity was because we didn't put our cards in our bicycle spokes. Older cards, like Mantle's Topps Rookie, developed value because of their scarcity. My dad and his friends used them for games, bikes, and who knows what else (toilet paper?). They didn't know people would pay thousands of dollars for them if they had stuck them in a case and left them there for 30 years. What fun is that anyway?

But here's the catch: now that people were preserving them, there really wasn't any value. Everyone that would see any value in having those cards would preserve them to sell later. The problem was, the only people that would want to buy them are the same ones that are preserving them. And the general scarcity of the cards was no more, since no one threw them around like Gambit from the X-Men. Anyone who liked baseball cards would simply buy them now, at their cheapest value--rather than later, when they thought the value would be dramatically increased. This is what many bloggers feel sparked the initial decline. Woops.

I imagine that's where Inserts originally came in. The companies may have seen this problem coming. Once 'Complete Sets' were being preserved, Upper Deck decided Inserts could create secondary market value in the cards and increased interest in the scarcity of the cards not included in their complete sets--though I still have the cynical belief they had a motive of getting kids involved in an adrenaline rush similar to mine. But then it got to the point that nothing was rare. There wasn't anything left to bring on that adrenaline rush. Great. I got a Derek Jeter autograph. I'll put it with my other 20.

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Slowly collectors started having to specialize their collection toward a single player or team. There were just too many otherwise. Unforutnately you had to be rich and unemployed (not a common combination) to afford them and have time to find all of these cards. People that paid $150 for a pack didn't want to sell their A-Rod 1-of-1 Autograph Jersey card for $100. I feel like exchange became stagnant while everyone held onto their cards. The only people buying packs were the hobby shops. There were so many cards out there, what was the point of buying packs anymore? Not only did a kid like me no longer have that adrenaline rush, it was too expensive to buy from the producer AND from the secondary market. It was a bad combination for the card companies.

Between gifts and my own spending, I probably shelled out well in excess of $8,000 on baseball cards from the age of 5 to 16 (I was nerdy enough to keep a meticulous log of every pack I opened). I finally got out of collecting because of the reasons I mentioned above and one other: by 15 or 16, I was pretty sure that if I brought a girl to my house and she saw piles of baseball cards sitting in my room, I wasn't going to get to Second Base...even if I had done so numerous times on the baseball field. Not that I was smooth enough to actually get them there in the first place--I was pretty sure it didn't help though. So I stopped cold turkey and sold them all by my Senior year of high school. I had about 35,000 of them. The entire collection sold on E-Bay for a whopping $1,190.

Every now and then I'd pass by a baseball card shop to see where the industry was going from there. It looked as though it was getting even worse. Turns out that was the correct evaluation, and MLB finally recognized it. I'll likely never go back to collecting cards, but I hope Topps restores some sanity there before they reach the point of no return.

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