(This is the second of a two-part series)
I had collected baseball cards as a youngster in the fifties. Unfortunately, I gave my collection to a good friend in 1957 when my family moved from the small town of Lunenburg in Nova Scotia to the city of Edmonton, Alberta. At that point, my life was over – or so I thought, and I wanted my best friend to have my cards. Even more unfortunately, they were lost in a fire that later badly damaged my friend’s home.
As a teenager in Edmonton I didn’t acquire any cards. In fact, I don’t recall seeing them in the stores of the city. In any event, I expect my money was more important for other things at that point.
After a hiatus of twenty-eight years, I began collecting cards again in 1985. I purchased a 1981 boxed Fleer set from a card shop in Los Angeles. For the next ten years our son Jamie and myself went on a bit of a collecting binge (but I can stop at any time, mind you). During that time I easily acquired about 30,000 cards, mostly in boxed sets at very reasonable costs. Jamie also purchased many cards, probably in the 20,000 range.
At the same time, we collected individual cards – mostly of players that were playing with star quality and players we tried to predict would become stars. Hence, with Ben MacDonald, Andy Benes, Alex Fernandez cards, I proved that even then success was difficult to predict. I did, however, collect quite a few Tony Gwynn cards and Jamie quite a few Kirby Puckett cards during this span, but most of my focus was on collecting Dodger cards.
After about ten years in hot pursuit of cards of our choice, things changed. There now seemed to be an indefinite number of companies producing cards – Topps, Bowman, Fleer, Donruss, Score, Sportflics, Leaf, O-Pee-Chee, Upper Deck, Studio, and it became difficult to acquire all of those sets.
To complicate matters, it became difficult to even find boxed sets after 1995. Cards shows in our area had disappeared, card shops closed up, eBay was just getting off the ground and was not yet an option for buying cards, and entirely new marketing schemes took over. Card companies began releasing two or three completely different series every year and made them available only in packs of ten (or so) for $2.95 or more per pack. Each series contained special cards that were almost impossible to acquire in order to complete that set. Their goal, of course, was to get you to buy more packs of cards in your effort to get those elusive special cards and you ended up with a lot of doubles or triples that you did not need – and you were still missing that special card; a scheme if ever there were one… and a scam.
The cost of collecting a set of cards in that manner and the frustration of so many companies producing cards caused us to change our collecting habits. We began collecting only individual cards when we could find them and I continued to pursue Dodger cards. We thought that our concerns were peculiar to us because of where we lived (in rural Nova Scotia). Little did we know that the path that we were forced into was a path that was being followed by thousands of card collectors around the world.
How did this all come about? A number of things happened. After World War II Topps was the only company still producing cards. Topps enjoyed decades with no real rivals, until a legal decision at the beginning of the 1980’s opened the doors for other would be manufacturers to enter the fray. Fleer, Donruss and other companies started production thinking a baseball card boom was in the making. At the height of their popularity in the early 1990’s, card manufacturers produced an estimated 81 billion baseball cards a 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”
The boom turned out to be a bust as card companies were bought out or went bankrupt. Last year, Major League Baseball decided they were only going to renew their contract with Topps, so we are back where we started with Topps a sole distributor of baseball cards. Well, not quite, as Panini and Upper Deck have an arrangement with the Major League Baseball Players Association giving them the right to make MLBPA-approved baseball cards, but without team logos or nicknames on their products. Who would want baseball cards without “Dodgers” or “LA” or the Dodger logo on display?
What caused the glut on the market that killed the industry as an investment industry as some had envisioned? A court decision, yes, but there were other factors. In 1979, James Beckett published the first comprehensive book of its kind entitled Beckett Baseball Card Price Guide (which now comes out annually and even has a monthly on-line subscription) that put a published price on individual cards, thus changing how people, young and old, looked at cards. This publication may have had an influence on the belief that baseball cards could be an investment opportunity such as precious metals and, as such, should be produced in large volume.
As Dave Jamieson wrote in Mint Condition – “It was greed on the part of card makers because they rolled out so much product that it diluted the power of the cards and killed the golden goose. It was greed on the part of the baseball union, because they sold a lot of rights – and made a lot of royalties on those rights – until they had too many card makers. Then you had greed on the part of dealers, surly guys who didn’t care to talk to the nine-year-olds who came into their shops, and were there just to sell cards. Finally, collectors were swallowing up everything thinking it was going to turn to gold.”
Another suspect in the fall of the baseball card was the baseball strike of 1994-95. The strike opened the door for other sports to fill the void in interest and in purchasing cards. Young collectors turned to Pokemon and Yu-Gi-Ho cards in droves. For me the reason for the decline is that card collecting no longer was a hobby. It had priced itself right out of the range of the very clientele that had supported it’s growth for more than a century – kids. The newer cards became more and more fancy, more glossy and, of course, more expensive – especially autographed cards.
Can the golden days of baseball card collecting be recovered? Probably not; but Dave Jamieson has the best idea yet: “…restore it to what it once was. They should convince everyone, children and adults alike, that baseball cards are exactly what they were before the boom times of the 1980’s and ‘90’s – cheap play things suitable for tacking to the wall, flicking on the playground, or stuffing into a shoe box.”