Sports Cards

Posted on in Todd Talks by Todd Johnson

Ever since my dad brought home that first lunch bag full of loose 1988 Fleer baseball cards for me, I was hooked. I was 6 years old and didn't even watch baseball, but I played t-ball and loved it. It was around this time that card collecting was probably at or near its peak, and someone he worked with caught the fever. He would buy boxes and packs of cards, keep the ones he liked, and just give the rest to my dad to give to his boy.

In the mid-to-late 1980s, there was a rare card found, sold, and then re-sold, only to be sold again to NHL Hall of Famer Wayne Gretzky and former thoroughbred racehorse owner and sports executive Bruce McNall for an unheard-of amount of $451,000. That card was the T-206 Honus Wagner. These cards were produced from 1909-1911 and placed in packs of cigarettes. Not many of these cards are around today, and the ones that are usually show their age. But not this Honus Wagner. It looked like it came out of the pack yesterday.

What made this card so valuable wasn't just its condition. You see, Honus Wagner was considered to be one of the greatest ball players of all time. And he didn't want his likeness on a tobacco card. He was known to use tobacco, so there are various rumors about why he insisted that manufacturers cease production of his card after a run of only 50 to 200 cards (exact production number is unknown) was produced. Some say he knew he was a role model to kids, and he didn't want them seeing him on a card with a tobacco ad on the back. Others say he didn't believe he was being compensated enough. I think it was the latter, because players weren't paid much, if at all, in the early days of professional baseball, so I would imagine he was looking to make some money. Also, the fact that he used the stuff, and kids likely knew this anyway, makes me believe it wasn't a moral issue.

Regardless, millions saw card collecting as an investment opportunity. Stars like Mickey Mantle, Hank Aaron, Willie Mays, Jackie Robinson and hosts of other Hall of Famers saw their card values skyrocket. And those cards, too, were rare, especially the ones in good condition, because kids played games with them, put them in the spokes of their bikes, and moms threw them out when the kids grew up and moved out. Card manufacturers such as Topps, Fleer, and Donruss started mass producing cards to keep up with demand. New manufacturers like Upper Deck would appear and do the same. The game was full of stars like Bonds, Griffey Jr., Gwynn, Ripken, Jeter, Mattingly, McGuire, Sosa and countless others who were all over the field doing amazing things.

Then came the strike of 1994, and there was no baseball. No World Series for the first time in 90 years. No stars hitting home runs, stealing bases, or making diving catches. Sure, there were other sports and stars. Hockey had its own lock-out. Basketball had Michael Jordan, but, unfortunately, he retired and was playing baseball at this time. However, when MLB players went on strike, Jordan chose to give up his dream of playing baseball rather than cross the picket line. In 1996, he eventually returned to dominating the NBA, but the NBA would have a lock-out in the late 1990s, too. Football was the only stable sport, and it had Montana, Rice, Aikman, Irving, Emmitt Smith, Sanders and others. But card collecting began to cool, and so did prices.

In 1995, baseball was back, but attendance and interest were down. Fans stayed away in droves, because millionaires were fighting with billionaires over millions of dollars, all at the expense of the fans. So, fans spent their hard-earned money on other things.

And then 1998 happened. The season began with a bang. Lots of them actually. Mark McGuire and Ken Griffey Jr. both were on pace to break the all-time single season home run record of 61, set by Roger Maris in 1961. Then in June, Sammy Sosa would join them in the chase after hitting a record 20 home runs that month. When the season ended, McGuire had 70 homers to Sosa's 66. Both passed the Maris mark, while Griffey faded down the stretch and ended up with 56. In all, 5 players finished with 50 or more dingers. The nation was glued to the TV, and stadiums, especially where McGuire's Cardinals and Sosa's Cubs were playing, were filled. Baseball was back.

Card shows were busy again. Prices were up, and more people were collecting again. Maybe it was here, when people were looking at the McGuire, Sosa, and Bonds rookies and comparing them to current cards that they started to notice that something was up. These guys today were huge. Especially McGuire. I mean, they called him Big Mac for a reason. But looking at his rookie card from 1985, with the letters USA across his not-all-that-impressive chest, you can't help but notice a change. No change was more apparent than that of Barry Bonds. He was a rather average-size kid back in 1987. But now? He was almost as big as Big Mac. Bonds could always hit. He had great power, but he could also hit for average. And he was outstanding with his glove and arm. He was destined for the Hall of Fame.

The genie was out of the bottle. And so were the pills. The truth eventually surfaced that players were using performance-enhancing drugs, and baseball's popularity dipped again, along with card values. People also noticed that the cards from the 80s and 90s that they had been paying high prices for weren't hard to find at all, and it became apparent how over produced cards were during this time period. One of the most important aspects of the Wagner T-206 card was how rare it was. That's where its value really came from. You could find a stack of rookie cards of just about any player from the 80s and beyond nearly everywhere you looked.

Today, the practice of collecting sports cards is nowhere near what it was. Card shops have shuttered; it's hard to find one now. Manufacturers have tried several things to ratchet up values, and along with them, collector interest, with varying degrees of success. Among things of value you can find in a pack of cards today are autographs, pieces of game-worn uniforms or used equipment like bats, balls, helmets and even dirt from fields. You can also find limited-production cards with serial numbers to prove the cards' scarcity. Even printing plates from card manufacturers are available. All one of a kind. But my personal favorites are cards featuring signatures of other famous people, such as George Washington, JFK, John Wayne and other celebrities who are no longer living. There are even DNA-based cards that include hair samples of historical figures such as JFK and Abe Lincoln, and – believe it or not – cards that include fossils from dinosaurs.

Card collecting is a fun but dying hobby. It's expensive to buy packs of cards with a decent opportunity to get anything of value, which essentially locks kids out of the hobby. And, if people don't get involved as kids, they likely never will as adults. I suppose, in a way, this could make today's cards more valuable tomorrow, if few kids keep them and moms throw them out when the kids move out. Maybe it's all a cycle.