It was announced recently that Major League Baseball has granted exclusive rights to producing its baseball cards to Topps. See the New York Times story here. According to the article, the baseball card market has dropped to a fifth of what it was in the mid 90’s. In other words, baseball cards are dying.
It was a slow death, but this is how it happened.
1. Someone’s mother threw away her son’s shoebox full of baseball cards. In that box were hundreds of faces of no-name players like Eddie Joost and Ray Boone, but a few of the cards held the likeness of Mickey Mantle, Duke Snider, Ernie Banks, Willie Mays, and Joe Dimagio. This was repeated by thousands of mothers across the country. Only a few boxes were salvaged.
For the decades from the 50’s to the early 80’s, baseball card collecting goes on without major event. Topps is the main company. The pack includes over a dozen cards and a stick of gum, and most suburban kids can buy a few packs with the money they earn from mowing their neighbor’s lawn, or from the money in a birthday card.
Some of the cards are put in the spokes of bicycle wheels, but a few are treasured. When I was a kid I kept all of my Phillies cards, traded all of my Cubs, and kept the likes of Mark McGuire, Will Clark, Tom Seaver, and of course Mike Schmidt. I treasured the Mike Schmidt cards.
The greatest third baseman to ever play the game, on the first card he appeared alone.
I would set out all my cards, and sort them into their teams. I would put together all-star teams. I would pour over the stats, delighting in all the tiny numbers, especially the numbers in italics, indicating that was a league-leader. Then step two in the death of baseball cards happened:
2. Those boys grew up, and started buying those cards with the faces of their heroes, thus driving the prices up. One ancient card with Honus Wagner’s picture on it is sold for six figures, and every middle aged man in America swears he had that card in his old shoebox this his mother threw away.
Suddenly there were new companies. Donruss and Fleer popped up, but I stayed loyal to Topps. Now no one dared throw a card away for hopes that a rookie card of a future hall of famer would someday bring fortune. Baseball cards stopped being about loving baseball, and became about making money. Then Upper Deck came out, with their glossy finish and special sets and hologram cards and increased prices. Now a deck had about 10 cards and cost three bucks.
3. The Becket monthly price guide was released. Becket had made an annual book, one that you could look up your old cards for fun and see how much they might be sold for. The monthly guide though, destroyed collecting. Now prices fluctuated with every hot streak. Buying and selling rookie cards were like a complicated futures market. And having Ken Griffey’s rookie card wasn’t enough, because if it were a Topps card, it was worth $3, but if it were an Upper Deck card, it was worth $75.
4. Baseball cards became a business of old men instead of a hobby of young boys. For years the value of a card was simple. If a player was good, the card was valuable. If a player was very good, and you had his rookie card (and there was only one), then that card was very valuable. By the mid-90’s there were so many companies, so many sets, so many Gold, Elite, Premium, Glossy, Hologram, Special Edition, Autograph Edition, Rookie All-Star, Future Star, College, Minor League All-Star, Top Draft Pick, Platinum cards, no one but savvy businessmen could keep track of it all.
Can baseball cards be saved? I think so. This is what Topps needs to do:
- Make one set of cards every season. The release date is Opening Day. Players that played in major league games in the previous season get a card. No one else. This will clear up the issue of what is someone’s rookie card. Plus, if someone gets called up in July and has a great season, there will be increased demand for his card before the next season even starts.
- Put all the player’s stats for his entire career on the back of the card. One of the great things about old cards was that you could immediately tell if a player had a long career by the size of the font of the stats.
- Limit the special insert sets. Every season, have only two special sets inserted into the regular packs: one for rookies and one for all-stars or league leaders. Simplify and streamline the deck so that there is only one card for each player during any given year.
- Improve merchandising in stores. Do not overcrowd an aisle with so many cards that kids/parents don’t even know what they are looking at. Keep them (as much as possible) away from the High School Musical Cards, and the President Obama Cards, and the Miley Cyrus Cards.
- Put the gum back in. Kids like gum, its not complicated.
- Put more cards in each deck. Make it something worth while.
- Add some sort of internet interactive game to play with the cards. This has been wildly popular with Webkins and other toys. Allow kids to assemble teams online with the cards they get and play other teams. Add bonuses for getting closer to filling a full set. This would intergrate fantasy baseball and collecting cards – and might even draw in some old guys like me.
Here is a great article about the 1987 set of Topps Baseball cards. This was the first set that I collected seriously. I still have many of the cards in my room at my parents house. My Mom wouldn’t dare throw them away