The death of baseball cards?

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.

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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. 
  5. Put the gum back in.  Kids like gum, its not complicated.
  6. Put more cards in each deck.  Make it something worth while.
  7. 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


Filed under Sports

8 responses to “The death of baseball cards?

  1. Mitchell

    Man, this makes me want to whip out my baseball cards tonight. I still have them all, along with the first Becket that I ever purchased (the cover sports Gregg Jefferies.) I totally agree with all of your points. The baseball card market has been diluted with all sorts of crazy stuff. I’ve even seen cards with pieces of jersey embedded in them. They need to get back to the single set, no frills cards. And give me back my gum! Perhaps I’ll pickup a few packs for old times sake. Maybe I’ll score myself a Beckham rookie! You never know…

  2. I remember that Greg Jerreries card. It was THE card that summer. He and Mike Greenwell were too of the most hyped baseball cards. I found this blog talking about it. I think at one point it was selling for $10 (which was a small fortune to a 10-year old kid). I just checked today, and it can be had for a quarter.

    There’s nothing like opening a new pack, sifting through them “scrub, scrub, scrub, oooh Cliff Lee, scrub, ugh Alfonso Soriano (man, that guy’s a tool), sweet Paul Konerko.”

  3. Kevin Prange

    Still have all of mine from my collecting days. I think over 10,000. Haven’t looked at them in years. Had a couple of friends I would get together with and spend all afternoon trading with.

    It’s interesting that the addition of more companies accompanied a sharp increase in prices. Basic economics says that the more competition, the lower the price.

    I think the one thing that the competition did bring back was quality. Not initially, mind you. The initial Fleer and Donrus cards were awful. Donrus’ cards were paper thin and it looked like the photos where shot with an Instamatic camera. But at the same time, from about ’76 – ’81, the design of the Topps cards was nothing special either. Once Fleer and Donrus entered the market, Topps’ designs got much better and eventually the other two improved their quality also.

    I like the tie in with fantasy leagues. Sort of a throw back to the Strat-o-matic game. I could also see an iPhone app with automatically updating stats. Unfortunately, that also would appeal mainly to adult fans.

    I think in the digital age, collecting pieces of cardboard won’t catch on with kids.

  4. I was discouraged when I heard that Topps won the exclusive license. Well, discouraged that there is only one license granted but relieved that it is Topps. I was raised on Topps so I never want to see it go away.

    The hobby has a lot of problems and I don’t think the glory days will ever return. But I hope we never see the 80’s and 90’s again.

  5. Dave Dudkiewicz

    Greed destroyed the pleasure of card collecting.

  6. michael

    The problem is kids today have no interest with cards. How can a simple print card compete against a massive multiplayer xbox game? These kids today have so much media pumping through their brains, they don’t even have the patience to watch or even play a game of baseball. Print in general is dying and I don’t see it ever getting back let alone baseball cards. Question is in 50 or 100 years, will those generations even give a hoot about baseball cards?

  7. JD

    BOWMAN KILLED THE HOBBY. Whats the point of buying a pack for a topps rookie card when low and behold the same player’s real rookie is from a bowman or bowman chrome set from 2-5 years earlier?
    Disgusting. I’ve been out of the biz since 2009 and really don’t miss it.

  8. Pingback: It’s The Death Of Baseball Cards? Apparently! | The Wax Fantastic

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