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The Death of Baseball Cards

Cancelled Shows, Collecting Baseball Cards, Donruss, Upper Deck

It was the summer of 1988. I, like many other pre-teen Generation X’ers, found themselves in the midst of one of the great hobby collecting booms and busts of all time, baseball cards. Packs of cards were everywhere, at about 50 cents a pack. At the time, it was merely Topps, Donruss and Fleer corp. Baseball on the television, no internet, no cell phones, the NFL was actually about 1/4 as popular as it is today. Baseball was still America’s pastime. At this time, there were hobby shops popping up all over the country in the tens of thousands that we as kids, commonly referred to as “baseball card stores.” In these stores you can purchase magazines such as Beckett Baseball Card Monthly, as well as another magazine that defined pricing of baseball cards at the time known as Current Card Pricing (or CCP.) In these magazines, you can look up a specific baseball card by year, set , player name and card number. This gave every specific card a “value.” And this therein, is where the problems began.

You would hear the stories from our fathers and grandfathers about how they took old cards from the 1950’s and 1960’s and run them in their bicycle spokes to make a “cool noise” and shred them to pieces. So many did this in fact that these older cards over the years became harder to come by at all, let alone in any kind of prime condition. This made them truly scarce and “valuable” from a collector’s point of view. Since there is only a finite number of them that were ever made. Anything considered “vintage” (pre-1974) by the hobby has always and still to this day will hold a solid “value.” I reference the term value as value should only be perceived as only being worth what someone is willing to pay for an item. Being that as it was, and the economy in the state it was in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s, people were looking for an alternative to investments such as stocks, mutual funds and other traditional means of financing which many lost millions in during that time frame. They were looking for a sound investment in the future. It created the perfect storm for people and children to find a cheap, quick and what appeared to be sound commodity to invest in based on vintage “values” – the baseball card.

I mean, it was cool after all. You can buy a pack of cards at any grocery or corner store for 50 cents and maybe you will pull a $5.00 rookie card of someone that had a good week or month on the diamond. You would then wait for the next month’s edition of the “price guide” to see how much your card is worth month-to-month. Cheap, easy and quick. It was something that both parents and their children could participate in safely and bring families together while keeping an eye on that “investment” angle to hold because I mean, every baseball card of a great player will hold value “down the road” like theirs have right? That’s just the way it is. At least that was the perception of this time frame in the hobby.

Well, starting in 1981, Topps introduced something called an “traded set.” This was only introduced to “hobby shops” and not issued in packs. These sets were then copied by Fleer as an Update set in 1984 and Donruss as a “The Rookies” set in 1986. These sets were unique as they contained the first cards of players that were traded in their new uniforms in the offseason as well as mid-season call ups and what later is defined as the first “XRC or Rookie Card” of new players. There was always some debate as to whether a “Rookie Card” that wasn’t issued in packs was a true rookie card. For example, was the XRC rookie card from the 1984 Fleer Update of Roger Clemens his true rookie card? Or was it the 1985 Topps, Donruss and Fleer versions of the Roger Clemens card first issued in packs his “real” rookie card. You will see much debate on forums and print over the years over this. Regardless , the reality on the ground is the actual people that were looking for the rookie cards of their favorite players always leaned toward the earlier or “update” versions of their favorite players, hence making them more valuable. The sales and activity always spoke more than what was printed on paper.

From 1988 to early 1991, the baseball card market was frantic. People were spending thousands of dollars hoarding away the mass produced baseball card set and key rookie cards from players like Barry Bonds, Mark McGwire, Eric Davis, Don Mattingly, Ryne Sandberg, Tony Gwynn,as well as many other investment-with-specualtion for the future players like Ken Griffey Jr. Now there should have been serious warning signs that this supply and demand issue was heading to a bad place. I mean, if you can buy a 1989 Donruss 200 count lot of Ken Griffey Jr rookie cards from a dealer, how scarce is it really, how many are really out there and, compared to the “vintage” with real value, what will it be worth in the future? Surely you don’t see 200 count lots of 1952 Topps Mickey Mantles floating around. Believe it or not during this time frame, a 200 count lot of Ken Griffey Jr rookies were selling between $800-$1000 and were heralded as a “better investment than stocks.” Well, imagine that situation played out with thousands of dealers and families across the country. You get the point. Yet many, mostly blinded by the ruse of easy money, just spent and spent.

There were stories of dealers and people opening up packs, taking out the key cards and resealing them with glue. To offset this, in mid 1989 Upper Deck came out with it’s first high end glossy looking baseball card, with the staggering price of $1.00 a pack. At the time, this was seen as an outrage. the set became wildly popular, and of course, our favorite long term investment of the time, Ken Griffey Jr, was the #1 card in the set. By the end of 1989, something seemed to change. Upper Deck had issued “factory sets” of their 1-700 card set as well as a factory sealed “update set” of cards 701-800. They had also issued these cards in what were known as “high number packs” that had 2 of each 701-800 in them. This mass and sudden availability of these cards caused the magazine CCP (current card pricing) to , devalue the entire set in the January 1990 issue by about 50-60%. I was in the Atlantic City, NJ baseball card convention during January of that year right after that issue came out. Rumors flew that Upper Deck co was in the process of suing CCP over the mass devaluation in their product. You could get those same Upper Deck Ken Griffey Jr rookies that dealers were selling for $25 not even a month before for a $5 bill. And this was during the off-season!! This should have been a sure sign of things to come.

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Within months, CCP mysteriously stopped producing magazines regarding baseball card pricing. No one really ever determined why just that the company had “gone bankrupt.” Odd from a now-rabid collector point of view considering their circulation was the highest it ever was. This paved the way for the now-standard-because-they-were-the-only-one-left-for-monthly-pricing – Beckett. As odd as this all was, everyone just kind of shrugged and carried on, because after all, we all had to have our fix of monthly updates on our investments!!

To offset the 1989 Upper Deck premium release, in 1990 Donruss created their own high end product called “Leaf.” This became the home of the premium investment rookie wonders of the time, Frank Thomas and Sammy Sosa. The Frank Thomas card at one point reached $150. Packs of these cards, a now hobby exclusive, were going for the sick amount of $3 a pack. By 1991, Topps countered with their own premium end card, Stadium Club. With Jeff Bagwell being the only true rookie in this set worthwhile, it was befuddling how now-full-time dealers (at this point you literally could make a living off of baseball cards) would run to the Bradlees or stores in the retail arena that had these cards priced at $1.49 a pack, buy the whole box and then sell them at the baseball card shows for upwards of $8.00 a pack! Now remember, this is going on all over the country by thousands of dealers and being purchased by hundreds of thousands of customers, hobbyists and of course, investors. Today, you can find these items online for literally, much less than a penny on the dollar, if any interest at all.

Then, in 1992, Topps created a premium version of their revived “Bowman” brand. This set, from a historical point of view, is landmark. It featured rookies who have never played a major league game, in of all things, street clothes. Who is Mariano Rivera? Who is Mike Piazza? Who is Manny Ramirez? Who is Pedro Martinez? This would be a harbinger of things to come. This set was another hobby-only release and the production was sliced some from now base brands of Topps product. Compare 1 or 2 million of the 1992 Bowman set compared to estimates amounts of the base sets in the tens of millions. So with that much interest at the time and money flowing, people once again, invested like a futures stock.

During this time frame there were many other issues released as it seemed every other week there was a new product in the market. Their were stories of people taking metal detectors to cases upon cases of Donruss product to find “Elite” inserts and autographs. Now, back up. If there is a case of an item stacked from floor to ceiling in a drug store shouldn’t that indicate that a product really was overproduced? But none of us cared, we just kept checking the price guide for our investments. Topps, taking the notice from the first “serial numbered” product the 1991 and 1992 Donruss Elite inserts that had value, held interest and sold an otherwise awful product devoid of rookies and talent, decided to create a set that will define the end of the first wave of the baseball card investment frenzy by simply putting it out of reach of the children and the common collector, the 1993 Topps Finest set.

“Super Premium” was a phrase that now entered the market. The only way to get packs of this product were through dealers who operated like a supermarket and the mall, and the price due to demand reached above $10 a pack for about six or so cards. But what people really wanted out of these packs and set were the super-rare refractor parallel cards. This was the first time the true “lottery” feel came into play with sportscards. There were only about at a low end 241 and a couple thousand at best of these refractors made as they were randomly inserted into packs. All these things were was a rainbow like card with the same image as the “base” chrome-looking card. That’s it. One extra layer of shine. Topps sold out of preorders for this product in less than a week. Still to this day, these refractors do hold some value as they are harder to come by and are a favorite of the classic set collector. Why? Because like the 1992 Bowman baseball set, it became landmark. At the end of 1993, Upper Deck countered again with a high end super premium set called “SP.” in this set, there were tough condition FOIL front rookie cards, this was another $5 a pack expensive hobby only product. In this set you will find the rookie card of some Yankee shortstop no one will hear about for another 3 years, Derek Jeter.

Enter 1994. Michael Jordan playing baseball? Alex Rodriguez is the top-flight investment rookie. Prices of packs have inched up at this point to a min of $1 a pack for base cards. No one cared, we were getting nicer cards that hey, must have more value. Personally, during the pre-strike summer of 1994, I had cashed out of the baseball card business. It was like a fire sale for me personally because I knew the bottom was going to fall out of this initial investment market. I was what, 19 years old doing mall-card shows and conventions as well as setting up shop at the local flea markets every weekend up until that point? I won’t deny during that 1989-1994 timeframe I made a ton of money off of sportscards. t became not only my hobby but a second job. I know for a fact I was not alone. My final show appearance was in the Freehold Mall, NJ in the summer of 1994. I paid $150 for a weekend to set up shop at the mall. By Saturday night with the pending strike looming, I decided to “fire sale” my entire inventory of baseball cards. “50% off Beckett,” “Make offer,” “Everything in this box $1.” It was like a stock market selloff at my vendor table. By Sunday afternoon, when the mall closed I left with two empty display cases and about $3,000 in cash in my pocket. I had many dealers ask me why I was doing this. Many were angry. Many purchased items from me to resell. My response “it’s just time to get out of the business.”

Was I sad of course. I mean, this is your childhood and teen years hobby you are just abandoning. In retrospect, it was a pretty smart decision wasn’t it? That $3,000 in 1994 you couldn’t get $100 for today without a doubt. The baseball strike of 1994-95 completely killed the market. Some saw it as a time to invest further, while most decided to jump ship and cut losses due to lack of interest during the strike. That brings back the “value” issue. I mean what good is a baseball card with no baseball? Investors especially in Don Mattingly rookie cards took a beating as it appears that a Yankee vs Expos World Series was imminent. Well, since that didn’t happen, the card values overall continued to decline.

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I didn’t pick up another price guide until May of 1998. What I looked at from years 1994-1997 was that I really didn’t miss all that much. There was no interest simply put. I wondered how many of those dealers still had the cards I sold them in 1994. But 1998 once again changed all of that. The great home run chase of Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa. Baseball is BACK!! Baseball cards are BACK!! The money is BACK!! Well, it sure was. However, due to the rampant overproduction of the 1985 Topps McGwire rookie and all of the 1990’s Sammy Sosa rookies, people weren’t that stupid to make the same mistake of investing blindly twice. Or were they? They found a new edge. Having cards professionally graded.

PSA (Professional Sports Authentication) has been around since the early 1980’s. Mostly used to verify the authenticity of older cards and give them a 1-10 “grade” based on condition. This made it easier to resell and know what you actually had was a real card. People counterfeited cards like you would not believe. Good idea. Well, since there are just so many McGwire and Sosa rookies out there, let’s max our dollars out and get them all GRADED!! This way, people will pay more for higher grade copies of these cards and know they are real. I mean, a ton of people have 1985 McGwire rookies (a $30 card in the begining of 1998) and 1990 Leaf Sosa rookies (a $5 card in the begining on 1998.) So let’s make ours special and appeal to the high end collector and investor (there’s that word again.)

And of course, Beckett, who has and still has to this day, a virtual stranglehold on baseball card prices and values, decided to open their own grading company known as BGS or Beckett Grading Services. The great home run chase of 1998 once again ignited the baseball card industry. PSA 10 Gem Mint copies of cards like the 1985 Topps Tiffany McGwire, 1994 SP Alex Rodriguez, 1993 SP Derek Jeter were selling upwards of $10,000 each. Yes, that number is right. $10,000 dollars for a baseball card. I mean, it’s a sound investment right? These guys will all be the next Mickey Mantles and Willie Mays of the world so let’s all get right back on that. Then people started grading EVERYTHING to make it worth more money. I mean, let’s be real. People were grading new rookie cards of 1998 players hoping to get that elusive “10.” At $7-$25 a pop, depending on how fast you wanted it back from PSA or BGS, you can take that $5 card and turn it into $100. People did it, spend a fortune and once again the investment race is on. By the way, those same exact cards today would be lucky to fetch 1/10th of your investment.

Sammy Sosa corked bats and Mark McGwire used performance enhancing drugs? WHAT? Yes, these are things that once again, shocked the baseball world. Add always-pending future home run king Barry Bonds and his growth explosion to the mix and you have yourself a real perfect storm there. I did find an old 1985 Topps set that my dad had put together and sold it to a dealer at the time for $150 at the height of the madness. He said he had a buyer on the phone that would give him $300 for it within an hour. I said enjoy the profit and god bless him because I was happy to take this $150 and go on a date. Once the steroid era, thank you Jose Canseco who still hasn’t been proved wrong, came about and bloomed once again the baseball card market took yet another nosedive as people lost all interest in investing in cheaters and once again the customers and the dealers, lost a ton of money from 1999-2001 on these players as well as many other flash in the plan juiced up non superstars from that era.

But before 1998 and all of that, there was a peculiar set issued in 1997 by Topps called Bowman Chrome. This was another high end super premium set that featured a short list of superstars of the day as well as “rookie cards” of players you have never in your life heard of. Who is Adrian Beltre isn’t he 16 ? Lance Berkman, Roy Halliday, Kerry Wood? Who are these people?? This is not to be underplayed as yet another landmark set. You see, what it really did was set the stage for the future demise of the baseball card purity and interest as well as began the decline of the lost generation of the most important aspect of the baseball card community – the children.

You see after all of their “heroes” from the steroid era were defamed as “cheaters,” families and children just basically lost interest. Pokemon as well as in earlier years, POGS (remember them?) had keened the interest of children. Mostly because their parents had lost so much money and became so disenfranchised with not only baseball cards, but baseball in general. By the early 2000’s video games, the internet as well as the general degradation of the American concept of the family had completely changed how the baseball card market operated. It was now strictly directed at hobbyists and high dollar collectors. Making the “base” brands of cards virtually worthless during this timeframe. In late 1999, Upper Deck introduced the baseball card market to something entirely new – the idea of having a swatch of Game Used memorabilia from a player inserted into a baseball card.

And add one really important idea to the mix – the internet and ebay. In March of 2000, in an attempt to be cutting edge and re-enter the baseball card I opened up an ebay account. Toward the winter of 1999, the amount of baseball card shows had trickled to a fraction of what they once were and the flea market people were mumbling about how most of the “dealers” the frequented the weekend shows had gone to eBay, selling items to a much broader audience and getting more money and sell through for their items. Good idea, I did it too.

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I sold on eBay and Sportsbuy for a very long period of time. I made a ton of cash from 2000-08 simply flipping cards by purchasing lots that people did not know what they had, spelled wrong or just simply didn’t know the value of and relisting them correctly. It truly became a second job, for a second time in my life. And it was easy and enjoyable. During this time frame, the game used market exploded, (how many Jose Vidro game used jersey cards do you want?) the price for higher end products has hit highs of $250 a pack, and of course the ever looming Bowman Chrome. This is where the baseball card market has officially hit its’ dead point. Nationals cancelled. Shows that once had dealers sign up in the hundreds just didn’t happen anymore. The baseball card market shifted from get the card from the show and hunt it down to just search it on ebay. The baseball card show listing went from over 30 pages in the Beckett in the early 90’s down to about two and a half. Card tables at flea markets? Non existent. How much can you get a child involved by sitting on a computer screen typing in searches? No personal interaction other than your feedback and hoping your cards didn’t get damaged in the mail. This generation doesn’t get it like we did. It’s sad. The children really are the ones that lose out.

Mass production of game used, serial numbered cards and the overall devaluation and confusion due to Bowman and Bowman Chrome of what is a real rookie card and isn’t to this generation of children led MLB to actually take away the licenses of Donruss, and Upper Deck in recent years. The Fleer name that was purchased by Upper Deck is virtually useless. Now Topps, as it was pre-1981, is the only vendor that can produce licensed MLB baseball cards. What did it for me personally was when eBay increased their fees as always, and took away the right for a seller to leave any variety of negative or neutral feedback on a buyer. I had a stellar feedback rating (over 9000) up until about a month after they implemented that change. Within two weeks I had 4 negatives, a month about 12. This was back in early 2009, this pent up backlash from buyers against unprotected sellers was in full swing all over the marketplace. Shipping overseas? Forget it. Then once eBay made it so your Detailed Seller Ratings (DSR’S) effected the amount of fees you paid, in addition to the fact you needed to track every single card you sent out with expensive delivery confirmation otherwise your buyers about 40% of the time will try and steal it and say you never sent it in the first place just made it not worth it anymore. Done. Done with baseball cards and the resale angle. I did try and sell on Sportsbuy for a brief period after I left eBay, but there if you aren’t friends with certain people good luck getting your listings noticed. After I left there, I was officially done with baseball cards and trading.

In 2006, MLB made Topps add an “Official MLB Rookie Card Logo” on what they considered old school rookie cards to help get the children involved again. Eliminate confusion. This was a great idea in concept, but after cutting all of the other manufacturer’s out of the business, in essence blaming them for what was wrong with the hobby. They left Topps there. And still let them create the real source of confusion, Bowman and Bowman Chrome. How much sense does this not make? How do you take your child to a store in 2007 and get a Justin Upton Topps card with a “MLB Rookie Card” logo on it and tell your child that “this is going to be his rookie card and you can enjoy it” when in 2004 Bowman and Bowman Chrome AFLAC set has an extremely valuable first year card and variations of Justin Upton as
well as the 2006 Bowman and Bowman Chrome sets?? And that the only way to get it is on eBay or on the Beckett marketplace? This same can be said for Jose Bautista (Rookie year 2006 but first card is a 2002 Bowman and Chrome? ) This same situation has applied to Steven Strausburg, and will next year with Bryce Haper among many others. MLB should and needs to shut down the Bowman and Bowman Chrome concept for any hope of a future generation understanding and feeling the excitement of pulling a true rookie card out of a store purchased pack. This was one of the hallmarks of baseball card collecting pre-1992. This would be an amazing way to at least start the process of getting a new generation involved, because these past two are officially lost. There are just too many strikes against purchasing and collecting baseball cards anymore. Because as stated above, the common theme always seems to be the same. You are a loser.

So if you come across or are one of those people who have albums of baseball cards from the time frame between 1980 and say 2000 and are trying to sell it on Craigslist or wonder why you’re only being offered $5 for it after you were told years ago to “hold on to it for your child’s college education” or there is just no interest period, feel free to read or reference this article. Because until drastic and serious changes are implemented by MLB regarding Bowman and Bowman Chrome, the baseball card hobby will be reduced to $20 to $300-a-pack online lottery game players hoping to pull a Babe Ruth or Mickey Mantle game used jersey card like a gambler plays excessive amounts of scratch-offs looking for a big hit that just never seems to come, leaving you with a pile of Jose Vidro and Gary Sheffield game used jersey cards that will get you about 25 cents, zero profit and a negative feedback on eBay.

So with that being said, unless you stumble upon an old trunk from a yard sale in the middle of nowhere that contains a ton of vintage, the odds on baseball card collecting and either profiting or enjoying it in this current day are stacked against you. For both time, effort and expense involved with the hobby in the current state it is in. Anyone telling you different is in complete denial of reality or is just prolonging the inevitable. And by the way…

It’s safe to put baseball cards in the spokes of your bicycle again.

Those things will never be worth anything anyways….