Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Old Cardboard

Every kid of my generation grew up collecting baseball cards. It was just the thing that we did. We'd trade them with our friends, each having different motivations for why we wanted certain cards. Some collected their favorite players. Others wanted a complete set for their favorite team. I suppose a lot of us just wanted to get the cards of the game's star players.

For me, the cards formed a handy reference collection. I loved listening to baseball games on the radio at night. As Cincinnati Reds play-by-play man Marty Brennaman called out the lineups, I'd shuffle through my box and pull out the card of the man whose action he was describing. Much of what I know about geography came from reading the players' hometowns on the back of those cards and finding the cities on my wall map. Twenty-five years later, I can still recall the small towns that some of those players came from... places like Donora, PA (Ken Griffey), Binger, OK (Johnny Bench), and Bonham, TX (Joe Morgan).

None of us collected cards because we thought they were worth money. Sure, they had some value to us in the way that any of a twelve year old kid's possessions do, but that was an intrinsic value, not a monetary value. That all changed by the mid-eighties, when collecting sports cards became a big business. While there was once just one company -- Topps -- selling cards, suddenly there were several, and as the competition grew, the market was quickly flooded. As Dave Jamieson recounts in a recent article at Slate, things went downhill from there.
Baseball cards peaked in popularity in the early 1990s. They've taken a long slide into irrelevance ever since, last year logging less than a quarter of the sales they did in 1991. Baseball card shops, once roughly 10,000 strong in the United States, have dwindled to about 1,700. A lot of dealers who didn't get out of the game took a beating. "They all put product in their basement and thought it was gonna turn into gold," Alan Rosen, the dealer with the self-bestowed moniker Mr. Mint, told me.
Rosen describes a fellow dealer struggling to unload 7,000 Mike Mussina rookie cards. Ten years ago the 1991 cards might have fetched $8 to $10 a piece, but now the dealer couldn't find a taker at $0.25. Folks who viewed baseball cards as investments have grown to be sorely disappointed, as have the folks who were going crazy for beanie babies a few years ago. For the rest of us, the cards have more value as a bit of nostalgia, a pleasant reminder of our youth. It's one of the few artifacts we're likely to have hung on to, and I wouldn't sell mine for any price.