One question I always had about the card was: why did Gretzky ever sell it? The Wagner might just have been an investment for him, but if you’re rich and a huge sports guy and you own the most pristine copy of the world’s rarest and most valuable sports card, why would you ever sell it? One possible answer: you suspected (or discovered) that the card had been doctored and got rid of the damn thing before the truth came out. That Gretzky, always skating to where the puck is going to be.
The Baseball Card Movie is a nice nine-minute film that introduces the viewer to a world where adults pay up to $500 for a pack of cards (aka cardboard crack) and act very superstitiously about opening them.
He once made it a practice to buy his own autographed baseball cards on eBay; when asked why he bought them at auction for high prices rather than acquiring unsigned cards and signing them himself, Zito replied, “Because they’re authenticated.”
Possibly apocryphal but Zito would likely have a difficult time selling self-signed cards because they’re not authenticated.
Now I had to write something on the bat. At Memorial Stadium, the bat room was not too close to the clubhouse, so I wanted to write something that I could find immediately if I looked up and it was 4:44 and I had to get out there on the field a minute later and not be late. There were five big grocery carts full of bats in there and if I wrote my number 3, it could be too confusing. So I wrote ‘F—k’ Face on it.
At the time, it was assumed by many that Ripken had intentionally sabotaged his card with the obscenity. I still have one of these somewhere… (via unlikely words)
The Griffey card was the perfect piece of memorabilia at the perfect time. The number the card was given only furthered the prospect of his cardboard IPO. Junior was chosen to be card No. 1 by an Upper Deck employee named Tom Geideman, a college student known for his keen eye for talent. Geideman earned his rep by consistently clueing in the founders of The Upper Deck, the card shop where the business was hatched, on which players would be future stars. Geideman took the task of naming the player for the first card very seriously. Using an issue of Baseball America as his guide, Geideman knew that card No. 1 would belong to Gregg Jefferies, Sandy Alomar Jr., Gary Sheffield, or a long-shot candidate, the phenom they called “The Kid.” It’s probably the most thinking Geideman ever did compiling a checklist, save for the 1992 Upper Deck set when he assigned numbers that ended in 69 to players with porn-star-sounding names. (Dick Schofield at No. 269, Heathcliff Slocumb at No. 569, and Dickie Thon at No. 769.)
I still remember when I got my one and only “Griffey card” (as everyone called it then). My friend Derek and I ventured out in a downpour in response to a call from Al, the owner of our small town’s only card shop. Al ran his shop out of his mother’s garage; he was maybe 30 years old at the time, still lived with his mom, and was one of the nicest, most generous people I’ve ever met. He had half a box of Upper Deck packs that he’d procured from who knows where. Derek and I bought the lot at a slight markup over retail and opened them right there in the cold garage. We both got a Griffey that night; I’ve still got mine sheathed in a hard plastic case.
When I think back on how precious those cards were to me then and consider my current purchasing power relative to my 16-year-old self, I feel a giddy power in the realization that if I wanted to, I could go out right now and buy 10 or 20 Griffey cards. Gah, where’s that eBay login info?
The only known copy of the Honus Wagner T206 baseball card in near mint condition was sold recently for $2.35 million. “The T206 Honus Wagner card has long been recognized as the most iconic, highly coveted and valuable object in the field of sports memorabilia.”
Jim Caple takes a tour of the Topps HQ in Manhattan. “I’m only half-listening because I’ve noticed an uncut sheet of 1968 baseball cards he has framed along his office wall. I can’t help but notice that down near the lower left-hand corner of the sheet is a Nolan Ryan rookie card. Beyond mint condition.”
Dave Jamieson used to collect baseball cards and recently uncovered his stash when he cleaned out the closet of his childhood home. In attempting to recoup some of the time and money spent in his youth on this cardboard, Jamieson found that baseball cards aren’t as popular or as lucrative as they used to be:
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 says one dealer he knows recently struggled to unload a cache of 7,000 Mike Mussina rookie cards. He asked for 25 cents apiece.
Close readers of kottke.org know that I collected sports cards too. I got involved in this prepubescent hobby later than most; I was 14 or 15 when a friend and his older brother — who was around 24 and collecting for investment — introduced me to it. And I loved it:
I still have them all somewhere, in boxes, collecting dust faster than value. The Ken Griffey Jr. Upper Deck rookie, the 130 different Nolan Ryan cards, the complete 1989 Hoops set (with the David Robinson rookie), and several others I really can’t remember right now.
I used to spend untold hours sifting through them, looking up the values in Beckett’s Price Guide, visiting card shops, flipping through commons to complete sets, looking for patterns in Topps’ rack packs (I scored many a Jim Abbott rookie with this technique), chewing that ancient bubble gum (I bought a pack of 1983 cards once and chewed the gum…it was horrible), and keeping track of the total value of my collection with a Lotus 1-2-3 spreadsheet on my dad’s 286. It was a lot of fun at the time (as the Web is fun for me now); I guess that’s about all one can ask for from a hobby.
Recently I stumbled across The Baseball Card Blog and was hit by a giant wave of nostalgia for my old obsession. One thing led to another — you know how that goes — and before I knew it, a package was speeding its way to me from a card shop in Pennsylvania containing several 1989 Fleer & Donruss wax packs, a 1989 Topps rack pack, and a couple of 1987 Topps wax packs.1
I’ve been opening a pack every few days since they arrived. Smell is the sense most powerfully associated with memory, so getting a whiff of that cardboard is really sending me back. Like a wine connoisseur, I can even smell the difference between each brand of card; the smell of Topps cards holds the strongest memories for me…the 1989 Topps set was my favorite. I opened the ‘87 Topps packs with a fellow ex-collector, but when we tried to chew the gum, it tasted like the cards and turned to a muddy dust in our mouths. But that was mostly what happened even when the gum was new, so we were unsurprised.
Because of the aforementioned slump in the baseball card collecting economy, the card packs I ordered were the same price I paid for them as a kid (factoring for inflation), even though they’re almost 20 years old and way more scarce. Back then, I used most of my $5/week allowance on cards, and it took weeks and months of patience to buy enough packs to complete a set, procure that Griffey rookie card, or amass enough Mark McGwires to trade to a friend for a desired Nolan Ryan.
As an adult, I have the cashflow to buy any card I want whenever I want (within reason). Or several boxes of cards, so as to compile complete sets instantly. Or I can just purchase the complete sets and skip the intermediate step. I could buy an entire box of 1989 Upper Deck packs — at $1.25 per pack and nearly impossible to find in rural Wisconsin, an unimaginable extravagance for me as a kid — right now on eBay. When I think about the financial advantages I now have over my 16-yo self in collecting the same exact cards, I feel like the NY Yankees (and their monster payroll) competing in a Single A league. It’s unfair and even thinking about collecting cards in that manner takes a lot of the fun out of it for me. If I do start collecting cards again, I’m going to approach it like I did back then: by hand, a little at a time, and treating even the essentially worthless commons with care. Unless Nolan Ryan is involved…in that case, the sky’s the limit, although I might have to sell my bicycle to get it. In the meantime, I’m waiting for the next household footwear purchase so I can put my newly purchased cards in the shoe box for safe keeping.
 A quick note on terminology. A “wax pack” is a basic pack of around 15 cards (plus gum, when cards still had gum packaged with them), so-called because the packages used to be sealed with wax. (Now they’re all probably packaged in plastic and whatnot…I don’t know, I haven’t kept up.) The bottom card in such a pack is called a “wax back” because the card got a thin layer of wax on it from the sealing process. A “rack pack” is a hanging triple pack made of see-thru plastic. A “common” is an ordinary card not worth very much, as opposed to cards or rookies, hot prospects, all-stars, and the like. A “box” contains several wax packs, typically 20-40 packs/box. A “complete set” is a collection of every card sold by a company in a particular year. The ‘89 Topps set had 792 cards. Sets were sold in factory-sealed boxes or were compiled by hand from cards acquired in packs. ↩
My new favorite weblog: The Baseball Card Blog. I’m having acid flashbacks to my teenaged years, but without the acid. The 1989 Upper Deck set was one of the first I built from scratch, a tall order for someone whose weekly allowance was $5. I remember lusting after the Jerome Walton card in the High Numbers Series…he didn’t do so well after that rookie year of his.
The decline of the baseball card industry. I collected in the late 80s, early 90s. It became a lot less fun when the companies started releasing special editions in limited quantities just to drive up value and demand artificially.