Wednesday, June 24, 2009

A Brief Essay on the History of Modern Baseball Card Collecting

Note: For the purposes of this commentary, the term modern shall represent the Topps Era from 1952 until present.

I was born in the winter of 1975, and my father preceded me in January of 1940. At the impressionable ages of 12, we both stood on the precipice of two major eras in the history of baseball card collecting, the years 1952 and 1987. My father witnessed the dawn of the hobby: the birth of Topps; the emergence of Mickey Mantle; the pure innocent joy of collecting. I on the other hand, retrospectively bore witness to the sunset of the hobby: the market saturation; the price guide; the business of collecting. Both of our childhoods were filled with the love of the game, and its illustration on a printed piece of cardstock. However, our perceptions of cards were tragically divergent; where his focus was on the card itself and mine was on the card as well, but also its worth.

In my opinion, this assigning a monetary value to a childhood memento is responsible for the death of baseball card collecting, and I place blame directly on my father’s generation. However, I believe my generation, through the use of responsible free trade and proper direction, is capable of resurrecting the hobby for our progeny’s enjoyment. To do this, I maintain we must understand our errors.

In the infancy of modern baseball card collecting, the cards served as a primary means of delivering the relative novelty of stick chewing gum. While chewing gum had been used prior to 1952 by the likes of Goudey Gum Co. and Bowman Gum, Inc., cards were previously distributed with tobacco products, a decidedly non-kid friendly product. With the introduction of the 1952 Topps trading cards, the market began the trend of focusing on children using cards with vibrantly colorful fronts depicting their diamond heroes, statistic and biographical data laden backs, all wrapped in wax and served with a stick of bubble gum for the reasonably low price of 5 cents per pack. To me, I cannot think of any product prior to baseball cards that was intentionally marketed to children, save for candy, and with the advent of television around the same time period, the conditions were ripe for the modern baseball card industry to begin.

Over the next two decades, there was little change in the world of baseball cards. Even the price of a pack remained at 5 cents for nearly 20 years, until prices were raised to 10 cents per pack in the late 1960s. The only change of significance was that sets became larger; consequently more series were introduced. From 1952 to 1973, cards were typically issued in 132 card series over the course of the baseball season. Due to this marketing method, we are faced with our first signs of supply and demand in the baseball card world. As the baseball season headed toward the pennant race, the final series released tended to not sell as well as the release’s earlier series, thus Topps printed fewer cards (or destroyed them). Since public demand was lessened, supply was reduced accordingly to maintain the market price (5 to 10 cents), and to prevent a market surplus.

In 1974, the standard set was now printed in one single series, thus eliminating the short supply issue of previous year’s sets. For the remainder of the decade prices increased slightly, until 1981 when the market was expanded to include two new brands, Fleer and Donruss. With the market now supporting three brands, the supply increased two-fold and the demand apparently increased accordingly until the beginning of what is now commonly referred to as the Bad or Junk Wax Era.

In the mid-1980s, the baseball card collecting world began to feel the effects of the first generation of collectors from the 50s and 60s, now referred to as Baby Boomers. I surmise that these past collectors, who now had sources of disposable income, were trying to recapture their past. As many children had done, their baseball cards were loved to the point of ruin, which in my opinion is the badge of a good baseball card. Cards were used in flipping games, placed in bicycle spokes, glued to paper, tucked in back pockets, marked on and rearranged to reflect a favorite player’s new team, and usually ultimately thrown out when the child left home. Yet, sometime in the mid to late 80s, cards were no longer played with and stored in shoe boxes wrapped in rubber bands, they were stored in acid-free, UV protective plastic sleeves preventing damaging oils from children's fingertips ruining the cards...

Now armed with financial prowess, memories of childhoods long gone and a desire to escape the ever complicating world, I think the Boomers tried to evoke their faded pasts by recollecting their old heroes. This influx of demand and money, coupled with the shortening supply of older cards due to wear and tear, trash can happy mothers and short printed series, sent the value of vintage cards skyward. With this new market of vintage card collecting came the arrival of the price guide and dealers. Essentially baseball cards became a private or capitalistic commodity, sold not through department stores and pharmacies, but through entrepreneurs catering solely to baseball card collectors through shows and storefront businesses.

Not coincidentally, I think the manufacturers (i.e., Donruss, Fleer and Topps) noticed the increased demand and influx of capital into the hobby, and began to overproduce their products to supply the dealers, thus creating a draining market surplus. Shortly thereafter, the market again increased with the introduction of Score in 1988 and Upper Deck in 1989, as well as smaller brands like Sportsflics, etc.

With the launch of Upper Deck, I think many collectors unfairly blame the company for the ruin of the hobby due to their use of premium card stock, glossy finish and holograms. While it is true that other manufacturers developed spinoff products to compete with Upper Deck, such as Topp’s Stadium Club, Donruss’ Leaf, Fleer’s Ultra and Score’s Pinnacle, thus drastically increasing the base price of cards while outpacing the demand with a vast surplus of products, it is my opinion that the private monetization of baseball cards is what put the hobby on its deathbed.

Finally, in 1994, the MLB strike effectively killed the hobby, and in some ways created conditions for a rebirth. After The Strike, demand waned considerably, and manufacturers accordingly reduced their set sizes, but did not reduce their wide variety of products. In response to the diminished interest, card companies began to diversify their products even more and focused on niche markets. No longer could a collector vie solely for a hand collated base set because now packs included inserts, such as “upgraded” base versions, relics and game-used materials. With these premium inserts and fancier base cards, prices outpaced those a child could afford. Long gone were the days of 5, 10, 50 or even 75 cent packs. Packs now sold in the 2 to 5 dollar range for 5 or 6 cards, thus effectively ending the hobby for children to reasonably amass a collection. Only the die hard adult collectors with disposable income can safely wade through these troubled waters.

Thus, this finally brings me to the end. Money, greed and private capitalism turned an innocent hobby from a child’s game to an adult industry. Yet, I still see a glimmer of hope for my children. I firmly believe changes are on the horizon. Online auctions have begun the change from capitalism to free market trade, straight trading appears to be coming back due to blogs and message boards, and the manufacturers have been reduced to two (Topps and Upper Deck) thus reducing the gluttony of products. While I will not hold my breath waiting for the insane number of parallel sets, inserts and relics to disappear, I have hope affordable base sets will be in our near future. If not, I have plenty of old cards to help my children build sets from, and I am more than willing to help fellow collectors finish their dreams.

If I learned anything from the demise of the baseball card industry, it is that a baseball card is only monetarily worth what someone else will pay for it, yet its personal worth is priceless.

Doc T


Captain Canuck said...

I couldn't agree more.

Analee said...

you are stuck in the generational gap of card appreciation and disposable-income-to-relive-your-childhood.

quantity or quality. its funny how you puff out when you tell how many total cards you have. or, how one time you got a huge box for $10.

but, you want to complete sets. for... kendal to chew on? or, would they be spares.

i'm just not sentimental. i think the ones you played with, chewed on, used in spokes, etc., well, they are keepers. the rest? they just take up space.

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