Tuesday, July 14, 2009

History Lesson #2 - The Memory Business

Yet again, I see more followers have entered the field, and yet again, my collection is hibernating in the family room closet. With two kids under the age of two, and a wife who has mandated that all of the toys in the attic be sold prior to my cards awakening from their 7 year slumber, I guess I will have to be patient. On that note, if anyone collects GI Joe, Transformers, Mask, Star Wars or Legos from the early to mid 80s, drop me a line (uncle_docs_closet@yahoo.com) or post a comment. If you could save me the hassle of eBay, I’d be eternally grateful.

So, with no immediate prospect of me actually writing about my cards (which will be mostly available for trade, etc.), I guess I will continue the debate over the fall of baseball card collecting. In the last entry, we read about how Mr. Mint and his ilk used the Walmart approach to monetizing the collecting industry. When I say Walmart, I mean an individual with large capital that can buy wholesale, then break collections to others for a profit.

While skimming the SI vault, I found a quasi-rebuttal to the Mr. Mint article. The author, Jack McCallum, writes of the merits of personal worth versus monetary worth. If you read my first post, it appears Jack and I are kindred spirits. That is, cards should be valued based on what they are worth to you, not what a “price guide” says they should be worth.

And for what it’s worth, like the kid in the article, I had my cards listed on an old Linux word processing program, and I bet I still have the dot matrix print outs to prove it…

Anyways, here is the link to the article if you want to read it from the SI archive: http://vault.sportsillustrated.cnn.com/vault/article/magazine/MAG1067582/2/index.htm

August 01, 1988
The Memory Business
Big bucks take the joy out of collecting baseball cards
Jack McCallum

My 11-year-old son is recording his baseball card collection on his computer.

Here's how he does it: He lists the brand and year of each card (Topps '87, Fleer '85), the set number of the card (which appears on the back) and the value of the card (according to a journal bearing the no-nonsense handle, Current Card Prices), but not the name of the player.

"There's only room for so much information on one line," he explains.

"So why not leave something else off and put in the guy's name?" I ask.

"I need the other stuff to look up the card and find out how much it's worth," he explains.

"Why do you care how much it's worth?" I ask.

The question hangs in the air as he gives me a strange look. It is, of course, an absurd question at a time when America has gone bullish on baseball cards. The worth of a baseball card has become its monetary worth. A 1984 Donruss Don Mattingly rookie card isn't valuable because its owner happens to be a fan of the Yankee first baseman. It's valuable because, according to the June 1988 issue of Current Card Prices, it's worth $67.50.

Card shows, once the province of a few wide-eyed kids and adult eccentrics, now take place in shopping malls and attract canny horse-trading types with narrow eyes and a nose for the kill. The phenomenon has been well-chronicled. USA Today, The Sporting News, MONEY and this magazine have all run stories recently about the burgeoning baseball-card market. SI's July 4, 1988, story featured 42-year-old Alan Rosen (a.k.a. Mr. Mint), who totes around a suitcase loaded with cash to buy mint-condition baseball cards. According to Mr. Mint, the buying and selling of baseball cards has brought him a $700,000 home, three cars and a yearly income of $400,000.

I'm not, as you might have guessed, a player in the baseball-card market. Nor would I care to be. My story is typical, or at least it was typical: Boy buys baseball cards, boy puts rubber bands around them, boy stores them (by team) in shoe boxes, boy gradually outgrows them, years later boy's mother throws them out. I can still remember my favorite card, a 1959 Richie Ashburn-Willie Mays "Hitting Kings" card. It's long gone, and I do not pine for it. Mays, meanwhile, is a fixture on the card-show circuit, earning several thousand dollars per hour to sit in a chair and sign his name over and over. To that end, he assiduously avoids eye and all other personal contact with those who have paid $8 for the autograph. "This is business," says Mays's accountant, Carl Kiesler, who attends the shows with him.

And so it is business. But something's wrong here. Every time a dollar value is assigned to a baseball card or a man's signature, then that card and that signature (and that man) depreciate in another, more profound way. Money takes the game of baseball out of the realm of the childhood imagination, where it lived when I stashed my very favorite baseball cards under my pillow, and into the adult world, where everything has a price.

You know the first thing my son heard when he went to a card show last year? Some entrepreneur issuing a dire warning against the practice of wrapping cards with rubber bands and storing them in shoe boxes. "It decreases their value," the guy said. There is no use for old shoe boxes, except to fill them with baseball cards, is there? This guy also counseled against the flipping of baseball cards, an activity that, as I recall, was a terrific way to pass the time during sixth-grade geography class. In other words, kids, treat your cards the same way adults treat their CDs and their BMWs. Don't scuff them, shuffle them, hug them, toss them in the air or expose them to the sun. Don't have fun with them. Use forceps, if possible, and then maybe Mr. Mint will come to your house with a suitcase full of money.

The commercialization of baseball cards is a shame. It permits irresponsible adults to horn in on a childhood pastime, and turns a childhood pastime into market analysis. Last week a friend of my son's was rejoicing because his uncle, a rubber-band-and-shoe-box guy from way back, gave him a 1964 Topps Pete Rose card that happened to be in mint condition. "It's worth a hundred and sixty bucks, and he didn't even know it!" the kid said gleefully. That's what this boy got out of the gift—he had put one over on his uncle.

Sadly, baseball-card collecting is no longer a hobby filled with anticipation and wonder—it's an investment scheme. Major leaguers aren't personalities and legends—they're entries in a ledger. Kids don't have collections—they have portfolios. Prevailing wisdom once said that you couldn't put a price on your memories. But Mr. Mint and his like say you can...and a whole generation is buying into that idea.


BrerSkwerl said...

I'm a little confused... Why are you selling the toys? I mean, if you are selling them to support buying more cards, then I understand, but (yeah, I was FB'ing at lunch also...) won't the Rocket enjoy playing with the toys one day? As a kid, that was always like finding treasure, to find a toy in the attic with which I knew my mom/dad played... And, not saying that you'd have to give them away to children to not be swallowed up in the capitalism, but once he (RKT) gets old enough to appreciate the Star Wars movies, you'll be buying those same toys (newer model, not built as well...) right back... Also not saying that the Rocket should have to play with pre-chewed toys, just saying that part of the enjoyment is in the imagination and in the memories...

"extries" - All of your 2nd and 3rd copy UVA and Phillies players you're going to trade me... (Honest, that was the word verification!)

Analee said...

just for the record, kendal loves the old toys he's found thus far. and it is nathaniel himself that wants to sell his old toys. and the reason he has to sell those old toys before he gets to his cards is because there isn't a place to put the cards until he removes the toys from their current locations. they live in every nook and cranny of this house... all the places that our KIDS toys are supposed to live!!!

i'm getting my lighter fluid ready... i'm ready to burn paper. (jk)

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