Baseball cards: a cultural history
December 23, 2014 10:10 PM   Subscribe

Over 100 years, small images of athletes went from tobacco companies' marketing materials to overhyped investments favored by nostalgic grown men. Now, they're worth virtually nothing. A Cultural History of the Baseball Card.
posted by paleyellowwithorange (16 comments total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
“When 30-somethings ask me why their rookie cards from the 80s are next to worthless now, I tell them it's because we were all aware of them as investments even as children,” Jamieson, the author Mint Condition, wrote to me in an email. “Those cards never had the opportunity to become scarce.”
I used to collect cards (non-sports cards - think Star Wars, etc). I too collected in the 80's. I remember finding out that the wrappers the cards came in were worth more than any of the cards I had. Because by the 70's (when a ton of non-sports cards were made) everyone knew that you should hold onto your cards, but people discarded the wrappers. Thus they became scarce.

I still have my near-worthless collection in a storage unit, collecting dust and nostalgia (including a few wrappers).
posted by el io at 10:24 PM on December 23, 2014

The rarest cards of all, the ones that I would pay real money for, are the non-superstars, the guys who played for a couple of years in the minors and then were out.

I have a collection, abandoned in 2001 (their 25th year), of every player who ever appeared for the Seattle Mariners, and while I have more worthless Edgar and Griffey and Buhner cards than I have any room for, it's the oddballs -- the Rod Allen card, 11 games in 1983, a guy who never GOT a card in a Mariners uniform, but had one, just one, for a minor league team that I've never been able to find, that I would kill for.

A lot of times you have to buy a complete set of minor league cards you don't want to get the one that you do. Nobody collects single minor league cards unless they have a head injury or something.

Book value: $0.01. it's a "common" but no one ever markets them, on ebay or elsewhere, as singles -- what's the point? I'll give you ten bucks for one if you have it. You don't. If you do, it's buried in a crate of total garbage. That's what's rare.
posted by Fnarf at 10:36 PM on December 23, 2014 [4 favorites]

It's a buyer's market right now. If you want the sets you grew up with as a kid in the 70s and 80s, they're inexpensive. Just don't look at them as investments.
posted by persona au gratin at 12:00 AM on December 24, 2014

I feel this should make being a baseball fan more accessible...
posted by hal_c_on at 12:28 AM on December 24, 2014

Someone ought to tell these folks who recently spent huge sums of money on sports cards that they have bought worthless commodities: The dozens of other auction houses specializing in these items, along with those involved with the robust market on eBay should also probably be notified by the author.

What is so amusing about this article is that the very cards depicted as accompanying illustrations sell for large sums of money. So basically, the author cherry picks a narrow period of time in the 130-year history of the hobby, and determines that the whole enterprise is worthless. A whole history of a rich hobby dismissed in a mere 1500 words.

That's a pretty neat trick.
posted by samizdat at 12:52 AM on December 24, 2014 [1 favorite]

Dude, Rod Allen hung around long enough to get cards in both Tigers and Indians uniforms and you can find his 1984 Albuquerque Dukes Cramer Pacific Coast League card (#156) on Amazon marketplace for under $10 with shipping (though I'm sure you could get it cheaper elsewhere).
posted by The Hamms Bear at 1:13 AM on December 24, 2014

As a kid in the early 80s I spent a lot of time collecting baseball cards with my dad, going to card shows and meeting with other collectors in a small room at the local boy's and girl's club. I remember one of the guys had a 56 Mantle card and a 84 Mother's Cookies Mariner's team set for sale, $10 each. My dad asked which one I wanted. I chose the Mantle card because I knew it was his childhood favorite. He ended up buying them both.

At some point the rising cost of the hobby sucked the fun out of it. You couldn't buy a bunch of older cards to fill out a set for a couple bucks and the new cards were getting glossier and more expensive every year. I'm glad the majority of cards are worthless, even the boxes of them in my parents attic. I'm glad speculators got burned. Anyone that bought them as investments deserved it.

That goes double for comics.
posted by The Hamms Bear at 1:42 AM on December 24, 2014 [1 favorite]

Seems weird to ignore the impact of Magic the gathering. It more or less single handedly collapsed the baseball card market. All it took was another asset for the market to invest in and baseball cards evaporated.
posted by empath at 6:04 AM on December 24, 2014 [1 favorite]

“The Legacy of Sy Berger”Olbermann, 15 December 2014
posted by ob1quixote at 6:11 AM on December 24, 2014

I was in an collector shop a couple of weeks ago that had a bunch of mid 70s baseball cards, all selling for $10-$20 each. I have just about every one of the cards, however his were mint condition, mine are beat up from being stored in rubber banded packs in an old lunchbox.

Mint condition cards from the era when they were still basically toys (pre-1980 or so) still have some value. I probably have 95% of Topps baseball cards from 1974-1978, and at one time I had the complete sets of 75/76. However, the condition makes them mostly worthless.
posted by COD at 7:12 AM on December 24, 2014

I used to enjoy collecting cards - I really did. I enjoyed looking at them, I enjoyed getting players from my favorite team, and I enjoyed assembling them into sets.

There were three things which ruined that for me.

The first was the introduction of the "scarce" sets. These were cards that, when you went to a card shop, the dealer said that packs would be $10 (instead of $0.75) because "there aren't very many around and people really want them". The joke that got played was that this was true at first, but the companies simply held back shipping their product. I would pay $50 for a box of cards and in six months they would be selling for $10.

Next up was the introduction of "insert cards". These were cards that were much harder to get, they were designed as a lottery find. As much as I tried to resist the urge, it is impossible, and soon the regular cards in the pack had changed in my eyes - the pot of gold made it impossible to enjoy the scenery around it. I could never open a pack of cards and get back the old feeling of excitement looking at regular cards again.

However, I regrouped and took advantage of that situation. I started buying sets that dealers assembled. The dealers would buy the packs, open them up, take out the valuable "insert" cards, and then could sell the regular cards as a set for cheaper money.

This era lasted about five years. Then the companies - who had pushed the "limited insert" strategy to death, decided that a better approach would be to short-print certain cards in the set. That meant that if there was 300 cards in a set, 250 of them would be regular cards, but certain numbers would be available only in short supply. That meant that I could no longer easily achieve a "complete set" - and for anyone who understands collecting, the attraction is to have a goal that can actually be achieved. Some sets were produced with there being only 50 of certain numbers.

That is when I stopped. The fun was gone, the sense of achievement was gone. It had been killed by the executives who tried to figure out how to extract every last dollar from everyone on the planet.

It serves them right that most of them are not working in this field any more.
posted by RalphSlate at 8:10 AM on December 24, 2014 [4 favorites]

hortense, that is the most distressing obit I have ever seen.
posted by oceanjesse at 11:41 AM on December 24, 2014

My grandfather, Pittsburgh resident, longtime smoker and ardent Pirates fan, was born in 1889.

I have always wondered....

posted by BWA at 12:16 PM on December 25, 2014 [2 favorites]

“The baseball-card bubble,” The Economist, 20 December 2014
posted by ob1quixote at 3:11 AM on December 28, 2014

I'm actually glad the market crashed in baseball cards; serves the greedy fuckers right. Now the only people (mostly) who collect are people who like the cards and the sport.
posted by grubi at 5:14 AM on December 29, 2014

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