Timeless and forever unquestioned by this Cactus Leaguer are the immortal words of one LL Cool J and his rapsterpiece, “Mama Said Knock You Out” :
“Don’t call it a comeback. I’ve been here for years. Rockin’ my peers and puttin’ suckas’ in fear…”
Don’t call it a comeback. Never would I ever dare. In 1990, I remember actually spending brain time on this lyrical directive. Don’t call it a comeback. Ladies Love Cool James! If dude has the confidence to rock a name like that, who would ever have the stones to question whether he had ever even faded? Not this guy. Certainly not back then.
I grew up in the 80’s and was a teen in the 90’s. Through dual cassette decks and MTV, I took lessons from these decade’s finest teachers – professors like LL, Jon Bon Jovi, Vince Neil and David Lee Roth. If they spoke, I listened, and if I learned anything at all, I learned that the greatest things in life don’t ever fade.
And then there’s baseball cards.
Depending on your age, you may have a pretty good sense of the Baseball Card Revolution. If your formative years occurred pre-1980, my condolences – you’re miserable. You’re the guy who loves his mother, who would do anything for her, but secretly, deep, deep down, houses a bit of boiling, festering, volcanic hostility toward her. She gave you life, but she also took some of it away. Why Ma? Why did you have to throw away my baseball card collection? You’re THAT guy and you ask yourself this question at the same frequency intervals you check your retirement portfolio at, because make no mistake – the two events may as well be financially-conjoined twins.
If the 80’s were your formative decade, you might have done okay. You learned from your father’s mother’s mistakes – the one’s your Pops routinely cautioned you about every time he and his buddies got together to reminisce about their baseball card-collecting-youths. So you were smarter – you bought your cards, you found houses for them in three-ring binders and neatly preserved them – three rows wide, three rows deep, in crisp plastic pages. Whether this was your call or your dad’s demand has no actual bearing here. No way in H-E-Double-Baseball-Bats was your dad’s mom’s mistake going to be repeated. No way were you ever going to have to recycle your father’s 13-word audible death sentence: “If my mom hadn’t thrown away my cards, I’d be retired by now.”
But herein is where the trouble layeth. Preservation and caution did not lead to the promised financial spoils to be derived in 2.5″ x 3.5″ cardboard bullion. No, no, no. Preservation and caution led to the death and destruction of baseball card values as we once knew them. Piss right off, irony.
Pre-1980 card companies were printing plenty of product, but the supply was controlled by anti-pack-rat mothers who tossed out their kids’ collections. By the time those kids grew up, any chance of their 1951 Mickey Mantle rookie card having grown up with them, were long, long gone. Supply was gone, so demand was up – simple economics. I speak from experience. My parents divorced when I was young and to this day, my dad still swears that my mom sold his beloved, suitcase-entombed, Babe Ruth-laden, collection upon their split – a claim my mom vehemently denies. She thinks it was tossed, along with most everything else in our basement when it flooded in the early 80’s. As a coping mechanism, part of me clings onto to hope that it will magically resurface one day. Some people pray for world peace. I pray for this. [Editor Introspective: How incredibly hard was it to type “Babe Ruth” just then? F, dash, dash, dash. You deserve a Pulitzer for this. Power through it, power through it…]
The 1980’s. The beginning of the end.
But if plenty of product was being printed before the 80’s, you can imagine the volumes card companies were actually printing in the 80’s (I’m typing to YOU, 1987 Topps). And if the card companies knew that collectors were committed to not making the same mistakes as their predecessors, they were certainly going to take advantage of it. Card collecting literally became more about printing money and less about owning a piece of history. Supply was up, but so too was demand and preservation. Just as Einstein is credited with conceiving the formula for mass-energy in E=mc2, then Topps and 80’s collectors should share credit for birthing the formula for baseball card devaluation in Supply+Demand+Preservation=$0.
The 1990’s – Nice Try
Which brings us to the 90’s. Oh…the 90’s – the decade that card collecting wish it could forget. By this time, Topps had plenty of company to help diminish the planet’s supply of ink and cardboard. Brands like Fleer, UpperDeck, Donruss and Score, along with their sub-brands, were all churning out products by the caseload and the days of sub .50 cent packs were all but gone. Competition among card companies was fierce and in order to try and gain an edge in market share, an evolution toward controlled scarcity started to manifest. In addition to the regular release cards that made up a standard base set, card manufacturers began to release “parallel cards”, or a more limited variation on the base card. So for example, if a box of cards contained 36 packs and each pack contained 12 cards, then 11 of them might be base cards within the set and one of them might be a more limited, parallel version of a base card. So technically, fewer of the parallel variety were printed, and for the diehard collectors, it would mean they’d have to buy way more product if they had aspirations of collecting a complete parallel base set. Brilliant economic move by the card companies. Disastrous move for the value of the base card.
90’s card collecting can be best summed up like this: If you’re in your 30’s to 50’s and you’re holding out hope that those boxes and binders of 90’s cards in your basement are going to fund your retirement one day, there’s no eloquent way of putting it. You’re screwed.
The 2000’s – Creating Scarcity
Toward the end of the 90’s, card manufacturers made more of a commitment to creating subsets and limited-run “chase cards” or “inserts” – things like holograms, certified player autographs, refractors, die-cuts and more. These cards would be randomly inserted into packs at varying intervals, with the odds of finding one ranging from 1:2 packs to 1:12 packs to 1:36 packs to 1:1 case, and everywhere in between. It wasn’t uncommon for a pack of cards to cost a few dollars vs. a few quarters. Scarcity is associated with prestige and prestige is associated with higher cost.
This trend only got stronger with the new millennium. Serious card collecting in the 2000’s has literally been redefined as Insert Card collecting. Base cards still exist, but are all but castaways or pass-downs to amateur collectors who care more about the player on the card and less about what it’ll be worth one day. In addition to the types of cards being produced, the 2000’s introduced and mainstreamed four other game-changing elements that began to redefine the marketplace:
1) eBay. Though launched in the mid-90’s, eBay redefined the card collecting market in the 2000’s. Prior to eBay, collectors primarily turned to Beckett pricing guides to check the high and low values of their cards, but the prices were only as current as their publication dates and it wasn’t always decipherable to know what was driving the prices. eBay came along and created a real-time marketplace for collectors to 1) find buyers, and 2) determine the true market values for their cards. Not only did collectors have vast opportunities to find cards they sought, but they also had a simple way to get rid of the ones they didn’t. eBay became the Stock Exchange for the card market, which unfortunately and with few exceptions, also meant the end of baseball card shops.
2) Graded Cards. One way to create scarcity is to change the conditions of the cards themselves. This isn’t anything new – everyone can tell the difference between a card with crisp edges, clean corners and perfect centering to one that lacks these characteristics, but the determination of the impact of each of characteristic was always subjective. Who was to say if a card was really, truly, in mint condition? The aforementioned Beckett and Professional Sports Authenticator (PSA), that’s who.
For a fee, collectors can now send in their cards to a professional grader at one of these companies who will analyze a card’s Centering, Edges, Corners and Surface to generate a composite grade on a 10 scale. The card is then encased in hard plastic, cataloged, and shipped back to it’s owner. It stands to reason that fewer mint cards survive over time, so those that do are rewarded with higher values from collectors. As long as a mint card remains encased by it’s grader, it’s condition remains guaranteed (although there’s conflicting opinions about what that actually means. See the notorious Honus Wagner T206 case). These grading companies can also inspect and grade a player’s autograph – whether it was pulled-certified from a pack, or was obtained in person. It’s worth noting that as far as collector value goes, a pack-pulled autograph is almost always worth more than the sentimental one that was received in person. When it comes to dollar value, collectors don’t reward sentimentality. They want certification.
3) Serial-Numbered Cards. Placing a manufacturer-certified serial number on a card exposes the collector to the true print run of the card. In most cases, serial numbers are absent on base cards and are almost always present on inserts. Serial numbers can range in the thousands or be limited down to true 1 of 1’s, meaning it’s entirely possible for collectors to seek out exclusive, one of a kind cards from manufacturers.
4) Hobby vs. Retail. Card manufacturers needed a way to cater to both purists who were willing to spend more for limited-run cards and to kids and novices who wanted to buy a pack of cards for a buck or two, with less regard for the investment, so card companies began to produce a different level of card for each market. Certified “hobby” shops that managed to survive the eBay invasion would have exclusive access to purchase and sell limited, higher-end, unique product that couldn’t be distributed by large chain retail giants like Target and Walmart. This hobby/retail distribution format is in full effect today, and many consider it to be the primary reason baseball cards have made a resurgence.
2014: Call It A Comeback
Sorry LL, cards are back and in grand fashion. If you’ve been out of the game for a while, it would be well worth your time to take a second look. To say they’ve come a long way is a massive understatement. About the only thing they still have in common with the past is their width/height dimensions.
Strangely, it’s the depth of the card that makes it immediately possible for one to differentiate between cards of today and cards of past decades. That’s because manufacturers are stuffing them with certified game-used pieces of anything from jerseys, to bats, to mitts, to batting gloves, and everything in between. If a player’s equipment can be salvaged and certified by a card company, you can bet it will find it’s way into a card. Certified autographs are the norm now and in hobby-distributed releases, might show up in every pack, while in retail varieties, will be limited to one in several packs or boxes…if you’re lucky.
Some cards literally come with technology now. In 2011, card manufacturer, Panini (formerly, Donruss), introduced the industry’s first video training card. Say what? It gets even crazier. If the player featured in the video happened to also autograph the card, the footage might include the athlete actually signing and inscribing it.
Today, the biggest barrier in the way of collectors hopping back aboard the card wagon they once rode is price. It’s not uncommon to have to shell out $100 or more for a Hobby box … or even a single pack. Moreover, a pack might contain as little as one card, but there is hope for pricing relief thanks to innovative collectors, and this comes in the form of Web-televised “Group Breaks”.
Group breaks are essentially this: Someone buys a certain volume of packs or boxes and resells them by breaking them up to other collectors in a group, creating a cost-share model in card collecting. For example, a breaker might buy a case of unopened boxes and sell them to a group of collectors, broken down by team. Prior to “breaking the cards”, the breaker will often post a list of all the teams in Major League Baseball on eBay and have bidders bid for the teams they want in the break. When the eBay auctions end, the collector with the highest bid on a given team “wins” that team’s cards and joins the break. Here’s the best part: Serious breakers will live-stream the breaks on various Web-casting sites like Ustream or VaughnLive so the winning bidders can tune in and watch the cards being pulled in real time. At the conclusion of the break, the cards are then shipped out to the owners of each team. The advantage? Collect only the teams you care about. The disadvantage? There’s no guarantee your team will come up in a break, especially when higher-end boxes might contain only a handful of cards or less.
There are several breakers offering this option on eBay and I’ve participated in live breaks with a lot of them, but I strongly recommend settling in with the creme de la cardboard of group breakers, and that’s Ohio-based, Bomber Breaks. Chris and Kevin have managed to create a full-fledged, highly-entertaining, online, group break powerhouse. From rockin’ music, to a stage set with “guest breakers” (cards from the past that feature oddball player poses), to Will Ferrell-as-Harry Caray impressions, to Darwin’s Fox, rubber spiders and beyond, Chris keeps the breaks flowing and laughs going while Kevin manages the room and break outcomes like a master craps dealer paying out to a full table. And if you’re unable to watch a live break that you purchased a spot in, don’t fret. All breaks are recorded and uploaded for viewing on their YouTube channel the next day, just like this 20 box Spring Training Mixer, assembled to commemorate the beginning of the 2014 baseball season (check the 32:45 and 47:53 marks for some CactusLeaguers shout-outs).
We had the pleasure of doing some joint promotional work with the Bomber guys while at Spring Training a couple weeks back. If you had the chance to meet us in Arizona, you’re likely well-aware of this! We were the guys plastering packs of cards at stadiums from Scottsdale to Goodyear and everywhere in between. Chris and Kevin were even trusting enough to send their trademark Harry Caray patch down for us to go all Flat Stanley with (see pics below).
Cards are back in a big, big way. For an inexpensive method back in to a hobby that literally offers you a piece of baseball history, I strongly suggest following the guys from Bomber Breaks and getting in on one their big hit breaks. When you do, say hello to The Fox for me and tell em’ the Jazzman sent ya.
- eBay Store ID: BomberSCC
- YouTube Channel: Bomber Sports Cards
- Twitter: @bomberbreaks
- Facebook: Bomber Sports Cards & Collectibles
- Email updates: BomberSportsCards@gmail.com