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Thursday, February 12, 2009


I've been collecting cards since 1981. That's a lot of years of collecting. That's more years than I'd really like to think about. In that time the hobby has had quite a few major shifts in ideas about the value of cards. Ten years before I collected, baseball cards were something children played with, forgot about when they became teens and got thrown out by mom when the kid left the house. When I started collecting, price guides were just beginning to be taken seriously and two new manufacturers popped up on the scene after a long court battle. Baseball cards began to be actually worth something. Exactly what they are worth has swung wildly in they years since then. Before I get into what cards might be worth something in 10 years, let me show off some of the cards I've picked up since 1981 and look at how they are valued today.

When I started collecting I got cards pretty much exclusively from Matthews supermarket, a little mom & pop grocery store my grandparents went to because they had an excellent butcher. Soon I was picking up cards at flea markets, antique stores and finally a card shop. The concept of 'rookie cards' was just starting to take hold, stars were really the big thing. I didn't have the money to get big stars though, so I went for quantity rather than quality. I'd buy these bricks of 50-100 cards from Atlanta Sports cards of older stuff from the '60s and '70s. I got a lot of '76 cards for some reason even though they weren't really my favorites when I come to think of it. I guess nobody else liked 'em either, that's why they were so cheap! This Eck rookie card here came in one of those bricks. Remember, this was back when he was a Cub, not an A. He was a legit common. The card isn't a common any more, but it's not going to pay off my bills either. It's a nice card to have though and I'm also happy with all those other commons I got instead of buying one big star card.

Once rookie cards got hot, they got really hot. Crazy hot. The genius behind dealers pushing rookie cards as inherently more valuable than boring old star cards is that they could not only boost the value of their older rookie cards, but they had a whole batch of new ones to hype every year! The old rookie cards were set, you knew that the 1969 Reggie Jackson rookie was going to sell for more than that '69 Andy Messersmith. The new ones had no preconceptions at all about them! You could sell them ALL as if they were the next Hall of Famer, and sell them they did. Back in 1986, Andres Thomas was a hot shortstop prospect for the Braves. Apparently we hadn't learned our lessons with Brad Komminsk and Craig McMurtry. I was a Braves fan though so I wanted a card of the new shortstop. Here was the problem: people started looking as cards as an investment. So not only could the rookie card of that prospect one day make you rich, if you bought a whole bunch of them at once you could become REALLY rich! So this is how I ended up buying not one Andres Thomas Fleer Update rookie card at an artificially inflated price but ten of them. The shop wouldn't sell me just one. I was able to flip the other nine after Andres' Hall of Fame induction though and I used the money to buy a villa in the Alps.

The weird thing about the '80s is while all these segments of collecting were being horrifically over hyped, there were others that were completely ignored. Baseball cards would make you rich. Football cards were for serious collectors who wanted to keep in game shape over the offseason. ET and Michael Jackson cards were like the gateway drug to lure little children into the hobby so they could one day become serious investors in baseball cards. Basketball cards? Well, those were obviously worthless. I mean, who the hell collects basketball cards. Yeah, Magic and Bird and whatnot and the slam dunk contest was cool, but no one would really want to collect basketball cards. Nobody's even made them in 5 or 6 years. Nah, they're worthless. Don't waste your money on those. You see, here's the thing about investing. Buy low, sell high. In 1987 basketball cards were literally worthless. Take this card up here, I bought it in a pack for 35 cents. That's about 2 cents for the card. In 1987, the conventional wisdom was that I vastly overpaid.

Around 1988-89 boring old base products just weren't satisfying anyone anymore. Collectors wanted new and interesting stuff for their investment portfolio. In '88 Score came out with a seriously high end set. Better card stock, color on both sides of the card, a picture on the back, crazy stuff. Upper Deck upped the ante in 1989 with holograms and space age card stock and a big ol' price tag. That's super premium, baby! I didn't fall for that nonsense. A dollar twenty-five a pack? You must be crazy! I can get three packs of Topps for that. Absurd. I plunked down a buck a pack for Topps Big though. Now that was going to be valuable! It's the same size as the original Topps cards from the '50s and those are valuable! Upper Deck, that's a flash in the pan. Total junk. No one will buy cards for $1.25 a pack.

Well, in the five years from 1989 to 1993, things went a little, how should I put it... higglety pigglety? Packs costing a dollar became the norm. The good packs cost three. Or five. Or more. But they had cards that were shiny in them. Insert cards. Not boring ol' base cards but ones that are rare. Like this Frank Thomas worship insert set from 1993 Leaf. Big Hurt was one of my favorite players back in '93 and I ended up trading something very good for a big pile of Leaf inserts. I mean really good. As in, if I told you what I traded someone would literally smack me. They'd get in their car, drive to my house, ask if I was the Dave Campbell who traded X for a bunch of 1993 Leaf inserts cards and when I said yes they would just smack the hell out of me. And guess what? At the time I was positive that I had just totally ripped off that dude. It's freaking Frank Thomas, man!

So the Frank Thomas inserts didn't quite hold their value. They were a casualty of the '90s insert Arms Race. Each year the manufacturers had to top themselves and things got pretty wacky. Pretty soon a glossy set of an MVP with a big holofoil stamp on them was pretty dang boring, to tell the truth. There were base sets that looked like that! This Albert Belle card here was the very first numbered insert I ever pulled from a pack. I got it from a card shop in Tucker, GA. The owner had been collecting for years and was completely jaded by the industry by this point. He'd pretty much openly mock his customers for some of the crap they'd buy, but he'd at least do it with a friendly wink. I pulled this in front of him and even he was impressed. This was numbered 20/2500 and that stamp on the bottom left corner? Gold leaf. He didn't normally buy cards from customers, but he offered me a sale or trade right there on the spot. He didn't like Albert Belle, but he wanted a numbered card like that to show off at the store. I think the card booked for about $60 or so. I turned him down. It was my first numbered card.

Speaking of firsts, this is my first jersey card. I got it at the Target in Athens, GA when I was in college. I was big into hockey at the time due to the EA video games. Man I played a lot of EA hockey in college. I was looking over the hockey cards in the card aisle and I found a pack of Upper Deck that was lumpy. What the heck is up with a lumpy pack of cards? I figured it was one of those slivers of the stuff that gets trimmed off the edges of the card that ends up sneaking into a pack every so often and got it and a few other packs of UD hockey. Later I opened the pack. A little later after that I regained consciousness. Mark friggin' Messier! There's a piece of his damn jersey on this card!! In hockey a jersey is referred to as a sweater, but Upper Deck didn't care. A couple of years after I pulled it I was at a shop that sold hockey cards at the Venture outlet mall off of Steve Reynolds in Gwinnett. I got to talking with the owner and he know of a lady who was absolutely insane over Messier and wanted to see if she would buy it. I said sure I'll sell it, but I want full book. It was $160 back then. She wouldn't pay full book but offered $100. I liked the card and I didn't really need the money so I held onto it. I have no idea what it books for now, but it's still a freaking sweet card.

After Upper Deck started inserting game used stuff in cards, normal inserts were doomed and the memorabilia craze kicked in. Before I get into that, I'm going to take a quick detour into graded cards. Now, the thing with graded cards is it's all about added value. Yeah, the card is good on it's own, but when you get it graded, there's a host of things that make the card even better. For one, you're having a certified professional card expert authenticate the card, and assign it an industry standard condition grade. There's no eyeballing the card, there's no fudging the condition to make the card look better than it is, that card is now that assigned grade period. No more guesswork. Also, it is now encased in a hard plastic shell that protects the card and keeps it away from damaging dust, grease and clumsy dings. Each card is numbered and placed in a database so you can see how your card compares to other cards that were graded. You could potentially have the only one in existence with a certain grade! Also you can register your collection and compare it with others to see who has the highest ranking! The card is now authenticated, protected, graded, serial numbered, cataloged, and given added value all for a nominal fee. How could having a valuable card graded possibly go wrong?

Once manufacturers figured out that people loved jersey cards, they started embedding whatever they could into cardboard. Some things were a big hit, like those multicolored patches that manufacturers had left over from the jerseys they had already cut up. Some things like game used base cards didn't go over quite as well. Short of a jock strap though, if it was used in a game, they tried to put it on a card. This card here I picked up from a Yahoo! auction back in 2000-2001. Jamal was my favorite Dirty Bird (sadly he got a bit too dirty recently) and when I saw this card with a piece of a ball with stitching holes and part of the W in Wilson on it I went nuts. Not only did I spend the second highest amount I had ever paid for a card when I won this auction, the seller was located in the Philippines of all places and I risked sending a money order overseas to the guy as payment. Risk is the operative word, because after I received the card I started getting e-mails from other people who won his auctions asking if I knew how to contact the guy. He sort of fell off the face of the earth right after I got my card. So what is a nine year old card from a low-level set of a retired running back who played for a second rate NFL franchise with a chunk of a football glued to it worth? I dunno, you tell me...

Now when I said the card companies started putting anything on a card, I did mean anything. Those celebrity hair cards and dino fossil cards and postage stamp cards didn't just magically appear last year. They've been putting crazy stuff on and in cards for years. I used to collect coins and I do collect cards, so this set here was perfect! Too bad the cards were insanely expensive back when they first came out. Have you noticed a trend here? How cards get a whole lot of hype and are really expensive when they are first released? I wanted the cards with the silver dimes and quarters and stuff (heck I would have loved a nickel) but all I could scrounge up with was this McCovey with a 1959 penny. It's not even a wheat cent. I wonder what those cards go for now...

Now don't think that while all this insert madness was going on, rookie cards went out of vogue, oh no. People still loved the rookies, it's just that they didn't quite have that same oomph they used to have. Short printing to the rescue! Here's how to make a good rookie card. Wait until the very end of the year. Even after the next year's sets start hitting the market. Now figure out all the rookies that haven't had a card in that year's set. Put out an end of the year product with all those rookies in it. That way your card is not only his first but the only card of that player in any of the sets from that year. Bonus points if the player has a rookie card in the next year's base set that got released before your end of year set. Now, just to make absolutely sure that your product gets the hype, short print the only rookie card that player will ever have to 1000 copies. That's the kid's only rookie card so the people have to have it and they have to buy that product to get it. Instant money! As long as the player pans out at least. Now do you see why the Rookie Card rules came about?

Nowadays though it's all about the 'graph. Certified autograph cards used to be the domain of the superstars in the beginning. Then minor league autographs started showing up, then entire sets of autographed cards. When Albert Pujols' Bowman Chrome auto hit, rookie cards became passe. Now it's the autographed rookie that's the good one! Besides, rookies don't charge as much to sign those cards and sticker sheets. Since we're already combining the rookie value with the autographed value, why not kick it up a notch and mix in an insert too. Let's superfract that rookie auto. I prefer the more traditional on card sig though. And besides, Chuckles went 11-4 his rookie year so he's got a bright future ahead of him.

So here we are in 2009. Some of those cards from 10, 20, 30 years ago have increased in value. Some have held. Most have fallen. A lot. The problem with predicting what will be good in 2019 is that pretty much everything today is overproduced - except the stuff that's artificially scarce - and most of the products that come out this year will be one-upped next year. So, how do you go about figuring out the exact thing to BUY, and then to HOLD with all this insanity going on. I'm not exactly certain which specific products, players or individual cards will have the largest increase in value in ten years, but I think I have a pretty good formula to help you determine which ones would be the best bets. Here it is:

Step 1: Find something you LIKE.

Step 2: Determine what you would be WILLING to pay for the card.

Step 3: Purchase the card at a FAIR price that is within your budget.

Step 4: Once in hand, EXAMINE the card and DETERMINE if you actually do like it or not.

Step 5: If you really do like the card, HOLD.

Pretty much no matter what you purchase right now, you'll probably do a lot better off in ten years investing in just about anything else. Follow those five steps though, and you'll at least have a collection that is valuable to you.

I think I'm going to hold onto this card that I bought for 6 bucks:

It's shiny!!!


The sewingmachineguy said...

A great blog entry.

--David said...

Man, what a great entry! As for EA Hockey, man, like you, I played a LOT of EA Hockey. My Dad discovered 'add-ons' and the rest is history - every jersey, every board ad, custom fans in the rink, everything in his games was replaced from factory-standard to true authenticity. It is one of my most cherished memories of Dad. Thanks for helping remember that one.

Joey said...

Outstanding post!! Maybe the best post of the young year so far. I couldn't agree more with the 5 steps. Yea, I've got cards that are worth a few bucks and thats the only reason I have them but the ones that really bring me joy are the "no value" commons that have more meaning than dollars.

G_Moses said...

Very excellent. Truly enjoyed reading this entry.

oldschoolbreaks said...

Great post! I totally agree with you about the steps. The Messier currently "books" for $120.

Groat said...

I'll agree with the others - excellent post. Cards of your favorite players or teams will always be valuable to you, if not to everybody else. While I don't think that there really is a 'wrong' way to collect cards, I believe that collecting for sentimental value rather than monetary value is a more rewarding way to collect.

Jeffrey Wolfe said...

'93 Leaf was and is my favorite set EVAR

aj said...

a great article! as someone who is brand new to card collecting (to the point of not even owning any cards that were purchased post 1990), this is a great primer for what I've missed out on the last decade or two...