March 9, 2004

Cashing In on Baseball Cards

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I arrived home for winter break to find a wealth of junk on the floor of my bedroom, and was promptly given the fun task of putting everything away. Needless to say, I wasn’t very pleased at this prospect, and after procrastinating for about three weeks, I started to sift through the piles that covered my entire floor.

However, on more careful inspection of the “junk,” I found piles and boxes of baseball cards. It seems my dad needed to empty some cabinets so that he could move them in order to replace a window in my room, in the process disturbing my retirement portfolio.

I’m sure many of you have a similar drawer or cabinet at home. It contains the sum total of your card-collecting career, and you put everything away to let it sit for 20 or 30 years. Somewhere down the line, you hoped that your collection would grow so much in value that you could sell the contents for a million dollars or some other ridiculous figure.

I too had this idea, and having to store my collection away again, I got the chance to take a trip down memory lane.

The mind of a seven-year old has a very narrow track, it usually focuses on one or two things, in my case, baseball cards. As kids, we had all heard about the 1952 Mickey Mantle rookie card, and how it was worth $50,000, and we cursed at how stupid our parents were for throwing away such valuable collectibles when they were kids. We vowed not to repeat those mistakes, and so, we kept every card we could get our hands on.

And it wasn’t just cards. Somehow, I got the idea into my head that the card wrappers could also be worth something. Seeing old card wrappers at Cooperstown made me more sure that wrappers were valuable enough to save, so I stuffed them in the plastic binder pages along with the rest of the cards.

(Oh man, this wrapper could be worth like $1,000 someday, I’d better save it!)

There were several brands of cards to choose from, each ranging in appeal and value, and at the bottom was Topps. Made of flimsy cardboard, a pack of Topps cards was not worth your $2.00. In the middle you had Donruss and Fleer, a little more respectable, but they did not come close to Upper Deck. There was probably no card more valued than the 1989 Upper Deck Ken Griffey Jr. rookie card, and it was worth it to buy the entire set just to get this one card.

Then came the deluge.

The card brands began expanding and pumping out new sets by adding words like elite or premium to the set name. First on the scene was Fleer Ultra. These premium cards were extra glossy and extremely valued by anyone and everyone. My friend Dave, whom I often traded cards with, would not trade me a single Fleer Ultra card, even from a very bad player.

“Hey Dave, I’ll trade you this Ken Griffey Jr. for that Kenny Greer card.”

“No way, that’s a Fleer Ultra card.”

“But Greer is terrible, I’m practically giving you this Griffey card for free.”

“Still, this Fleer Ultra card is still more valuable, plus it’s so shiny!”

New sets kept coming as fast as ever. There was the Upper Deck Fun Deck, which I bought more packs then I should have. These cards were “funner,” then other cards, and while they were worth much less, the set had new concept cards, like scratch-off games and mascot cards.

Eventually, the baseball cards were abandoned, left to sit in the cabinet for years, gaining value every day. Unfortunately, that day will never come.

Reading ESPN the Magazine last week, I stumbled upon a brief column on the current state of the baseball card industry, and how there are 43 different Ichiro rookie cards out there. Apparently, the sports card industry decided that to generate more sales, they should pump out more sets. According to the column, there were 87 sets produced by four cardmakers in 2003.

87!!! We went from one Topps set to 87 different sets pretty quickly. That glut has made collecting cards as good as an investment as collecting toilet paper (This brand has ruffles, that’s worth something).

To give you an example of this, I will share with you the last baseball card trade I made. While on the tennis team in high school, I gave one of my teammates a shock absorber for his racquet. He was very grateful for this, and in return, he gave me a Derek Jeter rookie card. A Derek Jeter rookie card for a $1.00 piece of rubber? That sounds like the steal of the century, but alas, that shock absorber is probably more valuable.

Also, somewhere along the line, the card manufacturers decided to give you less cards per pack, and charge double the price. Shopping at Target last spring, I came across some hockey cards and just had to buy a few packs (They were at the checkout aisle, how could I resist the allure?). $3.50 later, I have my pack, which contains not one, not two, not three, but four whole cards! Wow, what a deal! I used to pay $2.00 for 15 cards, but these new cards are so much more valuable. I mean, I could get a jersey-swatch card or an autographed card, that’s totally worth the extra money.

With my card collecting days over, I will sit back with my Barry Bonds rookie card (purchased for only $10, what a steal) and watch as my other cards continue to devalue towards the brink of worthlessness. Maybe sometime down the road, there will be a huge paper shortage, and I can sell my collection for double its weight in gold. Until then, I’ll have to invest my money in something more economical, like a 40-year CD.

Archived article by Jonathan Auerbach