Baseball Card Collecting History Now and Then

It’s inevitable- whenever you have a discussion with family and friends about baseball cards, the conversation will eventually take on a decidedly nostalgic tone. It’s a nearly universal response, nostalgia when it comes to seeing or hearing about baseball cards.

It’s a large part of the hobby’s appeal, as we all have those pleasant lucid memories that we’ll never forget- the first time we bought a single card or pack of unopened cards. I still remember opening my first wax pack, of Topps 1985. In 2019, the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum in Cooperstown, New York opened a special temporary exhibition on baseball cards, and what I witnessed and experienced definitely left a strong impression on me.

baseball card collecting

The 700 square feet exhibit, entitled “Shoebox Treasures,” covered the history, design, and production of cards. It also focused on the 1980s boom that took a simple child’s hobby and remade it into a multi-billion dollar industry, as well as the highs and lows that turned many collectors into investors.

Let’s take a look at where we are right now in the hobby/industry, how we got there, and where we might be beheaded.

Baseball Card Collecting: The Origins

The first truly recognized set of baseball cards, as we know them, emerged in the 1880s. They came in packs of cigarettes, with the intention of helping to keep the packet vertically upright, and trying to create more interest in the sale of tobacco products. The N167 set, created by Goodwin Tobacco company, featured a dozen cards of New York Giants players, in an effort to help promote the Old Judge line of cigarettes. Up to and then through the turn of the 19th century, baseball cards and tobacco products were basically synonymous with one another.

This indirectly led to the first of the so-called Holy Grail baseball cards, offerings so rare, unique and special that they earned themselves their own spot in the Shoebox Treasures exhibit. We speak of course of the über-scarce 1909-11 T206 Honus Wagner. The museum has one of the nicest copies in existence among its collection.

Arizona Diamondbacks Owner Earl G. “Ken” Kendrick Jr. owns one of the most expensive baseball card collections in the entire world, and his stash includes a copy of the Wagner, which he paid more than $3 million for. Ken’s donations and loans helped make this exhibit, perhaps the best in the world on the topic, possible.

The Wagner was issued by the American Tobacco Company from 1909 to 1911 as part of the T206 series. The more romanticized notion of why so few were ever produced claims that Wagner stopped production of his baseball card early on because he didn’t want children buying cigarettes just for the purpose of getting his card. The more pragmatic and practical narrative says that Wagner simply wanted more compensation from the ATC. We can’t for certain which of these competing theories are true, or perhaps that maybe both could be true in some capacity.

One of the best players of his day, and of all-time for that matter, it’s possible that Wagner felt he deserved a bigger cut than other players for usage of his likeness, and production ended with a total of only 50-200 cards (the exact number is not known, but whatever it was, the number in existence today has diminished over the years) Wagner cards ever distributed to the public.  For all the other players in the T206 series of cards, which was distributed over three years in sixteen different brands of cigarettes, the reproduction of their likenesses reached into the tens or even hundreds of thousands of copies.

The Wagner has been purchased by such sports luminaries as Wayne Gretzky and Bruce McNall (in 1991 for $451,000), with one copy selling for north of $3,000,000 in 2016.

Top-Investment: Wayne Gretzky Rookie Cards

Eventually, baseball cards partnered with chewing gum (or sometimes Cracker Jack) instead of cigarettes, and during the years in between the World Wars, this became the norm. It wasn’t long until the gum took a backseat to the cards, and then after that, the cards became a stand-alone product in themselves.

Baseball Card Collecting: The Topps Monopoly

Getting back to the memory of opening your first ever wax pack, oftentimes, the back bookend of the card came with a stain on it, from having been wedged against the chewing gum inside. Not exactly what you want if you’re looking for a mint condition grade.

Topps took off as a brand in 1952, and the Mickey Mantle card in that set is our next Holy Grail card. Currently, it has the honor of being tied for the most expensive card of all time. A whopping $5.2 million was paid for a 1952 Topps Mickey Mantle PSA 9 in January 2021 by actor and entrepreneur, Rob Gough. As Topps developed and evolved, rookie cards became the most sought-after and valuable commodity in the baseball card world.

But not far behind were Topps iconic All-Star Rookie Cards. Quoting Trading Card Database:

“Since 1959, Topps has selected players for their annual All-Star Rookie Team. It usually consists of C, 1B, 2B, 3B, SS, 3 OF, LHP, RHP. In 2010 they added an RP, and in 2018 they added a DH. Topps would then put the trophy symbol on that player’s card the following year. (ex- the 1959 players had it on their 1960 card). In 1974 and again in 1979 thru 1986, All-Star Rookies were selected, but the trophy cup was left off.”

In the ’70s Topps shifted from a large trophy featuring a figurine to a bowl on the cardboard, but for a long time, these were the gold standard for baseball cards. The Topps All-Star rookies, or as we called them back in the day “cup cards,” were the first example of some eye-catching bells and whistles, so to speak, which would later become the norm in baseball cards, and only got seriously ramped up in future decades.

Topps experimented with their rookie cards, putting two, three, or sometimes even four different players on the same card. When it comes to MLB prospects, it’s like buying growth stocks- always a crapshoot. Obviously, some do hit, but most really miss. The idea of seeing not one, but two Hall of Famers on the same rookie card truly defies very long odds.

That’s what we have in our next Holy Grail card, 1978 Topps #707 American League Rookie Shortstops, which features two Cooperstown enshrinees in Paul Molitor and Alan Trammel. Joining them on the card is U.L. Washington, who did have a decent career himself, and Mickey Klutts, who also played a few years in the show.

It wasn’t long until everyone got their own rookie card, however.

The Explosion, Golden Age, and Subsequent Overexpansion

It took a victorious lawsuit for this to actually happen, but finally, in 1981, Donruss and Fleer were able to enter the marketplace and compete with Topps. In 1986, Sportflics (Major League Marketing) entered the market as the fourth fully licensed card producer, followed by Score in 1988, and then Upper Deck in 1989.

The last one we mentioned was the major game-changer, as they were the very first “premium” or upscale line. Packs of Upper Deck were the first to sell for over $1 per pop. They also mainstreamed the use of holograms, which, in addition to being eye-catching, helped thwart potential counterfeiters. UD announced their arrival with authority, as their very first card is the next one up in our Holy Grail.

The 1989 Upper Deck #1 Ken Griffey Jr. Star Rookie is as eye-catching a card as you’ll ever see. If you watched the Junior quasi-documentary on MLB Network, then you might have recalled pop performer and Seattle Mariners superfan Macklemore mentioning this card and just how much it helped him discover all the hype about Junior. His description of the card was spot on too.

You have to love how the gold chain Griffey is wearing matches the Star logo in the bottom right corner. His million-dollar smile says to the world “yes, I really will live up to the hype and become The Next Big Thing.” At the time, Griffey was about as highly rated a baseball prospect as we had ever seen, but he still hadn’t played anything close to a full Major League season by that point. Upper Deck took a gamble, and it paid off well.

After Upper Deck, all the other brands created upscale lines in order to compete with them. Donruss created Leaf, Fleer produced Ultra, Topps introduced Stadium Club and Score produced Pinnacle.

Now the arms race was fully on. In 1993, the card companies saw the “premium” genre and raised it to the “super-premium” genre. Fleer debuted its “Flair” set and Topps launched the “Topps Finest,” the first set to utilize “refractors,” an endeavor that utilized a reflective foil technology that gave the card a shiny “rainbow” appearance. This was the next ground-breaking innovation to the appearance of baseball cards.

The 1980s, the period which saw the greatest growth in the number of collectors and hobbyists, was also the golden era for misprint and/or error cards. And the mother of all error cards is, naturally, the 1989 Fleer #616, Billy Ripken, with “F*** FACE” written on the bat handle.

Once an individual becomes synonymous with something specific in life, and it’s something that’s innocent enough (or in this case, well not utterly deplorable), well it’s best to just lean into it. Billy (obviously) is not the Ripken who is first and foremost in the baseball annals, but he does have this error card, something Cal does not.

Apparently, the bat handle gaffe all came about because he was getting pranked by teammates. Several versions of this error card (but really, how can you call this an “error” given its unique hilarity and timelessness) exist, including one with a black box over the naughty word, another with a whiteout, a scribble, a marker loop, and so on.

Ripken has said in interviews that he gave one of these cards to every single groomsman in his wedding party. In other words, he appreciated the novelty of this card as much, if not more than the rest of us. It was in the mid-late 1980s that baseball cards made the leap from hobby to investment practice, but during the mid-90s a market correction came along and shocked the entire system.

The Watered Down Market and Course Correction 

In 1984, two new monthly price guides came on the scene: Tuff Stuff and Beckett Baseball Card Monthly. The latter, published by Dr. James Beckett, tracked the approximate market value of several types of trading cards. It is not hyperbolic to say that this guide became the bible to sports card hobbyists.

It was so big that even the early editions of the magazine itself became valuable collectibles. Through Beckett, one was able to easily and directly chart the rise, fall and later the rebound of the market. As we previously said, the early 1990s saw an arms race in the industry, and in the late 1990s, the fallout from that transpired.

New companies came along and created premium brands and then super premium brands on top of those. You simply had too rapid a proliferation, especially considering what was about to happen regarding the labor negotiations aspect of American professional sports. In 1994, we had the first World Series cancellation since 1904, as it was part of the nearly a thousand Major League games canceled due to the players’ strike. Over the course of 1994-95, we also saw labor stoppages in both the NBA and the NHL.

This drove away large numbers of fans, in all three sports, and it would take several years to recover from all these adverse effects. With the work stoppages coming at a time when card production had just grossly over-expanded, it was only natural that the bursting of a bubble followed. Demand diminished at a time that had just seen supply greatly increase.

All the while production costs were increasing too. The arms race of producing further upscale brands led to more companies having to add expensive bells and whistles to their cards. Licensing fees increased and individual players became bigger human brands, making the process of obtaining their likenesses more expensive and complicated.

Pinnacle brands folded in 1998. Pacific, which acquired full licensing in 1994, went out of business in 2001. In 2005, Fleer went bankrupt and eventually got taken over by Upper Deck. Donruss lost the MLB license in 2006.

Then the MLBPA limited the number of companies who would legally be able to produce baseball cards, in an attempt to counteract the tremendous glut present within the industry.

This led to a consolidation of companies and products across the market, and as it stands today, only two companies have MLB/MLBPA production licenses: Topps and Upper Deck. Topps also produces products under the Bowman brand name and Upper Deck does the same with Fleer. Topps is also the only company that continues to produce pre-collated factory sets of cards to this day.

The Glourious Comeback

A lot of lessons were learned, the hard way, from the era of over-expansion and watered-down products. All those rookie cards from the late 1980s and early 1990s that were worth so much back then can be had on eBay these days for chump change.

The explosion of the commercial internet became the hobby’s saving grace in the late 1990s. eBay was as much of a boon to card collecting as the lockouts and strike had been a hindrance. Brick-and-mortar card dealers that were able to make the transition to online-only thrived, as they were able to greatly reduce their overhead, and thus increase profit. This was the era in which the industry itself moved mostly online.

The efficiency and speed of the world wide web was a game-changer. In 2012, Topps created the Topps Bunt digital trading card app, which has since gained over 2 million users in more than 50 different countries.

Card companies counteracted the problem of glut by manufacturing scarcity. In limiting their print runs, the card companies made sure they weren’t flooding the market anymore. At the same time, those bells and whistles we spoke about before really reached another level; or two.

Starting in 1997 with Upper Deck, companies began inserting cards that contained threads from uniforms and pieces of game-used baseball equipment. It was more than just refractors, holograms and colored foil technology now as card companies obtained all manner of memorabilia, from bats, gloves, caps, and even defunct stadium seats to make sure they stood out from the herd. Other cards added real autographs, replacing the reprint of player signatures that had been common on cards for decades.

The Diamond Legacy Michael Jordan card was even embroidered with six diamonds on the card. The luxury line aspect of the hobby had now reached another plane of existence. Once again, the hobby became investment material as the right and rare card, in the correct condition, would reach a very high level in value.

The Present and Future 

The 2020s saw a revolution in investing, and the baseball card industry made sure to change with the times. NFTs (Non-Fungible Tokens) and cryptocurrencies took off as usage in investing/brokerage apps surged. This attracted mass numbers of generation Zs and Millenials into all sorts of speculative activities. Sports cards evolved for the digital and blockchain technology age, and today it is big business, to say the least.

Topps, led by former Disney CEO Michael Eisner, saw their net sales rise 23% in 2020 to the level of $567 million, a record high for the company. In early 2021, Topps finally went public via a merger with Mudrick Capital Acquisition Corporation II, which increased Topps valuation to $1.3 billion.

Mudrick Capital invested an additional $250 million in the SPAC deal that made publicly traded shares in Topps finally become a reality. “This is the icing on the cake, going digital completely, with the analog still in place,” Eisner said of the deal.

While the corporate side is seeing off-the-charts growth, there is also a surge on the collector side, at least for a small number of elites. The years 2020-21 saw 15 different individual cards sell for over one million dollars at an auction. The aforementioned 1952 Mickey Mantle sold for $5.2m this past January, a mark tied by the 2003 Lebron James Upper Deck Exquisite Collection Rookie Patch Autographs #78 Serial numbered #07/23 on April 26, 2021.

The most expensive basketball card of all time, it is followed by the 2018 Luka Doncic Panini National Treasures 1 of 1 Logoman Autograph Serial numbered #1/1, which saw a final hammer price of $4.6m.

Of course, a lot of people still use the phrase “baseball cards” to encompass all sports cards, because baseball cards came along far ahead of the cards for other sports, and it is baseball cards that still resonate the most in our American pop culture.

The idea of baseball being “the national pastime” would have never gained any traction if not for baseball cards.

Elder generations remember placing baseball cards in between their bicycle wheel spokes as children or stashing the little pieces of cardboard away in a shoebox. (Practices that any serious collector or card condition grader shudders to think about today).

“For so many fans, including myself, learning to love the game came directly from our fascination with baseball cards,” said Jeff Idelson, President of the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum as the baseball card exhibition was set to open.

“Shoebox Treasures transports us back to the thrilling days of opening packs of cards, looking for our favorite players, devouring the gum, and absorbing every morsel of information on them. It’s an exhibit that tells the story behind one of the most effective marketing campaigns ever conceived.”

Trending: 5 Times Baseball Cards Worth Millions Found In Homes

That is a big part of the appeal of baseball cards right there- opening the pack and seeing what you might get. It’s like being a child and opening your presents on Christmas morning- the surprises await. Sportscard trading itself is speculation, like playing the stock market, or gambling, there is always a level of valuation that can be won or lost, but it’s not real until you buy or sell.

And it’s this thrill that always keeps us coming back to the world of baseball card collecting, more than a century after it first took root.

Paul M. Banks runs The Sports Bank.

Banks, the author of Transatlantic Passage: How the English Premier League Redefined Soccer in America andNo, I Can’t Get You Free Tickets: Lessons Learned From a Life in the Sports Media Industry,” has regularly appeared in Sports Illustrated and the  Chicago Tribune.

He owns and operates the Sports Bank and co-hosts the "Let's Get Weird, Sports" podcast on the SB Nation/Vox Media network. He also appears regularly on WGN television, and on numerous sports talk radio programs across the country. He is a former regular contributor to Chicago Tribune.com, NBC Chicago.com, and the Washington Times.com. Paul M. Banks author of two books: "Transatlantic Passage: How the English Premier League Redefined Soccer in America" and "No, I Can't Get You Free Tickets: Lessons Learned From a Life in the Sports Media Industry."

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