The Rise and Fall and Rise Again of Baseball Cards

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Sports cards, and the art of collecting them, are a hobby that goes back almost as far as America’s national pastime itself.

There is something that is so indescribably special about opening a pack of cards and seeing the faces of your heroes that can be hard to describe or put into words.

rise and fall of baseball cards

Generations upon generations of people have shared the enjoyment that a pack of cards can bring and the love for cards has forged many unlikely friendships and relationships.

However, the industry hasn’t always been as strong as it is today, and it is only in more recent years that sports cards have seen a rebound in popularity.

In fact, you would only have to go back a couple of years to find many people writing about the death of sporting cards and the end of an era.

Little did they know that due to new technology sports cards would be as popular as ever today and help a new generation of sports fans fall in love with the hobby. 

 

 The Beginning 

The first collectibles that resembled trading cards were born of a combination of the advancing popularity of both baseball and photography in America.

The first items that resembled modern trading cards were cabinet cards, photos of baseball teams that were named after the fact that they were meant to be placed in cabinets.

These were introduced around the 1860s and were similar to baseball cards today in that they were images of sports teams that were printed onto cardboard. 

There remains an argument as if to these truly qualify as baseball cards as one aspect that many consider crucial in the definition of baseball cards is the commercial aspect.

Part of the definition of baseball cards is that they are an item that is sold as a commercial product and many of the cabinet cards were not made as commodities destined to be sold.


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These cabinet cards were more often made for personal use and a personal keepsake to place in one’s house. For some, this would make them more of an artifact than a baseball card.  

Those people may look to tobacco cards as the first baseball cards, named after the fact that they came with a pack of cigarettes.

The first officially recognized baseball card set is the N167 set created by Goodwin Tobacco, which had twelve New York Giant baseball players pictured.

These cards were placed in the pack of cigarettes to give them some rigidity and as a promotional tactic to sell more cigarettes. 

As we entered the 1900s, more and more tobacco companies were producing these cards. It’s from this era that we see the famous Honus Wagner T206 card that has sold for many millions and been owned by celebrities such as Wayne Gretzky.

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Wagner had his cards pulled from production which resulted in the rarity that created such high prices for these cards today. 

Moving into the 1930s, this was the era where cards were first sold alongside gum in what would become a common way for fans to get their hands on collectibles of their favorite players.     

Topps is a name that is known across all sports memorabilia today, but their brand really took off with their 1952 set.

This set produced another iconic baseball card, the 1952 Mickey Mantle.

The set was designed by a man named Sy Berger and he was eventually inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame for his contributions towards baseball cards.

Only four years later in 1956, Topps would buy-out competitor Bowman and thus began their monopoly on the baseball card industry. 

 

The Golden Age of the 80s and 90s

As the 1980s began, baseball cards were beginning to sell for extremely high prices.

Increasingly being seen as investments rather than collectibles, the consumer base for these cards was beginning to buy in mass amounts and store the cards hoping that years down the line they would hold significant value. 

One reason for this shift in mindset was the production of the monthly magazine Beckett Baseball Card Monthly.

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The magazine would list prices for all baseball cards as well as provide better definitions as to what a card in good condition should look like. 

This helped lead to a standardization of prices and a more establish secondary card economy that would let investors reap the rewards from their patience. 

The monopoly that Topps had held on the market was broken in 1981 when a lawsuit allowed new companies Donruss and Fleer to being producing MLB cards.

This was the first time in 25 years that anyone other than Topps had produced a significant set of baseball cards that pictured the players of the current day.

Both brands had to add something unique to get their cards made and to comply with the regulations Donruss added puzzle pieces to their packs while Fleer added stickers to theirs. 

In 1989 a new company would join the baseball card industry and that was Upper Deck. Their cards were of higher quality and had the Upper Deck holograph to prevent counterfeiters.

Leading off their 1989 set was the Ken Griffey Jr. rookie card that may be the most iconic card ever made and is so special to so many people and a great investment to say the least (check out the photo below to see how the Ken Griffey Jr. 1989 Upper Deck RC vs the S&P 500).

1989 ken griffey jr upper deck vs sp 500

The better-quality Upper Deck cards commanded an increased premium for their packs and sold for $1, the first time a pack of cards had ever reached that high of a price. 

Rookie cards were the most desired and they were traded similarly to stocks.

It was not unusual to see groups of anywhere from 50 to 500 of the exact same card being sold at once. Misprinted cards were also of value as they added a uniqueness that often made them quite rare.

In 1991, the baseball card market hit its peak at 1.2 billion dollars in new card sales. 

Through these decades demand was growing exponentially, and producers were more than ecstatic to fill that demand.

The number of cards being produced was astronomical and while the exact number is unknown most estimates place it at around eighty billion cards a year.

This baseball card economy that had been praised as better use of your money than the stock market was unsustainable, and it was only a matter of time before the bottom fell out. 

 

The Decline of the Industry

Upper Deck’s new prices were received well by consumers and thus production companies kept pushing the limits of price.

New boxes were released, and they cost $100.

Soon more boxes were available many times that.

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Cards were increasingly advertised to older people who had more disposable income and kids, the ones who had traditionally been some of the largest consumers of cards, were being priced out of the market. 

These higher-end products were increasingly becoming the focus for these companies as they could realize higher margins. 

The base sets were produced in such high numbers that it became impossible to find any cards of value in cheaper sets. 

The 1994-95 MLB lockout was the longest in North American professional sports history at the time.

There was no World Series for the first time since 1904 and in total 948 MLB games were canceled. The NBA and NHL had work stoppages that followed and the effect on the sports world was huge. 

This MLB stoppage was the final factor that let the bubble burst.

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Many casual fans were turned off from the MLB and did not resume their fandom when the league returned.

The number of cards available was insane and the base sets no longer held any value.

There was no demand to keep up with the vast supply of cards and many investments that collectors had made into hundreds of rookie cards were all worth close to nothing. 

While before baseball cards had been hyped as an amazing investment opportunity, those who bought cards during this time would be left disappointed.

The 80s and 90s are known today as the era of over-production and the companies that made these cards watered down the supply too such an extent that even the most iconic card, the 1989 Upper Deck Ken Griffey Jr. rookie card, is not worth very much at all ungraded.

1989 Upper Deck Ken Griffey Jr. ROOKIE

Donruss was purchased by Panini in 1996, yet it was only a few years later in 1998 that Panini filed for bankruptcy.

Fleer was purchased by Marvel before eventually being purchased by Upper Deck in 2005.

Today, Topps is the exclusive producer of MLB cards worldwide and pays what is likely a hefty fee to do so. 

 

The Return in Recent Years

In recent years sports cards have seen a revival and one of the largest factors has been the internet.

Sports cards are an appealing product and have great visuals which make them perfect for sharing online.

Social media has helped collectors from around the world collect and share knowledge about different cards while they try to finish their sets. 

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The digital age of cards has also allowed for easier access to rare cards and led to more investors as their desired cards are just a click of a button away.

eBay is filled with thousands of sport card auctions every day that people from around the world can bid on and it has also made selling cards easier.

One activity that has risen in popularity in this digital age of baseball cards is “breaking”.

Breaking works like this: one person has a box of cards and they allow other collectors to purchase the right to receive the cards inside of that box.

For example, if you collected cards from your hometown team you could purchase the rights to all cards pulled from that team from this box that someone else will be opening. 

These breaks are most often live-streamed on the internet and can receive thousands of viewers.

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Breaking is great for people looking for specific cards and has helped the revival of the baseball card industry in the internet age.

Often a live stream will have many more viewers than just the collectors who have purchased into the break as they are a great place to make new friends in the industry and chat cards. 

Not all collectors are fans of breaks. Some feel like it takes away from the thrill of opening a pack and others believe that it hurts and has led to the decline of local card shops.

However, one cannot argue that sport card breaks have been a factor in the renaissance that the industry has had in recent years. 

A new segment of the industry has been created in recent years for ultra-luxury collectors. For example, the 2016 Upper Deck All-Time Greats Master costs $15,000 per box.

While for many it may seem insane to spend that much money on a box of cards, there are collectors that are willing to do it and some of the cards from these sets can go for extremely high prices as well. 

The 2016 Upper Deck All-Time Greats Master set came in a hand-crafted wooden box that was numbered.

The release was limited to 200 boxes and featured players from across all sports that Upper Deck considered being among the greatest of all time.

The Diamond Legacy Michael Jordan card was embroidered with six diamonds on the card.

These very expensive boxes are great candidates for breaks as it helps reduce the cost for one person and instead spreads it out among many. 

On February 4th, 2020, Topps hosted an event called the Million Card Rip Party.

They gathered some of the more popular online breakers and brought them together in AT & T Stadium to collectively open packs that totaled one million cards.

Fans were able to buy into the sets that they were breaking and follow along live on different social media platforms.

Events like this will become more common in the future as they are a great way to bring the community together. 

Furthermore, the creation of online forums and chatrooms have helped like-minded collectors find each other even if they may be separated by thousands of physical miles.

While the number of baseball card stores around the country has decreased, these forums and message boards can bring some of that feeling to the internet. 

The internet will never quite be able to replicate that feeling of physically opening a pack and holding the cards you got.

For that reason, the internet will never be able to replace physical cards, instead of the two aspects of the hobby act together as complementary pieces.

They mesh together to give a new dynamic side to the industry that was needing it desperately. 

While unique cards are all the rage now and card companies have found out how to best use an autograph or piece of jersey to create a visually appealing card, antique cards from before the original golden age of the 80s and 90s have seen an increase in value as collectors return to the hobby in droves.

Nostalgia is a great human emotion and will never disappear, and for that reason, these cards made before the era of overproduction can often bring back old memories for many collectors. 

For those looking to sell parts of their collection or use the cards as investments, grading is an aspect that is a must.

Your cards must be sent off to one of the major grading companies who will closely examine the different aspects of the card before assigning a grade.

While it may be a slight fault on the card that brings the grade slightly down, small changes in grade will result in massive changes in price. 

Unfortunately for collectors, it takes more than just taking good care of a card for it to receive a perfect grade as the printing and entire process from when the card is made until it ends up in the grader’s hands can affect the score it receives.

For example, a card that is printed slightly off-center will take a hit on its grading.

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What the Future Holds? 

The sports card industry has gone through its ups and downs.

What evolved from a hobby to an investment opportunity, to a bubble that eventually burst when overwhelmed by over-production and rising prices has seen a rebirth that has been fueled by the internet and online community. 

The internet has also allowed for card experts to provide their opinion and we are starting to see more collectors approach the hobby from an investment standpoint once again.

Go online and you can find advice on how to approach cards from an investment angle from thousands of people who market themselves as experts.

It’s important to use critical thinking to separate the legitimate ones from the fraudulent ones. 

This time around, card companies will have to be smarter in their production tactics to ensure that the hobby continues, and the secondary market remains robust.

They have seen that the decline of the industry caused many companies to go out of business and they have no desire for that to happen to themselves. 

Social media will likely only continue to grow in the sports card industry as it’s a great way to show off products and meet other collectors.

However, it’s not all good news as online allowing for increased anonymity for those attempting to sell counterfeit cards or scam in other ways. 

The card industry has bounced back in a big way and collectors everywhere are thankful.

The internet has breathed new life into the hobby and what at one point seemed like a dying activity will now be able to be enjoyed by many more generations.

The joy that cards bring and the special relationships that it creates are something that would be very sad to see go but the card industry has rebounded and is not going anywhere. 

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