I purchased (or I should say my Mom purchased) my first pack of baseball cards during the summer of 1986. It was a wax pack of Topps. Fifteen cards, a piece of chewing gum, a promo for the next year’s spring training contest, and an addiction was born. While I was only 10 years old, and packs of Topps were only 40 cents each, I became obsessed. Every single penny of allowance was spent on cards, and not just Topps. Enter Fleer, Donruss, and Sportflics (remember those?) Packs of Fleer and Donruss were a nickel cheaper than Topps, didn’t come with any gum, but rather team logo stickers (which cover my Yankees garbage can that I still have to this day) among other promotional items. My father always said “Take care of your cards, they’ll be worth something someday.” My response was the same then as it is now: “Don’t worry, I’ll never sell my cards.” I never have, and I never will.
The origin and intent of the first baseball cards was simple: during the 1860’s, when baseball began sweeping the nation in popularity and became a professional sport, the cards were used by companies to help promote their products. A sporting goods company in New York, Peck and Snyder, used early versions of cards to help sell their products and promote their store. Game makers used cards to promote early version simulator games, and tobacco companies used cards to protect the enclosed cigarettes. The Peck and Snyder cards, are believed to be the first version of cards. Unlike modern cards, the early versions did not have players’ statistics on the back side of the card, but rather the aforementioned advertisement of said company producing the card set.
By now, even if you’re not a collector, but just a baseball fan, you’ve heard the term “T-206.” It refers to the American Tobacco Company and their now famous set, which included the most valuable card of all-time: the Honus Wagner card. Wagner did not allow for the use of his name or image, and the theory behind the ceasing of production of the card from the set remains an argument. Some believe Wagner didn’t want children using tobacco products, while the other side of the coin suggests he was simply greedy, and wanted more compensation to use his image. Only the wealthy can afford to purchase what is now the most rare card on the market. How many remain in existence remains a mystery due to the low total production of the card.
During the first two decades of the twentieth-century, cards began being produced by multiple companies, and the first couple of sets from Cracker Jack were produced. Through the following decades post-World War I, cards became more popular, as stars and the sport continued to be America’s national pastime. Aside from the Wagner card, the 1952 Topps Mickey Mantle card is the most sought after card of the wealthy, money-making collector, and many a Baby Boomer rues the day that their mother threw out their collection of cards, as the Mantle became cardboard gold.
Post World War II, Bowman became the primary producer of commercial baseball cards. Shortly after the 1950’s began, Topps threw their hat in the ring, and soon became the top producer of cards in the United States. Cards were still for children, and hadn’t become the money-making boom of commercial card show enthusiasts and dealers. Smaller promotional sets of cards began to appear in the late ’50’s and early 1960’s, with cereal maker Kellogg’s, and snack maker Hostess issuing cards each season to help push their products to little boys across the nation.
The first serious business transaction involving baseball card collecting came in the early 1980’s, when Fleer had requested that Topps allow them to use big league logos to produce card sets of their own, and were rebuffed. Fleer then sued Topps and MLB to break what they perceived to be an industry “monopoly” on the production and selling of baseball cards with gum. Gum being the key phrase. Fleer won the lawsuit, but it was overturned a year later. The Donruss company entered the fold, and both they and Fleer worked around the gum issue, by Fleer issuing stickers with logos, and Donruss with jigsaw puzzle pieces, which would make a larger, full puzzle when completed.
It was during this time that I became a collector. Not to make money, not to sell or “invest”, but because I loved–and still do love the game of baseball. We had a small card shop in town, where my buddies and I would spend as much time as possible, talking baseball and cards with the local owner. He was even kind enough to show mercy on us youngsters, and would part with packs and individual cards for less than he was selling them for to the general public. By my early teen years, I had a subscription to Beckett Baseball Monthly, not because I cared to sell my most prized possessions, but to see how crazy valuable older cards were becoming. My buddies and I continued spending our respective funds on wax packs, cello packs, and would hit the local antique (more like junk shop) and pick through individual, older cards, and paid pennies on the dollar (the owner of the store, who we later found out was a convicted pedophile, used a several-years old Beckett to price out his cards, and we never said a word.)
By the time I got to high school, my funds for cards changed dramatically. Clothes, girls, sporting goods, events, and such, took precedent over my card habit. I still purchased cards, but not nearly to the extent of my early youth. I remember, always enjoying piecing that year’s set together card by card, like a big baseball exploration. My best friend, didn’t go that route. His family had a spare room in their home, that was nothing but complete, factory-sealed sets. I remember being jealous of the guarantee of a complete set, but also felt sorry that he didn’t get the excitement and joy of opening the pack, smelling that distinctive bubble gum, and finding that one card you had purchased dozens of packs trying to get. It was with seeing my best friend’s father purchase hundreds of dollars of factory-sealed sets, that I realized baseball card collecting wasn’t just a kid’s hobby, but a high-priced, money-making endeavor. He would sell cases of cards in exchange for others, or more money than he had paid for them. It was supposed to be our hobby, and adults had somehow found a way to ruin the experience.
Throughout my late teens, my twenties, and on through the current decade of my life, I still purchase cards. One thing my father did for me, that I didn’t realize until near the end of his life, was hand-collate a complete, 1976 set of Topps, the year from which I was born. He told me he wanted me to enjoy and experience something that was always very special to him. So I did the same thing for each of my three children. I pieced together the Topps sets from 1999, 2009, and 2011. When my children are old enough or responsible enough to understand the pain-staking time it took to put together each set, they will be given the set–not to sell but to carry on the family tradition.
I still collect to this day–for my 5-year-old son’s impending collection more than for myself. He’s too little to understand or take care of the cards at this point, so I keep the packs sealed and stored for when he is old enough. I cannot wait for the day that he and I can open each pack, one by one, and see what cards are in those packs. Being the history guy that I am, I also purchase boxes of wax packs from my childhood during the 1980’s, and have kept them safe, until he can open them and see what’s inside. As I peruse auction sites, dealer sites, and of course eBay, I search for cello and wax packs from years gone by, to stockpile for my little boy, as well as buying as many current issued packs. My all-time favorite set to this day is the ’87 Topps set. I fell in love with the wooden borders, the crisp photography, and the reminder that cards and card collecting are something special, something for those of us that enjoy the hobby, something to be passed from father to son, or father to daughter, not the dirty, money-grubbing industry it has become.
Back in the day, a kid could walk to the corner market, head down the aisle to the candy section, and see boxes of wax packs to choose from. Sometimes, the occasional off-shoot manufacturer would issue a set, such as Sportflics, and then the popular foil packs of Upper Deck, etc. It became a billion dollar industry, and something that saddened me, as grown men raced little boys to snatch up every pack they could find, only to turn around, and sell off the pieces like they were commercial property. Nowadays, card makers have exclusive deals with retailers like K-Mart, Wal-Mart or Target to sell differing versions of the same sets (Topps being the last of the big three standing until this year, Fleer went by the wayside, and Donruss has re-emerged with a set, sans the MLB logos on the helmets, uniforms or cards.) So for the hardcore enthusiast like myself, I pony up the cash, attempting to build as many full sets for my son as possible.
I coach American Legion baseball here in Riverton. After our defeat and subsequent elimination from the Wyoming State Tournament, and on the long bus ride home from Cowley, Wyoming, I began chatting with several of my players about baseball cards. I asked if any of them collected, and one player in particular, asked “They still make baseball cards?” I was saddened and hurt by the fact that the baseball card hobby has been taken completely over by dealers and salesman, who travel across the country pimping their cardboard to men who make a good living. None of my players (all of whom were born in the 1990’s), had ever collected as younger children, primarily because I’m guessing, their fathers (men my age) had become disgusted with where the industry had gone, and wanted no part of high-bidding to keep a childhood hobby alive.
The days of children being common baseball card collectors could be gone forever. How many children around the age of 10, are walking around with $2-$10 in their pockets, just to purchase a couple of packs of cards, that were once a couple of quarters and a short walk to the corner store? Baseball card collecting is big business now, but it would be nice if companies like Topps and Bowman, would take a step back and remember where and how the hobby started: with the youth of America.