Baseball card industry grows up

My friend Marty told me a story about how his 7-year-old daughter loves baseball cards. She likes baseball, but she loves baseball cards. Enough so that she recently took some to school for show-and-tell. What she likes most about them is the information on the back: How tall a player is, how much he weighs, whether he throws right-handed or left-handed, where he was born and now lives, what position he plays.

And this is Prince Fielder. He's 5-foot-11 and plays first base for the Detroit Tigers. He was born in Ontario, Calif., which is different from Ontario, Canada. That's a whole different country. The card says he weighs 275 pounds but my daddy says that's probably with only one foot on the scale.

I loved the data on the backs of baseball cards as well. I knew Rod Carew was born in Panama or that Mick Kelleher was from Seattle or that Freddie Patek was listed at 5-foot-4 on his 1978 Topps card. I realize now, however, that as I stacked those 1978 Topps inside a blue shoebox that I carefully placed back on the closet shelf after the addition of each new pack that what I really loved were the other numbers: Carew’s .388 batting average and George Foster’s otherworldly 52 home runs and the long string of seasons for Pete Rose, so long there wasn't room to write anything below the rows of numbers, such as "Pete likes to spend his off days at the horse track."

I collected cards through high school -- yes, while other kids were sneaking off to the local golf course to drink beer in bunkers, I was spending time at the local card shop, spending the few dollars I earned from umpiring and refereeing youth rec league games on new cards and the occasional 1965 Sandy Koufax or 1969 Roberto Clemente or that Frank Robinson rookie. ("Frank found night games to his liking in '56 and compiled a .314 average while belting 10 circuit smashes in 64 'after dark' contests.")

The card industry was booming through most of the 1980s -- maybe you remember thumbing through a Sports Collector’s Digest or Beckett Baseball Card Monthly to see how that college fund was maturing -- but Marty's story prompted me to think back to those days and the current state of the card industry. It's been close to 20 years since I had attended a card show, so I decided to check out the Philadelphia Sports Card and Memorabilia Show in King of Prussia, Pa., in early December.

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Babe Ruth underwear box: $900

Jackie Robinson business card: $15

Mickey Mantle-Roger Maris puzzle from 1962: $750

The best things about a big show like the one in Philly are all the oddball items that you don’t see unless you’re addicted to eBay. What I didn't see much of were new cards; unlike the shows from back in the day, this one featured dealer after dealer with tables full of old bobbleheads and yearbooks, magazines with Joe DiMaggio covers, signed bats and eclectic items like above -- not to mention tobacco cards and cards from the '50s, '60s and '70s, like the ones I once picked through.

There's a 1975 Topps Bake McBride: "Possessed with blazing speed, 'Bake' has excellent chance to break Lou Brock's new record for Stolen Bases." McBride topped out at 36 steals but would challenge Oscar Gamble's record for biggest Afro. And win over Phillies fans for his excellent 1980 season when the Phillies won their first World Series title.

"The industry took a big hit after the strike in 1994," said Don Stilton of TNT Baseball Cards and Collectibles of Toms River, N.J. Along with his partners James Kennedy and Anthony Connelly, their tables mostly featured items other than baseball cards. A seat from old Memorial Stadium in Baltimore, signed by Orioles Hall of Famers Cal Ripken, Eddie Murray, Frank Robinson, Brooks Robinson, Jim Palmer and Earl Weaver caught my eye.

"People come by looking for the weirdest things," Stilton said. "But everybody wants something different. We have all these Colts early '60s bobbleheads. A hardcore Colts fan may walk by and see these things and want something for his man cave."

While several dealers said business has picked up recently -- mostly in older cards and collectibles -- they also echoed what Bill Yanno of Gloversville, N.Y., told me. A 78-year-old retired schoolteacher, Yanno had an impressive display of magazines and other publications. He's been attending shows for 25 years -- as much to add to a collection began as a boy when he'd cut out pictures from magazines and paste them in scrapbooks as to make a little money.

Now, however, he's mostly looking to liquidate. He and his wife Bev sat patiently in front of several tables of old publications. Renting your space at a show like this can cost as much as $500 and Bill and Bev were just hoping to break even for the trip. "Hopefully, that's the goal. Between hotel, gas and food, it isn't cheap to come down," he said.

Not surprisingly, his business took a hit when the economy nosedived. Sports collectibles are one thing people can cut out. "It hasn't improved too much for me," he said. "It’s been hard. But the biggest problem is they're taking the kids away from the hobby. That’s the key, to get the kids interested again."

I enjoyed a copy of Sport magazine from August 1947, with a cover story by Dan Daniel titled, "Why they hate night baseball." Of course, most kids aren't going to be interested in a 65-year-old magazine.

The new stuff is better quality than what we collected as kids, but "chrome" is still just a fancy word for cardboard. I remember buying those packs of '78 Topps at the local pharmacy for 15 cents -- even with inflation, that's only about 55 cents today, a lot less than the $3 or so a kid has to pay today for a basic pack. And we got that piece of pink bubblegum stuck to the back of the bottom card. Still, I’m sure I begged my mom once or twice too often for a spare quarter or two, intent on filling that shoebox. I’d later graduate to a little coin shop tucked into the far back corner of a strip mall that had a few old cards. Stagg’s later moved to a bigger shop as the industry exploded in the 1980s -- he’d soon have plenty of competition, of course, when card shops popped up like 7-Elevens -- with shiny glass cases and shelves full of unopened boxes, 36 packs to a box.

There were some kids walking up and down between the aisles and aisles of tables at the Philly show, but I suspect most of those were leftovers from the autograph sessions that included Chase Utley and John Kruk the day I was there. I didn’t witness many transactions involving kids.

One of the father and son (or father and daughter) pairs I saw walking around were Ron Clearfield and his son Ethan, 15, from Richboro, Pa. I saw them scouting out a Nap Lajoie tobacco card but they weren’t at the show for the cards. Ron has a collection of 1960s bobbleheads he was looking to add to while Ethan collects old gas station signs and the like.

"I had some cards as a kid," Ron said. "But I was from that generation where my mother threw them out when I went to college." Ethan used to buy a few hockey cards, but said, "I don’t really collect much sports stuff. Cards were never a big thing with my friends. But I like old stuff. I've been told I have an old soul."

As Ron explained to Ethan that Lajoie is a Hall of Famer, I understood Ethan's words. I look at the old tobacco cards, admiring a Christy Mathewson T-205 or Joe Tinker T-206 and conjuring up a game played with sharpened spikes and rock-strewn infields and cigarette advertising on outfield fences, when a single ball would often be used until grimed with spit and dirt. While the first cards I collected featured players in brightly colored doubleknits from the '70s, a past I want to see features players in dull grays and whites.

There's nothing wrong with an old soul, Ethan.

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I ran into Cory Weiser, a 32-year-old financial adviser from Sayreville, N.J., and Mike Murray, a 34-year-old telecommunications manager from Staten Island.

If kids have been priced out of today's marketplace, Weiser and Murray represent the lineage of those kids who collected in the '80s and early '90s. Each was carrying a small stack of old cards encased in hard plastic cases. Serious cards for serious collectors.

I asked them how these shows have changed through the years.

"Well, still not too many women here," Weiser laughed. "A little better than a Dungeons and Dragons convention, however."

They were on the hunt for the good stuff: Old tobacco cards in good condition.

"If a table doesn't have stuff from before 1960, we don't even look," Weiser said. His parents owned a collectibles shop when he was growing up, and he and Murray collected the new stuff when they were kids, but it's the search for tobacco cards that brought them to Pennsylvania.

Murray had bought a 1912 T227 Rube Marquard card -- one in a series of hard-to-find cards that includes Ty Cobb, Home Run Baker and Chief Bender (the four baseball players in a larger 25-card set). Actually, it was the second T227 Marquard that he had purchased that day. He traded his first Marquard and cash for a higher grade one. He said he had about $750 invested in the current card.

"It's not an inexpensive hobby," he laughed.

But he also believed the card was in such good condition he could easily turn around and sell it to another dealer at the show for $1,000. For now, he decided to keep the card.

Murray is also working on completing a T-206 set -- well, minus the famous Honus Wagner at least -- in decent condition, which he estimates he owns 45 to 50 percent. "The market for the T-206 hasn’t really dipped at all," Weiser said. "It’s still the holy grail."

Weiser was working on his 1911 T-205 set. He'd spent over a grand on several cards. One of those was Ed Walsh, the White Sox Hall of Famer. The back of that card reads, in part, "In 1910, although he did not break even, an analysis shows that in the 369 2/3 innings he pitched, opposing teams were charged with 1,294 times at-bat and only made 242 hits, a batting average of .187."

And you thought statistical analysis was relatively new to the game.

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As I walked out of the convention center, there was an old box cover from an "indoor baseball game" that Mathewson designed. It would have made a nice addition to my office, but at $1,250, it was a little out of my price range.

I don't need that, however, because I still have my old cards. There's that '65 Koufax sitting in a box in my closet, with him staring right into the camera, slightly hunched over, a picture of a pitcher in his prime, a picture of my own past. I think I'll let it sit in that closet a while longer.