Requiem for a rookie card.

The stadium scene.
July 25 2006 6:31 AM

Requiem for a Rookie Card

How baseball cards lost their luster.

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Last month, when my parents sold the house I grew up in, my mom forced me to come home and clear out my childhood bedroom. I opened the closet and found a box the size of a Jetta. It was so heavy that at first I thought it held my Weider dumbbells from middle school. Nope, this was my old stash. Thousands, if not tens of thousands, of baseball cards from the 1980s. Puckett, Henderson, Sandberg, Gwynn, and McGwire stared back at me with fresh faces. So long, old friends, I thought. It's time for me to cash in on these long-held investments. I started calling the lucky card dealers who would soon be bidding on my trove.

First, I got a couple of disconnected numbers for now-defunct card shops. Not a good sign. Then I finally reached a human. "Those cards aren't worth anything," he told me, declining to look at them.

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"Maybe if you had, like, 20 McGwire rookie cards, that's something we might be interested in," another offered.

"Have you tried eBay?" a third asked.

If I had to guess, I'd say that I spent a couple thousand bucks and a couple thousand hourscompiling my baseball card collection. Now, it appears to have a street value of approximately zero dollars. What happened?

Baseball cards peaked in popularity in the early 1990s. They've taken a long slide into irrelevance ever since, last year logging less than a quarter of the sales they did in 1991. Baseball card shops, once roughly 10,000 strong in the United States, have dwindled to about 1,700. A lot of dealers who didn't get out of the game took a beating. "They all put product in their basement and thought it was gonna turn into gold," Alan Rosen, the dealer with the self-bestowed moniker "Mr. Mint," told me. Rosen says one dealer he knows recently struggled to unload a cache of 7,000 Mike Mussina rookie cards. He asked for 25 cents apiece.

For someone who grew up in the late 1980s, this is a shocking state of affairs. When I was a kid, you weren't normal if you didn't have at least a passing interest in baseball cards. My friends and I spent our summer days drooling over the display cases in local card shops, one of which was run by a guy named Fat Moose. The owners tolerated us until someone inevitably tried to steal a wax pack, which would get us all banished from the store. Then we'd bike over to the Rite Aid and rummage through their stock of Topps and Fleer.

Card-trading was our pastime, and our issues of Beckett Baseball Card Monthly were our stock tickers. I considered myself a major player on the neighborhood trading circuit. It was hard work convincing a newbie collector that Steve Balboni would have a stronger career than Roger Clemens. If negotiations stalled, my favorite move was to sweeten the pot by throwing in a Phil Rizzuto card that only I knew had once sat in a pool of orange juice. After the deal went through, my buddy wouldn't know he'd been ripped off until his older brother told him. He always got over it, because he had no choice: Baseball cards were our common language.

In the early 1990s, pricier, more polished-looking cards hit the market. The industry started to cater almost exclusively to what Beckett's associate publisher described to me as "the hard-core collector," an "older male, 25 to 54, with discretionary income." That's marketing speak for the Comic Book Guy from The Simpsons. Manufacturers multiplied prices, overwhelmed the market with scores of different sets, and tantalized buyers with rare, autographed, gold-foil-slathered cards. Baseball cards were no longer mementos of your favorite players—they were elaborate doubloons that happened to have ballplayers on them. I eventually left the hobby because it was getting too complicated and expensive. Plus, I hit puberty.

It's easy to blame card companies and "the hard-core collector" for spoiling our fun. But I'll admit that even before the proliferation of pricey insert cards, I was buying plastic, UV-ray-protectant cases for my collection. Our parents, who lost a small fortune when their parents threw out all those Mantles and Koufaxes, made sure we didn't put our Griffeys and Ripkens in our bicycle spokes or try washing them in the bathtub. Not only did that ensure our overproduced cards would never become valuable, it turned us into little investors. It was only rational, then, for the card companies to start treating us like little investors. The next wave of expensive, hologram-studded cards didn't ruin collecting for us—we were already getting too old for the game. It ruined baseball cards for the next generation of kids, who shunned Upper Deck and bought cheap Pokémon and Magic cards instead.

This year there are 40 different sets of baseball cards on the market, down from about 90 in2004. That's about 38 too many. When there were just two or three major sets on the market, we all had the same small pool of cards. Their images and stats were imprinted on our brains. The baseball card industry lost its way because the manufacturers forgot that the communal aspect of collecting is what made it enjoyable. How can kids talk about baseball cards if they don't have any of the same ones?

Seeing as the cards I once prized now fetch a pittance on eBay, I decided not to sell my collection. I figure my Boggs rookie is worth more as a keepsake of my card-shop days than as an online auction with a starting bid of 99 cents. The worthlessness of my collection gave me an idea, though. The card manufacturers and the Major League Baseball Players Association have launched a $7 million marketing campaign to remind a generation of children that baseball cards exist. Instead of spending all that money to tell kids that cardboard is cool, Topps and MLB should convince everyone that cards are worthless, suitable for tacking to the wall, flicking on the playground, or at least taking out of the package.

In that spirit, the other day I opened three Topps packs that I'd stowed away as an investment in the late 1980s. I even tried the gum, which was no staler than I remember it being 20 years ago. And as I flipped through my new cards hoping to score a Mattingly, I felt that particular tinge of excitement that a generation of kids have missed out on.