The great baseball card bubble.

The stadium scene.
March 24 2010 12:01 PM

The Great Baseball Card Bubble

Before tech stocks and McMansions, there was cardboard.

(Continued from Page 1)

What none of us understood at the time was that Beckett's guides were probably creating card prices just as much as they were reporting them. When Beckett sued a competitor over copyright infringement in 1979, claiming that the rival had stolen his data, the judge noted that because Beckett's guides were "regarded as the authority in the field, it is entirely possible that the prices in [his] publication not only reflect market prices, but in fact can determine market prices."

By the '80s, baseball card values were rising beyond the average hobbyist's means. As prices continued to climb, baseball cards were touted as a legitimate investment alternative to stocks, with the Wall Street Journal referring to them as sound "inflation hedges" and "nostalgia futures." Newspapers started running feature stories with headlines such as "Turning Cardboard Into Cash" (the Washington Post), "A Grand Slam Profit May Be in the Cards" (the New York Times), and "Cards Put Gold, Stocks to Shame as Investment" (the Orange County Register). A hobby bulletin called the Ball Street Journal, claiming entrée to a network of scouts and coaches, promised collectors "insider scouting information" that would help them invest in the cards of rising big-league prospects. Collectors bought bundles of rookie cards as a way to gamble legally on a player's future.

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Unfortunately for investors, each one of those cards was being printed in astronomical numbers. The card companies were shrewd enough never to disclose how many cards they were actually producing, but even conservative estimates put the number well into the billions. One trade magazine estimated the tally at 81 billion trading cards per year in the late '80s and early '90s, or more than 300 cards for every American annually.

Precious few collectors seemed to ponder the possibility that baseball cards could depreciate. As the number of card shops in the United States ballooned to 10,000, dealers filled their storage rooms with unopened cases of 1988 Donruss as if they were Treasury bills or bearer bonds. Shops were regularly burglarized, their stocks of cards taken as loot. In early 1990, a card dealer was found bludgeoned to death behind the display case in his shop in San Luis Obispo, Calif., with $10,000 worth of cards missing. A few weeks later, Bob Engel, a respected National League umpire, was arrested for allegedly stealing more than 4,180 Score baseball cards, worth $143.98, from a Target store in Bakersfield, Calif., and attempting to steal another 50 packs from a Costco.

For those disturbed by such unseemly tales, the hobby of card collecting had begun to resemble baseball itself: an American institution that appeared to have strayed from its noble and innocent beginnings. Never mind that baseball cards, much like the game, had always been big business and always been a revenue machine. There had been nothing particularly wholesome about using baseball cards to shill cigarettes to grown-ups and children alike 100 years earlier. As Lew Lipset, an outspoken baseball card auctioneer, wrote in an issue of his Old Judge Newsletter in 1990: "Try to make a living in this hobby and you'll learn about … deceit, unfair business practices, the lack of truth in advertising, price manipulation, collusion, restraint of trade, insider trading, patronage, extortion, payoffs and bribes, graft, plagiarism and, last but not least, hype."

In 1989, the Upper Deck Co. would transform the industry with flashy, high-priced cards aimed at investment-minded collectors. As the sales of new sports cards swelled to more than $1 billion a year, children began to flee the hobby, turned off by the pricey packs and confounding number of sets. The baseball strike of 1994 ushered in an industrywide hangover that still hasn't ended. Revenues from new sports cards have fallen to around $200 million a year, roughly one-seventh of what they were at their peak. While vintage cards like the T206 Honus Wagner and the 1952 Topps Mickey Mantle have continued to soar in value, baseball card's boom times produced no such valuable merchandise. Those 1988 Donruss cards, once considered a savvy investment, can now be bought in bulk for around 1 cent apiece.

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This piece was taken from Mint Condition© 2010 by Dave Jamieson and is published with the permission of the publisher, Atlantic Monthly Press, an imprint of Grove/Atlantic, Inc.

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