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.

Mint Condition by Dave Jamieson.

How come that Frank Thomas rookie card you stowed away in 1990 is now worth less than a Happy Meal? Chalk it up to the baseball card bubble of the late 1980s and early 1990s. In a new book, Mint Condition: How Baseball Cards Became an American Obsession, Dave Jamieson tells the story of how baseball cards evolved from a tobacco marketing gimmick in the 19th century into a massive, big-money industry of their own by the late 20th century. In this excerpt, Jamieson explains how baseball cards first became seen as promising investments, setting the stage for a decade of speculation and overproduction.

Around the mid-1970s, a small cabal of serious baseball card collectors grew wise to the fact that their cards had become valuable. Cards had almost always had prices attached to them, even when prolific collector and cataloger Jefferson Burdick began sending out his Card Collectors Bulletin in the 1930s. But cards that had been worth a few cents were now worth a few bucks, and some of the rarer specimens, such as the T206 Honus Wagner, were commanding hundreds and occasionally thousands of dollars apiece. The number of trade shows sprouting up in the East and the Midwest testified to a growing market.

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By this time, the most aggressive card collectors had started crisscrossing the country in search of private hoards of cardboard that could be snatched up at bargain prices. Unlike school kids, these men were well-aware of baseball cards' status as a commodity—albeit an undervalued one—and many of these enthusiasts could credit their early transactions with turning them into wealthy men later in life.

"We'd pick an area of the country—say, Ohio—and take about a 10- or 15-day road trip," recalls Kit Young, who today owns a massive mail-order business in San Diego. "You'd take eight or 10 grand for a four-city hit. We'd rent a car, go around the towns, and we'd have ads in the local papers saying, 'Old Baseball Cards Wanted. … We'll be at the Holiday Inn.' You'd get one crack at them, and you paid by cash."

One of Young's old colleagues, dealer Gar Miller of Wenonah, N.J., says the excitement was in wondering what would walk through the door: "You might find some beautiful collection that had unopened packs of cards. It was just thrilling." For the itinerant and well-informed hobbyist, it wasn't difficult to get a good deal from the noncollectors who showed up at the Holiday Inn, considering there were no price guides to govern transactions in those days. "You didn't know what anything was worth," explains Miller.

This loophole in the hobby would soon be closed by a statistics professor from Bowling Green University named James Beckett III. Beckett had grown up on Topps cards in the 1950s, and after lapsing in high school and college, he got back into collecting while pursuing a Ph.D. in statistics. Like Young and Miller, Beckett started checking into motels around the country during the '70s. The more dealings he had, the more he could see that no one had any firm notion of the market value of baseball cards.

In 1976, he launched a poll in the hobby newspapers, asking dealers and collectors how much particular cards had been selling for in recent months. Because collectors were inclined to juice the value of cards they had in hand, Beckett sought several hundred respondents so that egregiously high or low numbers would cancel one another out. The following year, he published a rudimentary price list whose valuations seem positively rock-bottom compared with today's: The 1952 Topps Mickey Mantle, now fetching hundreds of thousands of dollars in fine condition, was listed at $50. In 1979, Beckett and a partner, Dennis Eckes, released the Sport Americana Baseball Card Price Guide, which they started updating annually.

Eventually, Beckett would launch a monthly magazine and employ a team of 10 full-time baseball card analysts who would travel to card shows and shops, examine auction data, and sift through major league box scores to determine card values. He also made collector-investors more condition-conscious by including in his magazines one of the first card-grading systems, providing definitions for what he considered "mint," "excellent," "very good," "good," "fair," and "poor" cards.

American boys growing up in the 1980s approached Beckett Baseball Card Monthly with something like religious reverence. For many of us, it was the first magazine we bought and the only one we leafed through regularly. The magazine's circulation eventually reached about 1 million, with many of those issues no doubt destined for the book bags of young boys. We walked the school hallways in the '80s with our Becketts sandwiched between our textbooks, and we followed the price fluctuations of our favorite players with slavish devotion. Beckett's valuations served as the foundation for all card trades.

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