There’s a Modern-Day Gold Rush in Sports Trading Cards

BY DENNIS RICHARDSON


26 July 2021


ORLANDO, FL – I read a book recently, The Wax Pack by Brad Balukjian, which brought back a lot of childhood memories. The book recounts the author’s cross-country journey to track down and interview the players whose baseball trading cards were in a “wax pack” of 1986 Topps cards that Balukjian had purchased.


I had not thought about baseball cards for many years, but reading the book took me back to my youthful days of collecting. One of my first thoughts was of Stan Musial. The St. Louis Cardinals great’s baseball card was my White Whale. For years, growing up in St. Louis, I pursued his card with a dogged determination, as Herman Melville’s Captain Ahab had hunted Moby-Dick.



Photo credit: Mick Haupt/unsplash.com

Every week I’d take part of my allowance, hop on my bicycle, pedal to the neighborhood convenience store, and buy a couple “wax packs”, each containing six Topps baseball cards and a powder-coated, rock-hard slab of chewing gum that likely was the inspiration for granite kitchen countertops.


There was a feeling of anticipation in opening those packs of wallet-size cards, much like one might get in checking lottery numbers today. As I tore open each pack, I’d wish, “Let this be the one with Musial. Please, let there be a Musial.”


Many kids in my era wanted cards of Mickey Mantle, Willie Mays, Hank Aaron, Ernie Banks, Whitey Ford, or Don Drysdale. Understandably so – all were future Hall of Famers-- and I had a number of them. But the card I really wanted was Musial – he was my favorite player on my favorite team.


Yet, try as I might – and I bought a lot of wax packs over those years -- it never happened. Instead, I got a lot of players like Gene Green, Duke Carmel, Rocky Nelson, Choo-Choo Coleman, Gil McDougald, Don Blasingame, Bob Nieman, Ray Sadecki, and Eddie Kasko. All were decent players and fine gentlemen, no doubt; still, none was Stan the Man.


I also tried to broker a trade with friends who had Musial cards. “Just name your price,” I pleaded. “Mays? Aaron? Ford?” -- but I always was rebuffed. In St. Louis you don’t trade Musial.


Looking for Musial

You might ask, why not just buy one from a collector, or even purchase an entire year’s set of cards to ensure getting Musial? In retrospect, that probably would have been the better and cheaper move in the long run. But, for a kid on an allowance, the price for a complete set of trading cards or the asking price from a collector was prohibitively expensive. So, each week I put down some change and gambled.


Years later, as a sportswriter covering some Cardinals games for a southwest Missouri newspaper, I would see Musial in the press box. The always friendly and mannerly Hall of Famer would say hello, and I’d manage to get out some tongue-tied replies to his questions. But, oh how I wanted to say, “Mr. Musial, you have no idea how many chores I did – how many dishes I washed, how many times I swept the carport, or took out the trash, or dusted the furniture, or vacuumed the carpets, or mowed the lawn -- trying to get your baseball card.”


Collecting baseball trading cards is now merely a memory of my youth. Which probably is a good thing, because I’ve learned that today’s hobby is markedly different. It’s much more sophisticated than my days of pedaling to a neighborhood store. Now it’s eBay, online hobby shops, “case breaks”, online auctions, sports memorabilia and collectibles stores, web sites like Amazon and Fanatics, and baseball card shops.


For instance, there are the “case breaks”, where a host breaks sealed cases of cards and opens the packs or boxes for people who have bought a spot in the break in exchange for some of the cards. They have become glitzy presentations streamed live on Twitter, YouTube, TikTok, or Breakers TV (a breakers-specific video service), and are seen by tens of thousands of viewers.


“Tens of thousands of viewers?” Back in my collecting days, if a friend bought wax packs, you’d simply ask, “Hey, who’d you get?” Or, if you saw a card-collecting buddy on the school playground you’d inquire, “Got any new cards?” No lights, no camera, no over-the-top video presentations.


And, then there’s the term, “flipping” cards. In my youth, it referred to a game between two card collectors. From a standing position, the first player takes a card, holds it along his side and then, with a flip of the wrist, lets it drop. If it lands on the floor with the picture facing up, it’s heads; or the statistics facing up, it’s tails. Then the second player flips and tries to match the card. If they match (both heads or both tails), player No. 2 wins the cards; if not, player No. 1 gets both cards.


But in today’s world, “flipping” commonly refers to buying a card at less than market value, then turning around and selling it at value or above to net a profit.


In baseball terms, my days of collecting were rookie-league level, while today’s sports trading card market is the major league All-Star Game.


Trading Card Sales, Values Soar

As you’ve likely seen on TV or read in the news, sports trading cards are a booming business these days. Sales are soaring and card values are skyrocketing. It’s turned my childhood hobby into a 2020’s version of The Gold Rush.


In January, a Topps 1952 Mickey Mantle card sold for a record $5.2 million, surpassing the previous baseball card mark of $3.396 million in August 2020 for a signed, mint condition Mike Trout rookie card. Two years ago, a 2018 Shohei Ohtani card sold at an auction for close to $185,000.


“We’re seeing a significant spike in interest in trading cards, in baseball cards in particular,” David Leiner, global general manager of The Topps Company, which holds the card license for Major League Baseball and issued the first baseball trading cards in 1951, told Bill Shea of The Athletic.


A business infamous for its boom-or-bust cycles over the past 50 years is enjoying unprecedented growth. The sports card market is estimated to top $5 billion this year, and may wind up closer to $6 billion. “There never has been a time like this in the history of this business,” Ken Goldin, owner of Goldin Auctions, a longtime collectibles and memorabilia company, told CNN Business.


Goldin’s company is a prime example. He told the Washington Post in a July 14 article that his company went from $800,000 in sales in 2012 to $100 million in 2020. He expects to quintuple that figure this year. And, his is just one of many companies involved in sports trading cards.


As one collectibles expert told Jeff Tracy at axios.com, today’s sports trading card market “sits at the intersection of sentimental interest and financial incentive.”


On the “sentimental interest” side are the traditional collectors who started as kids and teenagers in the late-1980s to mid-1990s without much money to spend. Now in middle age, spurred by nostalgia and an activity they could enjoy during the weeks of pandemic-induced isolation -- plus possessing a lot more disposable income -- they’ve renewed their interest in the hobby.


“You put a pack in someone’s hand and it doesn’t matter whether you’re 4 years old or 40 years old,” Jason Howarth, vice president of the online sports trading card company Panini America, told Ryan Fagan, in a October, 2020 article on sportingnews.com. “If you happen to find a player you love, or a team that you love, you’re ecstatic. That’s the power of the trading card, and the fact that people have been able to find that again and a piece of happiness and elation during this crazy time where you’re freaking out over everything... I think that’s really cool.”


The middle-age collector is the hobby’s core these days. A number of people in the business worry that, sadly, the young collector – as I used to be – is being priced out of the market due to the high cost of cards. “I don’t recall selling a box to a kid,” one Michigan card shop owner told Shea.


Law of Supply and Demand

Meanwhile, the “financial incentive” side is made up primarily of institutional investors and new-school collectors who are in the hobby simply to make money, much as one might invest in stocks, or artwork, or real estate. These investors have come to include hedge fund managers, financial brokerages, and alternative asset management companies.


They are speculating that cards of greats like Mantle and DiMaggio, current stars like the Angels’ Trout and teammate Ohtani; and young players like the Braves’ Ronald Acuna, the Blue Jays’ Vladimir Guerrero Jr., the Nationals’ Juan Soto, and the Padres’ Fernando Tatis Jr. will increase in value.


They’re also banking on a basic economics principle: supply-and-demand. There’s only so much supply – there’s just one Ronald Acuna, one Juan Soto, one Fernando Tatis, Jr.; and no more Mantles and DiMaggios – while demand keeps growing.


“It’s collectibles versus commodities,” one collector told Jacob Bogage of the Washington Post. “They think they like the cards — maybe they have a past connection to them — but they really see the money. It’s more interesting than the stock market. It’s probably easier to project a player that’s going to get better than analyze tech start-ups.”


Which is a far cry from my world of collecting baseball cards. For me, there was no thought of how much a particular card was worth, no concern about whether its “market value” would decrease or increase. You bought cards for the fun of opening a pack and seeing which ones you got, reading the information on the back of the cards, and adding to your collection. You rejoiced when the pack contained a player from your favorite team, and savored the moment when you got a favorite player.


At one point, I had more than 12,000 cards. All organized in neat stacks, separated by teams, with cards arranged by position groups (pitchers, catchers, infielders, and outfielders), and placed in old shoeboxes on the floor of my bedroom closet.


As one might imagine, with 12,000 cards I had quite a few duplicates. (There were only 16 MLB teams in 1960.) For instance, I recall that I had 10 Gene Green cards. Green was a catcher-right fielder who hit .267, with 46 home runs, for five teams over seven years, from 1957 through 1963. So, I literally had a complete baseball-card lineup of Gene Greens. It seemed that nobody wanted a Gene Green card in a trade (sorry, Gene).


I did use those Gene Green and other excess cards for “flipping” (again, sorry Gene). Plus, I employed others for trades. But, primarily I used the cards to create my own fantasy baseball teams.


I’d construct the best lineup I could for each team using, say, the career-high homerun totals for each player, or one with the most extra-base hits, or a lineup with the highest batting averages; pitching staffs with the most victories or strikeouts or lowest earned run average. The player’s natural position was immaterial; I had third basemen playing second and shortstop, catchers playing first, first basemen in the outfield, and outfielders on the infield. Anything was game in order to inflate the needed statistics.


While 12,000 cards may seem like a lot, my collection was actually puny compared to others. Collections in the tens of thousands are fairly common, and ones with more than 100,000 cards are not unheard of. In fact, according to an mlb.com story in April, an Idaho Falls man has four million cards, and he’s still adding. Meanwhile, a Wisconsin man is attempting to collect one million Chicago Cubs cards. To date, he’s reportedly about halfway to his goal.


Where’d The Cards Go?

So, what happened to my collection? As I entered high school, my interest in the hobby took a back seat to other pursuits, and the cards remained in their shoeboxes. One day, while I was away at college, my parents asked, “Dennis, do you need all those old baseball cards anymore?”


I wish I could say that I was distracted by cramming for an exam, or caught in some other moment of weakness. My answer was, “Not really.”


Big mistake. The cards were given to a boy who lived down the street from us. That may rank among the worst baseball deals in history because a few years later one of the hobby’s boom periods began, and card values surged. I heard the kid became an attorney – probably paid for part of his education with my card collection.


Apparently, I have a lot of company in my lapse of judgment. “You would be amazed how many times I’ve heard that same story,” a bemused collectibles-store owner once told me. “Well-meaning parents gave away or threw out a fortune in trading cards. Guys come in here, see the prices on some of the cards, and want to cry. They point to a card and say, ‘I used to have him.’”


There is a sports collectibles store near where I often buy groceries. Since reading the Wax Pack book, I have been tempted to go inside. Perhaps I will sometime soon, just out of curiosity to see what the cards are selling for these days. For old time’s sake, I might even ask if he has a Musial card.


It is ironic – even cruel, one might say – that there are plenty of Stan Musial trading cards available on eBay at various price points now that I no longer have an interest in collecting. Or, that now I could reach out to a Cubs fan online to arrange a Banks-for-Musial trade.


Stan, it would have been fun if we could have gotten together. Still, I have done what Melville’s Captain Ahab could not: I have moved on in search of other pursuits. This time, it’s to golf courses and a cure for my slice.


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Dennis Richardson is a writer/editor with Words Matter. He has an extensive background as a reporter, copy editor, sportswriter, sports copy editor, and Senior Special Sections Writer with newspapers in Missouri and Florida. He lives outside of Orlando, FL.















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