One former overproduction years card buyer has a few gripes to air about his era.
by Walter Underhill
Any male that grew up in the late 1980’s-early 1990’s knows all about the phenomenon known as “Baseball Card Death.” The problem is, he doesn’t know that he knows this. And who can blame one’s selective memory loss here. Think of the large percentage of your disposable income that you blew on baseball cards, which likely have little utility for you right now as they sit in your basement amongst the spiders, centipedes, and mice. Do you really want to be reminded of the colossal investment mistakes you made? Well, we will play the role of Alanis Morrisette, “And I’m here to remind you…” In the early 1990s baseball cards were better than money, better than gold. Heck, they were supposed to pay for college tuition because they were such a solid investment.
As everyone knows, but few can bear to admit, nothing could have been further from the awful truth. We’ve scoured the net for articles or postings, basically anything we could find with a negative slant on baseball cards. We can’t find anything! People seem very keen on talking about their successes, and we all know that back in the day EVERYONE was talking about how much everything they owned “was worth.” But did anyone REALLY cash in on their “baseball card riches?” Did anyone bail at the right time and actually pay for their tuition, buy a second home, or re-invest in the stock market?
Our instincts tell us the answer is for the most part, “no.” This site was created mostly as a beacon of objectivity..and negativity if you will, towards an institution that seems focused on “talking about the good old days.” We are tired of hearing about “what your cards were worth” or “how they will come back in value if you just hold them.” Let’s hear some objectivity and reality for once and report WHAT is going on NOW and not what WAS in the past. Let’s explore the sad state of affairs that has engulfed anyone who has a shoebox (or many shoeboxes) full of cards like ourselves.
Delusions vs. Realities
Every year, I still buy two or three packs just for the heck of it, just to see who I get,” says Dave Kelly, 51, a Library of Congress reference librarian who specializes in sports and recreation.”
“I still collect them like I did when I was 10,” says Baltimore Orioles pitcher Alan Mills, 34. “It could be going to the 7-Eleven, getting some apple juice and picking up some cards.”
“He’s still mad at me. He thinks I threw away his baseball cards,” says one exasperated mom.” ‘ They’d be worth millions now.’ I’m quoting him: ‘Millions now.'”
“Just as timeless is the equally irresistible urge for America’s mothers to toss ’em, or so we claim. Moms are the ultimate scapegoats for the lost treasures of our youth.” —– Mike Dodd. USA Today, 3/27/01
Are you kidding? “Worth millions now?”. Granted, pre-1980s cards are worth much more than the overflooded examples we talked about earlier. But everything has to be either in pristine condition, or ridiculously rare for a collector to even think about buying the damn thing from you. Seriously now, put the price guide away, and actually go out there and try to sell these “precious” cards. This is all about REAL demand for the cards, not quoted prices. Cards from the 1980s-1990s are all but worthless now on the whole.
We’re sure we can find some examples of cards that are worth a few bucks, but that’s just it, a few bucks. Gone are the days of the many versions of the Billy Ripken “Error” card that were going for hundreds of dollars at the time. Does anyone even care about him at this point? Don’t you feel silly now for trying to “complete that set” by scouring the card shows for the Don Slaught ’89 Donruss card or that elusive Topps Checklist? We sure do and feel like complete idiots.
Try contacting a dealer who touts on his web site (“We buy unopened packs, sets of all baseball cards!”) like we did. Here is what transpired in our note to them:
“Hello. I have a number of unopened, some sealed, sets of early 1990s cards. Fleer, Donruss, Upper Deck, Topps, etc. Additionally I have some oddballs like “Traded Sets”, Collect A Books, and some others that have never been opened. What is the protocol for doing business? I’m located in XYZ City, and would be happy to send pictures.Thanks”
RESPONSE: “Hi there. We only buy vintage cards pre 1970. Thanks for thinking of us.”
Even professional dealers aren’t interested in the many thousands of cards we carefully wasted time filing away as a kid, and to think of all of the Sundays we whiled away at card shows. How many Hiltons and Holiday Inns do you see in your neighborhood these days with signs advertising “Baseball Card Show This Weekend”? Not to mention, how many “Card and Hobby” shops do you know of that are still thriving businesses? And how about the weekend “Flea Markets” and “Shopping Mall Card Shows” with tables dedicated to both sets and singles at overinflated prices? That’s what we thought.
Times sure do change. For the professional dealer to not even offer a bid for our cards, indicates that they are worthless. Further proof in this matter lies with eBay, the famed online auctioneer. We have run a number of seven day auctions recently for sealed, unopened, sets of cards. We’re not talking about random assortments of loose cards. For instance, the 1990 Upper Deck, Fleer, and Donruss sets were all offered individually by us, for a starting bid of 49 cents! And we did not receive ONE bid, over a 7 day period! Not one! We actually lost money listing these pigs because eBayay nails you with a listing fee for each auction you participate in. If this doesn’t drive the “waste of time, money and effort” point home we don’t know what will.
Those taking the “hold” approach with respect to their collections are simply kidding themselves. Think of it in this perspective. The cards that you have from the 1980s and 1990s were once considered valuable….well according to prices that you PAID for the cards and quoted prices in publications like Beckett they were. How many of you actually sold your cards for those same quoted prices? Hey we’re not ridiculing anyone, we didn’t sell one! We were “net buyers” of baseball cards for the better part of a decade.
1. For the market to “bounce back”, baseball itself first needs to be revitalized among the youth of today. Do you see it happening? And if the answer is yes, then the baseball card market needs to re-invent itself somehow. The last time we checked kids were buying new X-Boxes and asking for I-Pod Nanos for Christmas. And these kids are roughly the same age as we were during our “baseball card phase.”
Baseball cards will never overtake today’s affordable, and easily obtained technological gadgets. And why would they? Think about the probability of this happening. Secondly, the people who drove up the prices in the early 90s were young kids (who are in their twenties now) and old men (and probably some hideous women too) who ran the card and hobby shops. The inventories of these “kids” grew over the years as they purchased packs, attended card shows, etc. and these consumers were mostly buyers. The buyers’ collections grew sometimes to unmanageable sizes, making storage itself even difficult. The buyers can only take in so many baseball cards under the pretense that “they are going to be worth something one day” before this madness must come to a halt. Today, we have thousands of disgruntled “former collectors” who are sitting in the wings, storing their worthless cards and waiting for a sunny day.
Most of these unfortunate souls have moved on to other things, thank goodness, and hopefully have carried these valuable lessons from their baseball card investment debacles forward with them through life, so as to avoid similar predicaments whether in business, the stock market, real estate, etc. Over the course of the late 80s and 1990s, card buyers kept taking in cards, and the shopkeepers were the sellers. Now any shopkeeper who made a sale and refused to replenish that inventory probably made out quite well. But those who thought the boom would last forever likely got their ass handed to them as they re-invested the profits on their card sales in more inventory. This inventory became more worthless as time went on, became increasingly difficult to sell to card buyers amidst waning public interest.
Today, we cannot even sell a sealed, mint SET of the cards from those years for 49 cents. We’re certain that you all remember that the 1989 Upper Deck Ken Griffey Jr card alone was valued in the hundreds in its prime. And now the entire set is only worth $70? On a good day? What happened? The word depreciation doesn’t fit this scenario, it’s more like a momentous dive.
2. For the card market to rebound, there needs to be a resurgence of interest. This resurgence can’t possibly come from those who are already stockpiling cards in hopes that their prices will bounce back. New buyers, new aficionados need to enter the market. Please get back to us you can argue logically that these items will rebound to late 80s-early 90s mania prices and the reasoning behind it. The “rare” factor is virtually non-existent in terms of cards at this point since there are dozens of cards available for most players in various sets and subsets from the deluge of manufacturers.
3. Statistical records are obliterated routinely and rather easily these days. Remember when Jose Canseco’s “40-40 club” was a big deal? No one even gives a damn about that anymore. How about the infamous late 1980s Topps “30-30 Club” member cards, with Howard Johnson being one of the “esteemed” members. Do young baseball fans today even know who the hell Hojo is?
The point is that records are broken year after year, and the juiced baseball and possible steroid influence on the game seriously accelerates this. Jesse Barfield…. (note NOT in the Hall of Fame, and who the hell even remembers him at this point) hit something like 49 homers in the late 80s. This was considered a TON back then. As we now know, today’s “superior” ballplayers can hit well more, hell, even shortstops can crank 40 like it’s no one’s business. Remember when Don Mattingly was a big deal? Unless you are a die-hard Yankee fan, you likely view Don Mattingly as slightly more than a common player these days despite some of the stats he put up. We recall paying $27.00 in 1989 for his 1984 Topps rookie card.
Since the card isn’t technically “mint”, we doubt we can sell this card for $2.70 today. Any buyers out there? If so…sold to you at $2.70. The underlying point here is that the value that is built into cards as the player breaks or sets new records, diminishes as his record is broken in future years and he gradually fades into obscurity.
4. Today, the baseball card industry has built this facade of “card grading” into their never-ending tunnel of greed. Now, we as collectors are expected to pay to mail our cards to “grading companies”, let their experts pore over our cards and then send us an official certificate with our card encased in plastic to tell us that we are grade PSA 8.5. This process is NOT cheap either. In many cases you will spend more on the grading process than your card is worth. The bad news is not too many cards out there are PSA 10 or in “gem mint” graded condition, despite the care you took to store them over the years. We advise you to look at completed auction results on eBay and you will see for yourself the large discrepancy between card values of various graded ratings. If it’s not in pristine condition, you’re not going to make much on it.