Oh, for the simplicity of 1995. The home computer wasn't yet mainstream. eBay was just a gleam in a west coast entrepreneur's eye.
Cards were cards.
Some cards were shinier than others. Most were still pretty plain. You bought a pack of cards and you got...cardboard. Then came 1996 and the revolution that swept the modern trading card industry into something much different.
'96 is when Press Pass, a racing card maker for crying out loud, debuted the "memorabilia card". Little pieces of NASCAR tires embedded in the cards. Collectors thought they were cool. Other manufacturers dipped a toe in the water and within a decade, they were not just head first in the pool, they were living in it.
A story on Beckett.com this week reveals some staggering numbers. In 1996, there were 151 different memorabilia cards made. Since then, the total of different cards with some sort of swatch, bat chip, ball or shoe has risen to 738,395. Within a couple of years, there will be a million different memorabilia cards in the books. That's different cards...not total.
It may seem hard to believe, but this is not the zenith of the memorabilia card craze. That was in 2005 when 78,954 of them were made. Last year, the number had dipped to 46,080.
Nolan Ryan memorabilia is the most popular with Cal Ripken second. If you can't find an affordable game-worn Ryan jersey, you shouldn't have any trouble finding a card with a piece of one of his jerseys. There are over 3,000 out there.
It's gotten to the point where collectors expect there will be at least a couple of memorabilia cards in a box of whatever product just hit the market. The best looking, most limited memorabilia cards still carry a premium online but there are a lot of event-worn and plain Jane swatches in show dealer's quarter boxes.
The sheer number of memorabilia cards out there also makes you wonder how many total cards have been produced over the past 15 years and just how serious the card companies have been about making sure what they're buying is real. So far, we have no concrete evidence to say they haven't been, but the demand--or the obsession, whichever you prefer, seems to indicate a massive amount of gear has been chopped into pieces.
We do know that several dealers of jerseys and other 'game worn' gear are facing federal charges for selling retail jerseys as game worn to at least one as yet unnamed card company. And not just one or two.
Even if some of those details become public at a trial, it seems unlikely we'll ever be able to trace the good from the bad. You just hope that those gigantic numbers in the database give the collector a fighting chance at favorable odds.