Ramblings: Hobby’s Year of Change Recalled

The great storytelling sportscaster Red Barber once wrote a book titled: “1947,  When all Hell Broke Loose in Baseball”.  I’ve always wondered what year we would say all hell broke loose in baseball card collecting and to me, one the of the candidates would be 1979. Why 35 years ago? In terms of card collecting, 1979 was truly a year in which we started growing up as a hobby.

1979 Topps cello caseBeckett Price Guide 1There were several important events in 1979.  The first was the debut of the Beckett Baseball Annual Price Guide book or as it was then known, the Sport Americana Baseball Card Price Guide (it’s become a bit of a collector’s item.  You can see one for sale here). This book was such a sensation at the time that a second volume had to be issued later that year. The edition with the white cover is far more difficult to obtain than the brown cover. Later that year, Dr. Beckett also produced his first football card price guide book as well as a baseball alphabetical checklist.  That was quite a year for Dr. Beckett.

’79 was about the time we began to see an uptick in the general public’s interest in collecting.  Sports had become an obsession and the growing number of card shows, publications and stories about the hobby in national media was starting to take off.

That year marked the creation and monthly publishing of Baseball Hobby News produced by Vivian and Frank Barning. BHN was unusual at the time because they were able to run more detailed hobby stories then what was running in either The Trader Speaks or Sports Collectors Digest.  In the pre-internet era, a new, quality sports collecting publication was a huge deal.

CPUThe third other important hobby event was the first year of prices being updated monthly in Card Prices Update (CPU).  CPU was such a sensation that the already booming card market now had monthly price guide updates to keep up with the exploding prices. In a timing similar to the gold and silver boom, the Bowman and early Topps card market was truly exploding as those collectors who no longer had those cards they had as a child were actively looking to replace them. My friend Mel Solomon once told me he and a fellow collecting friend set up a table of all 1950’s cards around that period, were charging “over book” and sold out their entire table by the end of the show.  Yes, those cards were that popular.

But in addition to how hot the vintage card market was, the new card market was still easy to explain. You see, the conclusion of the suit against Topps still had a year to go and thus only Topps could issue licensed cards in the four major sports and they only produced one major set per sport. All four of those sets are reasonably available in the secondary market and at reasonable prices. And one of the keys to remember that is even ESPN, which today is ubiquitous in terms of sports coverage, did not even get on the air until near the end of 1979. Thus in many cases, baseball cards were still the best way to get to know a little about a player’s life and career if he wasn’t featured in some national publication.

As for me, I did my first shows in 1979 and had no idea of what I was doing but had such a big inventory that I did fine at those Montclair State shows. I remember selling current year singles for two cents each in numerical order. Yes, in those days, we could sell commons and reasonably profitable at two cents each and it was worth taking table space to sell those cards. And I remember attending a bunch of card shows in New York City while I was attending college and spending good money.  In those days, all shows were true adventures and one could always find bargains.

Rich Klein can be reached at [email protected]