The National: Then and Now

by Rich Klein

I used to compile sports card show reports during my tenure at Beckett (in the old days when we used to have actually have to type up show reports to get reimbursed!) and called them Rich’s Ramblings.  We’ve decided to rev up the Rambler again—mixing in my experiences at this year’s National Sports Collectors Convention with some memories from prior National shows in the first of a couple of columns.

Chicago 2011 National Sports Collectors Convention

I had certain goals for this year’s National, which was my 29th straight.   That’s right.  I haven’t missed one since Boggs, Gwynn and Sandberg rookie cards were all the rage.  First, I am a great supporter of the National concept and I wanted to make sure I got to the VIP kickoff reception on Wednesday. I did arrive at the Stephens Convention Center in time and stayed for the 10 item Topps Vault Auction. The auction items were fun to look at and the idea was sound but it would have been even better if they had been able to have it  in front of a crowded room just after the doors opened at 2:30 instead of having to wait until after 3:30 when the show floor opened. The buzz was that the auction could not begin until the Topps executives arrived. Well, finally the auction did begin but the execs did not arrive until 3:52 p.m. when many had drifted over to the show.  What was a good event could have been even better.

After the auction the idea is to hit the floor running. With the concrete floor and my creaky legs, let’s say limping may be a better term. Having attended so many Nationals dating back to the 1980s, needless to say more of my friends who are dealers are blessed with tables in front of the room. The sad part is that we lose a few each year. When the health of a couple of friends came up, my first instinctive comment was “Are they still living? With the very recent loss of a good friend of my wife’s this week at age 44 (he was a good man and that is way too young), it’s always good and sad to remember who went before.

As you entered the hall, the first stop was at a booth manned by hobby veteran John Rumierz. In the late 1990s, when his friend Don Steinbach had passed away way too young from an asthma attack, I asked: “Is it different this year without your running mate?” John said it was.  This year, I felt the same way as my good friend Steve Gold had lost his long bout with cancer just a few months ago. Steve and I always made it a point to do dinner at each National and this was one of the first times since the mid-1980s that I did not have dinner with a member of the Gold family.  Several years ago, I teamed with Steve’s father Eddie on several SABR National trivia team champions.

While helping customers at John’s table, we discussed the hobby with John, long-time dealer B.A. Murray as well as the former King of the Commons, Bill Henderson, along with Ace Marchant and Dan McKee. Between the six of us, there is probably more than 200 years of hobby experience and we had a great time trading stories. John and his friends used to go to Venezuela frequently on buying trips to pick up cards. In fact, most of the information available in the hobby regarding those cards is because of the trips they took. While he offered up some tales from those trips, the rest of us were just bantering as friends getting together tend to do. Oh yes, occasionally a card would be sold as well.

John reminded me of the time everyone stopped at my parents’ house on the way back from a White Plains show and somehow all we had to eat was chicken soup. John told me that he still remembered how good that soup was and I had to admit I had no recipe and no cooking skills to help on that one.

The 1983 National, also held in Chicago, was my first one.  A dealer friend named Mel Solomon sold me about one-fourth of a table and I helped him set up and take care of the booth.  Out of that small area, I did literally $3000 in business.  It was almost all singles, with some group bulk. I remember we were making the market in Dale Murphy Rookies during the show.   I don’t even remember what the CPU (remember this was pre-Beckett days) was on that card but by Saturday we were buying above CPU and then selling at a premium.

In those days, through about 1990, there would always be what was called — “the card of the National”. In 1987, the National was held in San Francisco when Mark McGwire was the biggest story in baseball.  The price of his rookie card went from $6 when I left New Jersey to $12 during the show and everyone wanted that card. Because of how the hobby has become more diverse, the days of having a “card of the National” is now a thing of the past.

The 1984 National was in Parsippany New Jersey at the Aspen Hotel. Don’t bother to look for that facility on Route 46 because the hotel no longer exists. Among my memories of that show was that the lounge required you to wear a jacket to enter so a couple of people brought jackets and just passed those jackets through to the people waiting outside to enter.

That was also the place where I officially met Jim Beckett.  It was not in the way you would do so today. In those days of the National we had seminars, trivia contests, softball games and other ways to get together Being the smart man that he was, in order to meet everyone for both teams, he was the “all-time” catcher during our softball game. So when you came to the plate, he would ask who you were and go from there. Little did I realize that six years later, I would be hired for the job that I would have for nearly 19 years, mostly on a full-time basis until the last couple of years were contracts more on than off.

Yes, it would be nice if we could return to those days.  One thing that used to be great about the seminars was that many of the leading hobby people would talk in a “state of the hobby” roundtable.

The 1985 National was held at the Disneyland Hotel. The company I was working for at the time, Sports Information Database, had just recently called all their employees back to work and we were in the process of being sold.  Unbeknownst to me, the deal to buy SIDB was canceled literally while I was in the air between NY and LA and there was a message left on my hotel phone the next morning after we set up at the show. For some reason, I went back to my room and noticed the phone message. Remember, these were the days before cell phones, so the rudimentary method of leaving messages in hotel rooms was quite frequent.  Needless to say, I was in terrible mood for the rest of the show. The only highlight was that from my room you could actually see the nightly Disneyland Fireworks which were amazing to watch.

By 1986 the National had moved to Arlington, Texas which was about 30-45 minutes from the home of Beckett Publications.  Texas in mid-summer can be sauna-like.

The promoter, the late Wanda Marcus, had arranged for National table holders to buy tickets to the Rangers game. Well somehow my tickets were missing. Wanda being the gracious hostess, just offered me her four tickets and we were off to the game. I decided to walk right on over to the ball park and sat in what was the drenching sun until it finally faded behind the grandstand.  I was drinking any liquid any vendor was selling that day and cursing all the time to myself as to why anyone would ever want to live in this godforsaken area where sweat was the name of the game.

Of course, in 1990, the day after the National, I had my official interview to come to Beckett, got hired and began within a few weeks. So you never know.  I have now spent 21 years of my life in what I was cursing out in 1986.

More later…more reminiscing… and if anyone wants to ask questions about dealers past or stores past I’ll be happy to respond in the next Ramblings column.

Rich Klein can be reached at [email protected]



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