by Diane Carter
To most baseball card collectors, nothing is more exciting than an unopened pack of cards. The mystery of what is inside can be overwhelming. Will you draw a card worth a good amount of money or a particular rare insert to add to your collection? Unopened baseball cards generate excitement and anticipation. On the fun scale, opening a pack of cards is a definite 10 out of 10.
So, the idea of buying an unopened pack, box or case of cards only to leave it unopened, isn't easy unless you're a dealer. Yet today unopened baseball cards are a large part of the baseball collectors’ marketplace, especially for vintage collectors. The result is really a modern day catch 22--how can you place a value on a pack of cards without knowing what’s in it?
Today, unopened cards are purchased and saved for posterity in all types of formats--blaster boxes, cello boxes, jumbo boxes, rack packs, hobby boxes, retail boxes, wax boxes, vending boxes, etc.
Sports cards come in several types of packaging. The most popular has always been the pack. "Wax packs" have come to mean traditional card packs. The term started circulating in the 1970s when other types of packs were starting to be produced. Originally the paper wrappers around baseball cards had a waxy feel and were quite bright, often with blue, yellow and red lettering to attract attention. Originally, packs of baseball cards had gum inside and the wrapper was an aid in keeping it fresh. Now cards are more apt to be wrapped in foil-type packaging.
Cello packs, on the other hand, had a clear, see-through wrapper, and contained as many as three times the number of cards in a wax pack. The see-through feature was also present in rack packs, which were made to hang from racks in department and drugstores and the like. Rack packs had three sections of cards in clear packaging so you could see six of the cards you were buying. There were often twelve to fifteen cards in each of the three sections. Rack packs are still being made today, although not quite as transparent.
- Vending boxes--created for hobby stores or 'weekend warrior' dealers who put together their own sets or singles to sell to customers. Typically, there were 500 cards in a cardboard box and 24 boxes per case. They were sold primarily from the 1950's through the early 1990's. Vintage vending cases, still unopened, can sell for tens of thousands of dollars while those from the 'overproduction era' of 1987-1991 often selling for $200 and less.
- Hobby boxes--found in hobby shops (sports cards shops) and other smaller distributors. These are the boxes that are most common to avid collectors, with card manufacturers stating most of their product information based on the hobby box. Usually they contain 1-3 autographed cards and a specified number of other inserts, along with base cards.
- Jumbo boxes--have more cards per pack than the other types of card boxes. Once in a while they may have more packs but usually you will receive fewer packs with more cards, such as 50 each. Sometimes there are exclusive inserts in jumbos and often there are more autographs per box, but at a higher price point. Good for set builders who want to acquire a lot of cards at one time.
- Retail boxes--These are usually what you find in retails stores such as Walmart or Target. The boxes often have a lower insert to card ratio and the packs may have a different number of cards than a hobby box. They also might have a special run, such as different colored borders that are exclusive to either store. Sometimes they will also have exclusive inserts, however retail boxes sometimes don't match hobby boxes in terms of autograph content or other major hits. If you don't live near a hobby shop, retail boxes are the way to go.
- Blaster boxes--a more modern offering, these hold fewer cards than a retail box and may or may not have inserts. They often sell for $9.99 or $19.99, which puts them in a more affordable price range for buyers. These boxes are usually sold by retail stores or online and are sealed unlike many retail boxes. If you like your blaster box, you might want to invest in a hobby box of the same cards.
The key to collecting unopened boxes of baseball cards is to know which ones are of value and which ones are not. In the 1980s when the number of baseball card collectors increased dramatically, the idea of packing away a few unopened boxes in the closet as an investment really started to take off.
Unfortunately, the 80s and 90s over-production made all of those boxes virtually worthless.
Supply and demand is the key to collecting baseball cards in general and to collecting unopened wax packs and boxes. If the cards from a particular year and brand are selling well, then there’s value in buying a box and holding on to it unopened. The fact of the matter--every time someone cracks open a box of previously unopened baseball cards, there is one less unopened box available in the marketplace and the value of all the other unopened cards increases.
If you had an unopened pack of 1952 Topps baseball with a high grade attached, you could probably sell it for enough money to jump start your retirement. The possibility of pulling a Mantle rookie from an unopened pack is…..well, priceless.
In 1975, well-known collector Charlie Conlon had the foresight to scoop up all the cases he could find of the newly released Topps mini baseball cards. They had issued only a small number as a test, many distributed in his home state of Michigan. In May, 2009, 26 cases that were left in his estate were sold via Robert Edward Auctions for $307,000. It is estimated Conlon originally paid around $1000 for the cards.
As with all sports memorabilia, there are lots of scammers out there trying to make a buck off collectors of unopened baseball cards who are just not knowledgeable about the cards or don’t recognize the signs of tampering. One successful method is to unseal a pack, take out all the valuable cards, replace them with commons, and then reseal the pack.
Some of the re-sealers are so good, you would never know the pack had been opened. This is particularly a problem on eBay where buyers go to try and find lower card prices. PSA pack grader Steve Hart believes that as many as 50% of the unopened packs and boxes on eBay have been tampered with and re-sealed.
The best of the counterfeiters can even produced a crimped seal that perfectly matches up with the original. Graded packs have now become the norm, offering collectors at least a stronger peace of mind that they are indeed the first to open the pack. Vintage packs from sealed cases broken by reputable dealers like Hart's own Baseball Card Exchange are the safest bet.
There are two types of collectors of unopened cards. One is totally concerned about the dollars involved and if the cards are going to gain value or perhaps even skyrocket in value over time. The other type of collector is more concerned with a love of the game of baseball and the connection to the players and history that baseball cards give. For these collectors, it would be nice to make money, but if they don’t, they don’t. The investment is secondary. These are the people for whom not opening a pack or a box may be the worst kind of torture.
If you are going to collect unopened cards, accept that it’s a gamble.
Keep these tips in mind to help you make the best choices:
- Choose boxes of cards which are issued in limited quantities.
- Choose boxes for years where there is an exceptional rookie class. The possibility of a rookie star in an unopened pack is a good selling feature. The better a particular rookie performs, the more your cards will be worth.
- For vintage packs, choose a year that's not going have a negative effect on your overall finances if there's nothing of redeeming value inside or the cards are miscut, dinged or exhibit other problems.
- For modern era packs, a good number of inserts in a box is also an excellent selling point. Game-used memorabilia and autographs increase the value of any box now and over time.
- Research the value of the box by pricing individual cards.
- Buy unopened boxes of higher end cards. These are more apt to increase in value than a Topps base set
If you are going to collect unopened baseball cards, have patience. If the urge to see what’s in those colorful packages is keeping you up at night, you might want to switch to another collecting option.