If you made plans to attend the National Sports Collectors Convention 36 years ago this summer, you brought you best inventory. You also may have packed your softball glove, your swim trunks, a few cards to flip…and your Bible. The agenda for the fledgling event’s third year was a little different from the one you’ve become used to in the current century.
The kickoff event had been held in southern California in 1980. The next year, the show set up shop near Detroit. Year three saw a small, but dedicated group of Midwest collectors host it from August 26-29.
The show may have been an annual by then but it still wasn’t big enough for a convention center. During the first six years of its existence and once more after that, a nice hotel with a big ballroom would suffice. In 1982, the show was at the St. Louis Marriott. The convention program was mimeographed and stapled together but if you really wanted to know what was going on, you had to have it because there was a lot going on. And it sure sounded like a bunch of fun.
Hobby long-timers will remember. Those whose memories aren’t old enough to recall it will probably be amused. The program’s contents reveal that the difference between then and now was startling. The introductory remarks inside reveal a completely different vibe. Check out a welcome message from one of the show’s promoters, Bill Stone:
There were no VIP passes. No autograph pavilion. No case breaking. No corporate pavilion. To “generally have a good time” was the overriding theme. Collecting then was still seen as a social activity. You mixed. You mingled. You swam (or watched your kids swim). You swung a bat. You learned stuff. If you knew stuff, you taught it to those who didn’t.
Just as it does now, the show started on Wednesday and ended on Sunday but there was no “show” on Wednesday.
Those first two days were set aside for other stuff deemed important. The money that changed hands could wait. With only 217 tables in the room, it wouldn’t take a day and a half for dealer set-up anyway.
The “show” began with a swimming party mixer on Wednesday afternoon at the hotel pool, followed by a trip to the Dodgers/Cardinals game that night (the Cards would go on to win the World Series, by the way). Thursday was set aside for collecting seminars. From 10 in the morning until 5 in the afternoon, you could settle in to hear about:
- The Future of the Hobby with Frank Barning, publisher of Baseball Hobby News (wouldn’t it be fun to listen in now? Maybe there’s a long-lost recording somewhere or maybe Frank saved his notes. We’d love to know.
- Collecting Cardinals memorabilia (popular with the local folks, no doubt)
- Collecting uniforms, bats, postcards, press pins, 19th century cards, Post Cereal cards, taxes, trends, current issues, tips for beginners and “How to Deal with Hobby Publications” (certainly re-enforces how important such media was at the time).
The day was broken up by a luncheon that included a guest speaker. Finally, from 5:30 until 9 PM, dealers could get their tables ready for the crowd to come on Friday. No VIP early admission then. They also held a dealer meeting that night, followed by the first of three (THREE) hospitality gatherings at 9 PM. The cocktails and stories flowed.
On Friday morning, continuing a tradition, there was softball. Players gathered in the lobby and then headed to a local park. The show started at 10 and ran until 9 (?!?) that night with a card flipping contest (if you’re under 55 you probably have never “flipped”). The softball players apparently had someone else run their table until they returned.
The show opened again on Saturday from 10 until 8 (?!?).
For those who felt bad about missing church while they were away from home, there was a service conducted Sunday at 9 AM at the hotel (with the Rev. Jerry Gardner). Some may have prayed next year’s show would be held closer to their home since the meeting and vote to select the 1983 location would take place at noon Sunday. The winner was Chicago, which marked the first of ten shows that have been held there (the first two at hotels).
By 5 PM, dealers were packing up and heading home. Attendance for the three days was pegged at around 5,500. They’d not return to St. Louis again until 1995–and that would be the last time a National would be held in an area that is as close to the center of the country as you can get.
Sure, dealers (the overwhelming majority of whom had regular jobs) came to those early Nationals to make money and buy more stuff they could sell. The idea, though, was to put on an event that was a little something more. “The hobby” was still pretty young. The idea that a lot of adults collected baseball cards was still spreading around North America.
In the years to come the show would become so big and popular (thanks in large part to the ‘boom’ of the late 1980s and early 90s) that some of the intimacy was left behind. The sheer size has become its biggest attraction. You can still take in a ballgame, go for a swim or have a few drinks but you’ll have to do the organizing yourself.