The National Sports Collectors Convention opens four weeks from now, making its third ever stop in Atlantic City. The first was in 1988 when an estimated 50,000 collectors turned out just as the hobby’s boom era was beginning to escalate. The second stop came 15 years later when much of the focus for buying and selling had shifted online. A look back at some of the coverage from that first show gives you a sense of how far the hobby has come—or hasn’t.
The cardboard king on the floor of the AC Convention Center in 1988 was Don Mattingly. The show was close enough to Yankees country that dealers sold as many as they could find but even if it had been held in Des Moines, Mattingly would have been a hot ticket. He seemed like a sure bet for Cooperstown then and his rookie cards were skyrocketing with every batting title and clutch home run.
Collectors of vintage cards had witnessed increasing interest thanks to a flurry of national publicity about how valuable cards had become. Jaws were dropping as buyers at the show circled around high-end 1952 Topps Mickey Mantle cards that were selling for (gasp!) $6,500!
A T206 Wagner was priced at $110,000. If only we’d pooled our money…
Judging by the photo in the Associated Press feature story that ran in newspapers coast-to-coast during that warm weekend 28 years ago, Mr. Mint was a busy man. He could be abrasive and boastful but he was also the guy whose full-page ads and briefcases full of cash led to national TV appearances during the decade and helped propel interest in baseball cards to new heights.
Unfortunately in 1988, the belief that buying current players and treating their cards like stocks was still very much in evidence. Speculators were doubling down on Eric Davis; paying $4 and up for young Mets prospect Gregg Jefferies and wondering if Sam Horn was worth that extra buck. Beckett’s monthly ‘weather report’ was the most anticipated media moment of the month, for dealers who needed pricing info and for collectors who wondered what their cards were worth.
But reading some of the media coverage from that first AC visit 28 years ago, including this story in the Philadelphia Inquirer, not much has really changed. There was already investing going on and not all of the action was on Mattingly or Jose Canseco rookie cards. There were determined buyers from traditional markets dipping into the pool then, too, buying those vintage icons that are soaring today: Mantle, Jackie Robinson, Koufax and others. It seems silly now, but dealers even then were lamenting the increasing costs of cards, worried that the prices were going to drive “true” collectors out.
Those who stayed in it, buying quality cards when they could and sticking them away for the long haul back in 1988 (or even ’03) have probably seen a better return than nearly every stock or mutual fund. Those prices—even adjusting for today’s dollars—seem quaint.
One of the most fascinating elements of the 1988 National was that IBM had a booth at the show, promoting its home computer. It would be a few more years before just about everyone had one.
There were also cities lobbying to host the 1989 National.
Las Vegas brought showgirls but in true hobby fashion, Chicago won the vote.