It doesn’t take long for 30 years to whiz by.
But as the collecting world is buzzing about the National at the Donald E. Stephens Convention Center in the Chicago suburb of Rosemont this week, those of us that are grizzled hobby veterans can’t help but think back to the various Nationals that have been held in the windy city.
Post-2000, it’s really difficult to sort out Chicago national memories. This will be the 11th National at the convention center. Throw in several big Krause shows from the early 2000s, and the memories really blend together.
The 1993 show was held downtown at the McCormick Convention Center and media reports of the day indicated that about 75,000 people came before the weekend was over.
It was my first trip to Chicago, so being downtown was pretty exciting. I was the editor of Canadian Sportscard Collector magazine at that point and did some work for Action Packed that summer. They were producing some specialty hockey items and were pushing hard to get an NHL license.
Some of the Chicago shows stand out for various reasons. For me, the 1993 Chicago National left me with a few memories that have stuck with me through three decades.
The Hobby in 1993
The sports card industry and market were very different 30 years ago. We were just a couple of years out from each company producing one set of cards per sport.
Then, the premium card sets were introduced. Topps Stadium Club, Pinnacle, Pro Set Platinum, Fleer Ultra, Pacific Prism and Upper Deck SP arrived. Another wave of “super premium” products were also coming, with the hobby buzzing about Topps Finest and Fleer Flair. Action Packed had a unique high-end embossed products, and Collector’s Edge introduced plastic cards.
The term “junk wax” wasn’t yet a part of hobby lexicon, though stacks of products gathering dust on the shelves of hobby shops and major retailers was becoming an issue. Manufacturers were starting to close out unsold products to “black hats”, a group of distributors who bought left over merchandise at heavily discounted prices and moved them to repackers, dollar stores, and their own networks of retailers.
There was a healthy mail order business, though it would soon transition from ads in hobby publications to eBay. The internet was not mainstream yet, and the hobby was still about five years away from eBay being a major player.
Looking back at the issues the hobby was facing in 1993 reminds us how far we have come and how important companies like PSA and Beckett have become.
The show floor was dominated by Michael Jordan. The Bulls were fresh off a three-peat, and in Chicago the demand for his cards was staggering. One Las Vegas dealer told an Atlanta newspaper he estimated there were only about 20 cases of 1986-87 Fleer Basketball left unopened. Nice copies of the Jordan rookie was selling for a “staggering” $800 with professional grading still in its infancy.
But while they talk about supply and demand in Economics 101 and Hobby Common Sense 101, they always forgot to talk about supply and demand and forgery.
Numerous fake 1987 Fleer Jordan cards were on the floor. The experts could spot the forged reprints based on a pin prick-sized yellow dot on the card fronts. Many of the cards circulated at the show without the buyers or even the dealers knowing the cards were fakes.
Another big problem was forged autographs. Some of the arrests and busts involved large-scale autograph dealers. The math was simple. If the business or dealer had a private signing with an athlete and got 200 items signed, they could prefect the autograph and produce another couple thousand of the same item without paying for the signature. The forgers had to be very good, and most were.
As a result of what was going on at the 1993 National, card grading grew up in popularity. PSA was in its third year, and they benefited from the forgery shenanigans more than anyone. Legitimate autograph companies combatted forger by recognizing the need for Certificates of Authenticity, something that was never really considered as a necessity.
As far as we have come, however, forgeries are still a huge issue in the autograph market.
Autographs and Auctions
The autograph guest list from the ’93 show might make you a little sad.
Walter Payton signed autographs–for free–for an hour on Sunday. He would be dead before the decade was out.
Tom Seaver, Warren Spahn, Minnie Minoso, Stan Mikita, Y.A. Tittle and Paul Hornung were among the other signers that weekend. None are still with us.
There were two auctions held in conjunction with the show, one on Thursday and one on Saturday with a 1938 Babe Ruth Brooklyn Dodgers coach’s uniform and a 1915 Cracker Jack baseball set among “more than $2 million worth of collectibles” that were set to be sold, according to the Chicago Tribune’s coverage.
What would a card show in Chicago be without Bobby Hull?
In fact, if I were to look back over the past 35 years and recall every major show I have ever been to, the number of shows in which Bobby Hull was an autograph guest would easily outnumber the shows in which the Golden Jet was not there.
At Canadian Sportscard Collector at that time, I worked closely with Baron Bedesky, who moved into my chair when I buggered off across the border to Pinnacle on a full time basis. Baron and I had a running joke that if you could find a rare unsigned Bobby Hull card or photo, it was worth double or triple of a signed Hull item. We also wondered when the day would come that you could actually bid on Bobby Hull in an auction as the ultimate one of one. He could come over and live in the basement and drink everything in your wine rack and tell hockey stories and do some chores.
As dedicated to the hobby as Baron and I were, we laughed longer and harder than probably any two people who ever worked together in the industry. Bobby Hull was almost like a trigger point to start what could have been a comedy routine between us.
Through the years I did get to know Bobby Hull, and I was even supposed to go work as the licensing director for the reboot of the WHA in 2004 with Hull as commissioner. It never happened. One of the reasons I was not frantically searching for a job after the sale and closure of Pacific was that I had a job to go to. Or at least I thought I did. Twenty years later, I am still trying to figure out how to get back in the business at the corporate level even though I have stayed in the hobby in a number of roles.
The frenzy for Classic Chris Webber promo cards was not at the level of insanity that it reached for Classic Brien Taylor promo cards in 1991. But when there is endless line up for a free card that is selling on the show floor by dealers asking $100 each for the cards, you can’t fault collectors for thinking they are lining up for free Benjamins.
Webber was drafted first overall by the Orlando Magic about a month before the 1993 show. The Magic immediately traded him to the Golden State Warriors.
Webber also came to the show to sign autographs.
He was not the only popular rookie that collectors were clamoring over in 1993. Baseball collectors were all over a hot rookie shortstop drafted by the Yankees. Derek Jeter had already been identified by baseball experts as the best prospect since Ken Griffey Jr. five years earlier. Another hot player? John Olerud, whose 1990 Leaf card was selling for $15-$20.
Last Show At McCormick
Being in the hobby media at the time, I knew someone at most of the card companies. When I chatted with them, I heard a recurring story.
Companies ship their corporate booths in wooden crates and ship them to the show. It is up to the employees of the venue to then move your booth to the area designated to be your booth. The staff of the companies would arrive in the morning the day before the show to assemble or construct their booths. They waited and waited, looking at their booths at the other end of the room.
The workers, meanwhile, sat around and played cards. When anyone asked when their booth would be delivered, the workers said they had until 5 PM to deliver them. That was part of their union deal. So at about 4:57 PM, after a wasted day, the corporate booths were delivered.
NSCC promoter Mike Berkus told me at the next Chicago National that dealing with the union was very difficult. Once I went to work for Pinnacle, and then Collector’s Edge and Pacific, we went through the exact same issue.
Collectors would never see these goings on as it was all happening before the start of the show, but it was one of those difficult situations that made things very difficult for the manufacturers.
Overall, I went home on a high from the show. I love the National, just like I love the Expo in Canada and I love any other big hobby event. Okay, I love small shows too. I bought some wax – football and baseball – and opened a box in my hotel room one night and opened another on the plane on the way home.
I love to look back at that era. We were so blessed to have companies like Pinnacle, Fleer, Pacific, Pro Set, Collector’s Edge, SkyBox, Action Packed, AW and others who did not make it through the next decade. They all made their share of quality products. They just made too much.