I hauled out a big plastic tote full of sports stuff last weekend and started digging into the contents for the first time in a really long time. Sadly, I already knew there wouldn’t be any T206s, Mickey Mantle cards or even the stack of 1983 Topps grocery rack packs with stars on top that mysteriously disappeared after my move from Northern California to the Midwest back in the mid-1990s.
No, this was just miscellaneous stuff that didn’t really fit in a binder or standard size box I could tuck into a closet.
Shoebox Treasures, this was not, but there was some nostalgia in there.
There were some old Topps send-away sheets, a pretty rare Smokey the Bear Padres set from the 1980s, some old Pro Set promos from the early 90s (Madonna rookie card, anyone?), a big manila envelope full of old schedules from active and defunct leagues and teams (L.A. Strings, anyone?), some sports oriented 33 RPM records (Go, Joe Charboneau!), a giant Donruss Studio Football set and a bunch of other stuff that I had vaguely recalled saving years ago when I pretty much saved everything.
While I mostly pondered how I was someday going to have to figure out how to find homes for this giant pile of mish-mash, it also brought back memories of how we collectors used to acquire stuff in the pre-internet days. Almost everything in the box had a story. That always brings me to one thought:
The hobby is so easy today.
One of the things I remember most about adding to my collection in the 1970s, 80s and early 90s is how much trading was done. Sure, money changed hands through the mail and at shows, but average collectors probably did as much, if not more, trading. If you were lucky enough to acquire an ample supply of a certain card set, you posted a trade ad to diversify your collection. Some of the stuff in the box was acquired that way. Hobby publications were packed with buy/sell/trade ads. With the internet and email still just a gleam in the eyes of computer guys back then, you grabbed a pen and you wrote postcards and letters to prospective trade partners who had stuff for trade or were looking for stuff you had (if you were classy, you found some sports oriented stamps to use on the envelope). It had been the way of the collecting world since Jefferson Burdick was young.
In about a week or so, you got a reply (hopefully) and the process would begin to swap your stuff for theirs. You usually tossed a note to the collector inside the box. Who sent first usually didn’t matter. Most people were honest because most of the goods really didn’t have much value so I suppose going to the trouble of scamming someone wasn’t really worth the time and effort. I know trading happens today, but it’s nowhere near the force of nature it was 30-40 years ago.
There was no eBay. If you wanted to auction something, you probably posted an ad in Sports Collectors Digest, Baseball Hobby News, the Trader Speaks or one of the smaller publications that were floating around. Sometimes local shows held auctions in conjunction with the event. In the 80s, Teletrade emerged, conducting auctions via phone (you still accessed it through a magazine) but you were pretty much buying blind. There were no photos or extensive descriptions.
Some dealers would sell on “approval.” Send a want list, they’d send you the cards and you’d then pay for what you’d keep.
It was all a lengthy process, with your success at adding cards dependent upon how many letters and checks you were willing to write and mail. Instant purchase, instant payment and shipping within a day was a pipe dream. Patience was required of every collector then, but you can’t miss what you didn’t know, right?
Here’s how I received my 1986-87 Fleer Basketball set, ordered through a hobby publication.
There were no online forums in those days with B,S,T sections. No Facebook Marketplace or Groups to sell or buy in. Card shows happened—even in the ’70s—but they weren’t common. Larger cities with collecting “clubs” sometimes had them every other month and then a larger show once per year. These days, there’s a decent chance of finding a card show within an hour or two of where you live at least a couple of times per month.
There weren’t any online dealer inventories. Some of them sent out lists of cards they had for sale every month or so (hi, Ken Goldin) and if you wanted more info, you’d pick up the phone and call them. Everyone called everyone in those days, even at a time when you had to pay to make a long distance call (long distance was basically anyone who lived beyond about a 15-mile radius of your house).
Packaging was hit and miss. Some collectors took time to box your stuff up right, but I remember receiving some 1971 Topps cards in a trade around 1980 that were literally rubber banded in stacks of 10 or 20 cards and tossed into a big envelope. Even then, most collectors cared enough to cringe at that but to others, they were still just baseball cards and who cares if the corners aren’t sharp?
Want to buy a card or box today? Head to eBay and chances are there are a bunch of them for sale, all with multiple pictures and (hopefully) a written description. Buy it, pay instantly. Use Paypal with a credit card and you get cash back on your statement. The seller will print his shipping label right from the listing rather than writing your name and address on the box and driving to the post office to send it. Chances are good it’ll arrive by Saturday.
Still, we were able to build collections pretty successfully and creatively back in the day and not many were really focused on value. It was mostly about getting as much different stuff as we could. I remember trading with someone to acquire that Padres set (I was obsessively collecting regional sets then and actually still love them). My old Topps send-away sheets and 80s Cracker Jack all-time greats sheets I found in the box are still in the original envelopes with my parents’ address on them.
With only a few standard card sets produced by the major manufacturers each year, you were always on the lookout for other sets, most of which proved a lot harder to get, which was part of the fun. There were a lot of food-oriented companies who used sports stuff as a promotion. Sometimes it was baseball cards inside boxes of cereal, candy bars or frozen pizza. Acquire a few extras and you could trade them off.
Sometimes you had to get creative—and a little bold. I’m pretty sure most of the 1981 Squirt Baseball panels that are on the market today came from a case I was able to buy directly from the company. They didn’t advertise it. I just asked and someone at the bottling company decided it would be OK to sell to some random teenager in Wisconsin (although I think a few other collectors did the same).
The schedules came from bulk trades—and there are some “classics” in there: 1970s baseball, USFL, the first national women’s pro basketball league (Milwaukee Does, Minnesota Fillies, Iowa Cornets, etc.), World Team Tennis with Billie Jean King and Martina Navratilova and a 1984-85 Bulls ticket brochure with you know who. Schedules were free for the taking or asking and we traded them across North America—usually about 200 or so at a time. It was fun and cheap.
Would I go back to those days? Yes and no. I loved the simplicity of the hobby at the time, comparatively speaking. I loved that most everyone I knew was collecting for collecting’s sake and while we knew our stuff had some value, that wasn’t the primary focus of why we spent time on it. I loved the variety of cards that seemingly came out of every nook and cranny of the supermarket, police department, fire department or pro sports team and the chase to get them. I love the fact that buying something really special back in those days left an indelible mark on my memory as to where I purchased it, when and sometimes how much it cost (1933 Goudey Lou Gehrig and Babe Ruth, $500 each at Bob Lee’s Moscone Center Show in San Francisco early 1990s).
But I love how quickly and efficiently we can collect today, thanks mostly to the internet and the technological tools that have enabled some creative marketplaces and other startups to thrive in its wake. I love how easy it is to see pictures of what you’re buying and that we’re a bit more educated thanks to the information super highway. I love the easy access to prices so we really know what’s rare and what isn’t. I also love that despite an ever increasing focus on money, there’s still a lot of camaraderie among collectors that’s evidenced each day in those forums, groups and at shows. Fortunately, some things don’t change.
Now if you’ll excuse me I’ve got another box to dig through.