It’s been around now for more than 20 years so to many under the age of 40, it might seem like sports card and memorabilia auctions began with eBay. The truth is, if you went to a card show of any size back from the 1970s through the early 1990s, there was a decent chance they would hold live auctions at some point during the day or weekend. Some shows still have them. Dealers would submit items and collectors or even people off the street could come in and hand over their old collections. Within an hour, most or all of it was usually sold—sometimes for a ridiculously low price.
It wasn’t the only type of auction, though. If you want to know what it was really like in the old days, just open up a yellowed old sports collecting publication. Anyone could take out an ad in Sports Collectors Digest, Baseball Hobby News, The Trader Speaks or even their mimeographed forefathers and hold an auction. If your advertising budget was $10, you bought a classified. If you had bigger ticket items and a little more money to spend, you took out a “display ad”.
A sophisticated process it was not.
The ads rarely contained any photos. Ad space was just too expensive for that. The “description” was sometimes just a listing of the item (“1933 Goudey Babe Ruth VG-EX”). The “auctioneer” stated a closing date, which was usually at least two weeks out, sometimes as many as four. Why? Well, you had to allow time for everyone to receive their magazine, read it, mark the page of the auction, write their bids on a sheet of paper or postcard and mail them in. That’s right…the auction process was completely dependent upon the postal service. Two weeks to get your auction in front of folks and have them respond was sometimes cutting it close.
Postcards were used if you were only bidding on a couple of items because all of that mailing did get to be a little expensive. Every few cents you could save was a help (and otherwise you had to lick a bunch of stamps—yuck). Classier collectors used sports picture postcards, some of which the seller kept for his collection if they were cool enough. You could call and place your bids, but in the days before answering machines, that sometimes meant the seller 1) had to be home and 2) often had to get up from the dinner table and hope the bidder wasn’t the chatty type.
The seller had to keep track of his stack of notes, phone bids and postcards (hoping the postmarks didn’t obscure the bid amounts on postcards), then sort through each one and write down who won what. Some sellers asked for an SASE (self-addressed, stamped envelope) so they didn’t have to pay to notify you whether you won or lost.
If you were lucky enough to win something, you had to wait for the seller to reach out to you—usually by mail– although if you provided a phone number, he’d sometimes call. If bids weren’t what he was expecting, it wasn’t unusual for the seller to claim the reserve wasn’t met or just flat out say your offer was “ridiculous” or “unreasonable”.
To get your stuff, you wrote a check (two-week waiting period to clear) or went to the bank and coughed up a little extra for a money order (immediate shipment).
Bidders pretty much flew blind, but there was far less emphasis on condition back then so most people felt fairly confident bidding on an “EX/MT” set of 1969 Topps cards. Many sellers were also collectors so some ads actually stated you could bid in cash or cards from a want list they posted inside the ad.
If items didn’t sell, the owner had to either do the whole thing over, try again with a set price or hope he could move them at a show.
It was a clunky way to do things but no one could have possibly imagined what was just over the horizon, with “mail” that was delivered in seconds rather than days, bids that could be placed in the final minute of an auction by an electronic, automated service, listings that could be re-posted automatically and the option to showcase your stuff with a virtually unlimited number of photographs, some of which could be taken by a phone you kept in your pocket, the same device you used to actually place bids while you waited for the dentist. In 1986, that was futuristic craziness and yet, here we are.
Whenever someone complains about paying eBay or Paypal fees or gets angry with a seller when the item they won in an auction on Sunday isn’t shipped by Tuesday afternoon, I think about all of those ads and the postcards and sheets of lined paper I sent out, hoping to score a deal that I probably wouldn’t see for three weeks even if I did win. Sometimes it makes me want to reach through the screen and bop those spoiled brats on the head with a rolled up old magazine, back when they used to be packed with enough of those ads to leave a mark.