Baseball card shows began to spring up fairly regularly in the 1970s. They still weren’t a common sight and more often than not, you had to drive a little ways to find one. Many were held in VFW halls or small hotel conference rooms with local collectors buying and selling but mostly trading. Larger cities, though, began to hold “National” shows–larger events once a year that drew ‘professional’ dealers from a certain region of the country.
Many of those guys would be called weekend warriors today, but they made a habit of driving a few hours to as many shows as they could and sometimes crisscrossed states, setting up in similar rooms on buying trips. They advertised in local papers and bought cards from people who were ecstatic that someone would actually hand them cash for the clutter in their attic. Still, it was pretty rare for a collector in California to interact personally with one in New York.
We may look at the recent prices attained by some rare items and the resulting publicity and think that maybe sports memorabilia is finally earning some respect. The truth is, it’s not a new phenomenon. In fact, the concept of the National Sports Collectors Convention was born, in part, because we seemed to need it.
Keep in mind, this was an era when there was still only one maker of baseball cards (football, basketball and hockey too, for that matter). You could buy a T206 Hall of Famer for five bucks–sometimes less. Grading and authentication firms were still more than a decade away. Still, there was a sense that the hobby had ‘grown up’.
That’s why Gavin Riley, a noted collector, southern California show promoter and school teacher, got out a typewriter and hammered out a note to The Trader Speaks, a monthly hobby publication at the time. He told the collecting world that plans were indeed in the works for a nationwide gathering of collectors. What he wrote in 1979, is sort of a National Convention Magna Carta.
“With all the national attention our hobby has received recently through exposure in beer commercials, LIFE Magazine and the Wall Street Journal, to say nothing of the numerous hobby publications, local newspapers, clubs and large gatherings around the country, it is almost redundant to say we are a force to be recognized in the hobby field. We have come so far, particularly in the last ten years, that only one element is missing–a national convention! By this, I don’t mean another buy, sell and auction “show” of which there already are too many, but a “convention” in its classic sense.
Personally having attended a dozen shows in the last couple of years and worked on the West Coast Convention committee for the last eight, I’ve noticed that they all have pretty much evolved, or degenerated, if you will, into hobby swap meets.
When the very first hobby convention was held here in Los Angeles eleven years ago, the agenda included discussions of hobby issues, exhibits, a meal, souvenir program, and a group outing to a major league game. Today, virtually all of those activities have been scrapped in favor of carbon copy events distinguished only by locale. Shows have grown bigger, but I doubt if anyone can say better. It has even been said that some of the older shows have been doing the same things for so long that apathy is setting in.
A national convention therefore, is an idea whose time has come, not at some future date, but in 1980, and more specifically at the Airport Marriott Hotel in Los Angeles, beginning the Wednesday before the Labor Day weekend.
I have engaged in preliminary discussions with the convention manager of the Marriott and he would be more than happy to make as much of the 1,100 room hotel, with 35,000 square feet of convention space, available to us as we can use. To get the ball rolling he would only need to know the number of hotel rooms that would be occupied with an expectation of three to five hundred.
The convention would include an opening evening informal reception, seminars on such sample topics as regionals, uniforms, autograph collecting, etc; round table discussion on a national organization, reprints and/or hobby dishonesty; exhibits; workshops on such things as mounting, condition guide, and organizing a club or show; contests; a large banquet meal to also honor special hobby achievements during the year; special section at an Angel or Dodger game; convention program; chartered bus trips to Los Angeles attractions such as Disneyland; Universal Studios or the Queen Mary for family members wishing to get away from the convention for a while; hospitality suite; and, of course, the usual three-day show over the Labor Day weekend with the potential of 300 tables. The cost of all these activities would be born by a single fee in the $150 range which would be less if the person did not wish a table.
The planning, coordination, and successful execution of such an enormous project would be staggering the first year but Mike Berkus, Steve Brunner and I will bite the bullet” to get the program off the ground. I have the added advantage as a teacher to have summer unemployment to spend working on the event.
The only element still to be heard from is the collecting community. If you are planning to stay in this hobby and your knowledge of card history consists of the smoking habits of Honus Wagner, or the depth of your ideas about values are whatever a price guide says, and/or the only time you associate with fellow hobbyists is a cross a table of sports collectibles, then for you the time is ripe.
All I need is a postcard or letter stating that if planned you will be at the national convention in 1980 and what particular activities you wold like included in the agenda. If I can present hundreds of letters and postcards to the Marriott people, we can gear up with nearly a year to plan. Don’t let someone else do it; everyone take the five minutes or so to get a card or letter in the mail to me and we can launch our hobby into the decade of the 1980s with style.”
The last part is kind of funny. The home computer –and email–wouldn’t be in most homes for another 15 years so collectors dutifully grabbed a pen and postcard or paper and dashed off their RSVP. It’s something that would have happened in a day or two, maybe even a matter of hours today, but it was probably pretty exciting for Mr. Riley to check his mailbox every day for a few weeks to measure the response to his letter.
The show did take place in the late summer of 1980 (you can see the program cover at right and see the whole 12-pages given to dealers here). Thee National is still around, but it did actually start out with ambitious plans to be more than a marketplace. Softball tournaments even became part of the mix for a while.
These days, the National show a massive event, but the focus is indeed strictly on buying and selling or collecting autographs from the current and former athletes. That’s too bad, really. The first few Nationals were designed to be more of a vacation getaway than a business proposition, which makes sense because there were few full-time dealers then. There was plenty of interest from those who had the resources to set up a table but at that point, it wasn’t enough to pack a giant convention center. For nearly all who came it was mostly a hobby centered around everyone’s love of baseball and, to a lesser extent, other sports.
It’s interesting to see that even then, there was concern about the focus on money. For hobby leaders of 1979, it was still about fellowship and fun.