I received an email from Pete Williams the other day. If you don’t remember Pete, he was the USA Today writer who did many columns on sports collectibles and also wrote the book called Card Sharks: How Upper Deck Turned a Child’s Hobby into a High-Stakes, Billion-Dollar Business, which chronicled, among other hobby history, the Upper Deck Company. We arranged to speak to each other and during our conversation he mentioned that it had been 20 years since Card Sharks had gone to print. That made me feel a little old but it was great to hear he was still interested in what’s going on in the industry.
This is not the time to rehash the issues with Upper Deck mentioned in that book as just about everyone mentioned is long gone from the company and some of them, such as Richard McWilliam, are no longer around to defend themselves. But when people ask me about Card Sharks, I always try to mention the first half of the book is as good as a hobby history as anyone has ever written. However, we can look at a few things which have evolved over the last 20 years.
One important aspect is the growth of “expensive” products based in no small part by having autographs on cards and relic pieces embedded into cards. The autograph inserts were really just beginning when Pete’s book was being written but have really exploded since that time to the point where they often define a release. The concept of relic pieces on cards were two to three years from their humble beginnings. The fact that I can remember Tony Gwynn, Ken Griffey Jr and Rey Ordonez as the only three players in Upper Deck’s first relic set in the late 1990s tells one how few were being produced. But in 1994, we were mainly still a straight ahead hobby with a burgeoning insert grouping but base cards were still very important.
Another change is how hobby news is delivered. In 1994, the hobby mainstream press was still going very strong. Beckett, Sports Collectors Digest and Tuff Stuff still had hefty issues each time and with a few exceptions, every one of them figured the future of print would continue to be bright. Today of course, almost all the important hobby news is disseminated immediately through on-line sourcing through sites such as this one and sometimes via online hobby message boards or via social media. Information was still largely disseminated by snail mail 20 years ago.
The change in communication concepts can give rise to trends in a matter of days or weeks. Case and box breaks were born in recent years and now there are vintage set breaks which enable people who like older cards to have fun for just a few bucks. I’m participating and having a blast.
Of course, there are a lot fewer card shows and stores then there used to be. Amazingly the Dallas Fort Worth area which had been under-served by shows since the monthly Dallas Card Show left the Craig Ranch location a little more than a year ago is now being properly served as befits the fifth leading media market in the county, And we are down to about five or six stores in the DFW Metroplex. But that is all right as every show I see new people come in and Nick and local shops tell me they see someone who says they have not been in a card show/store for “x” years but are jumping back in. Are we headed for a 1990s-like boom again? No, but that is an encouraging sign.
And the primary method of selling or trading cards is now done online. Most people have either bought or sold cards on eBay and that still remains the most popular method but there are other ways of buying, trading and selling.
Selling high-end cards, especially vintage stars and rookies or pre-War cards is difficult now (and probably unwise) unless you have them professionally graded by one of the major third-party graders. While we know there are a few people left who do not believe in grading, it is almost impossible to believe that some of the dollars we see cards selling for would not be possible without those holders.
When I hear about the Topps “Bunt” concept I have a hard time getting my head wrapped around it. But ten years ago, if you had mentioned that was the future, we would have probably laughed at you because the iPhone had not even been invented. Card-centric apps may be the first wave of the next 20 years and we hope to be covering that down the road the same way we discussed the 1970’s and the 1990’s. The constant evolution is part of what make the hobby interesting.
The growth of network sports shows and websites mean we have the option of seeing almost any player at any time but with the focus on insert and autograph products, few sets off the checklist depth we used to see. Rare is the set that offers a card featuring a backup catcher or middle reliever.
I sure want to see a 2015 card of Guilder Rodriguez who deserves a card for how long he took to become a major leaguer. Then we can always re-live that heartwarming moment the final week of the season when with his dad in the stands he drove in what turned out to be the winning run. In the 1970’s we had that hokey “Blind Man in the Bleachers” song but in 2014 we had a real life example and no matter what occurs, the human element is always going to part of our game. Seeing Rodriguez hit reminded me of Luis Tiant’s dad being allowed to come from Cuba to see him pitch in the 1975 World Series. And as Roger Angell wrote we can go back and “see the ball float over to Terry Turner” in our minds eye. No matter what happens, baseball—and collecting—have survived and I strongly believe it will continue to do so, even if the rate of change means a little less of the stuff we remember from every stage of our collecting lives.