Back in the day when I would interact with either newspaper reporters or radio hosts while working at Beckett, a question which often arose was: “What makes sports cards different as a hobby than stamps, coins or other hobbies?”
While at that time we were still heavily kid focused, I would explain how ours was connected to current events—sort of a “living hobby”. Every new career milestone or record chase impacted card prices. Every auction sale or card show report often did as well. But what really made it so were the performances of the young players who drove—and still drive– the current card market.
A great example from the era where the hobby was often in the media eye was in 1986. Jose Canseco was hot but he also appeared on a card with another hot prospect, Mike Greenwell. It was really the only MLB-licensed card that featured Greenwell issued in 1986 and today could almost be considered a pre-rookie card.
I think of Greenwell because he was part of a large class of Boston Red Sox rookies over a three or four-year period who were touted as the class that would end the curse. Many thought players such as Greenwell, Ellis Burks, Sam Horn (remember the hype for him?) and even Jody Reed were going to be the next generation of Red Sox stars. Greenwell was going to be the next Yaz and the others would be like Rico Petrocelli, George “Boomer” Scott and Reggie Smith. Well, Greenwell and Burks had very nice careers but the team success never quite panned out. Still, you can’t tell me it wasn’t a fun time to be a Red Sox collector or a rookie card prospector looking to identify potential stars.
Meanwhile, clear on the other side of the country, the Seattle Mariners were accumulating some incredible young talent in the late 1980s and early 90s. They had a future Hall of Famer in Randy Johnson (although his rookie cards are from the Montreal Expos), a guaranteed Hall of Famer in Ken Griffey Jr. and strong candidates in Edgar Martinez and Omar Vizquel. This does not even count players such as Jay “Bone’ Buhner, forever immortalized as a theme in the old Seinfeld television show for being traded for THE Ken Phelps.
Even with that formidable talent and other good players picked up over the years, the Mariners have never even made the World Series but around 1990 or so, there was a steady stream of cards being traded and bought by collectors, shop owners and show dealers throughout the Pacific Northwest. After struggling for years, Griffey and the M’s were helping drive the hobby in an economic fashion we probably still can’t quantify.
We won’t even go into detail about the Gooden/Strawberry era in New York of a few years earlier.
But you know, we call this a living hobby because the hobby does evolve and in some cases even quicker than 25 years ago. We can turn on a dime now and this year’s team is the Chicago Cubs led by the rookie cards (or upcoming rookie cards) or Kris Bryant, Addison Russell, Kyle Schwarber and Jorge Soler. The Cubs have become so deep in prospects that Javier Baez, Junior Lake and others I have probably forgotten are now relegated to the “who, he?” prospect list. Regardless of whether you love or hate the Cubs, it’s good for the hobby when there’s such a deep team of prospects in the major collecting hub of Chicago, for a franchise that hasn’t won a World Series in over a century.
However, despite the brilliance of Theo Epstein and his team as talent acquirers and Joe Maddon as a manager there is no guarantee of how the future will turn out for this great Cubs crop. Will they become like Boston, where the group of prospects ended up as a few fond memories? Will they become the Seattle Mariners of the 1990s? Or will they be something much bigger, a group that finally ends that World Series drought and carries a couple of guys to Cooperstown? Now that would be a story. Either way, it’s all part of why this is a “living hobby” which always evolves but sometimes even reminds us of the days when it seemed there was a card shop in every neighborhood.