You can always follow sports card prices on eBay and through a few other websites that track pricing. They offer valuable snapshots on everything from Ty Cobb to Corbin Carroll. Centered mostly around online sales, they don’t account for an overall view of the marketplace. Talking to dealers and collectors in person at a busy show containing more than 200 tables provides another gauge of what cards collectors and investors are buying on both the vintage and modern ends of the spectrum.
I spent a day doing just that at the recent Northeast Sports Card Expo show in Portland, ME.
My first stop was at the booth of Don Hontz, a dealer since 1977 and full-time one since 1991. One dealer passing by dubbed him the “guru of baseball cards” because of his depth of knowledge and ever-changing inventory, spanning the early 1900s to the 1970s. Each year, he does a few northeast shows and the National.
Hontz brought more affordable Babe Ruth and Ty Cobb cards, mid-grade Mickey Mantle cards and other Hall of Famers to the Portland show.
“All Honus Wagner has picked up recently,” he said. “T206s have been hot for a few years. Collectors are looking for rare backs like the Uzit and Drum. There are 16 total. T205s are rising, too. The prices are much lower compared to T206s. They’re beautiful and have bios on the back. Cracker Jacks are doing well, especially the 1914s, which are three times tougher than the 1915s, because in the second year you could send away for a complete set. The big names are Cobb, Christy Mathewson, Walter Johnson, and Tris Speaker.”
From the 1920s through the 1930s, Goudey Ruths have softened. “I used to hate strip cards,” he said. “The artwork is primitive and there’s nothing on the back but they are still Babe Ruth. They have been undervalued for so many years. For many collectors, they are like the Exhibit postcards. The prices are so much less expensive than the Goudeys which are out of the price range for average collectors.”
Even after decamping for Los Angeles 66 years ago, the Brooklyn Dodgers maintain a firm grip on collectors due to their mythological status rooted in their crown jewel of a ballpark, Ebbets Field; their heart and soul that bound Brooklynites together; and Jackie Robinson’s pioneering role in American history. Sandy Koufax, one of two living 1955 champions besides Carl Erskine, remains hot, particularly his 1955 rookie and two subsequent cards with the Dodgers. As I previously wrote Hontz sold a mid-grade Topps 1957 Koufax as part of a lot. At the show I saw an autographed rookie priced at $7,500, up from $1,000 six years ago. The signed vintage cards of top-name Hall of Famers are all pretty much on fire.
Since his long-awaited induction into the Hall of Fame, Gil Hodges is in strong demand. Besides being a great Brooklyn Dodger first baseman, he was a superb manager who guided the 1969 Champion “Miracle” Mets. Last spring, I bought a boldly signed 1955 Bowman for $500 from a small auction house and doubled my money overnight.
Hodges’ autograph is fairly rare because he died so young, at age 48 after a 1972 spring training golf outing in Florida. In Portland, Bill Robinson, 76, from North Hanover, MA was wearing a Brooklyn Dodgers cap because he was such a huge fan until they moved. He was selling for $475 a Pittsburgh hotel receipt signed beautifully, “Mr. and Mrs. Gil Hodges.”
I sent a photo of it to an autograph expert who estimated the value to be between $300 and $400, which I’m sure Robinson would have taken. Vintage autograph collectors do love pieces that are one of a kind.
Hontz felt Jackie Robinson has cooled off somewhat. “The big three post-War are Mickey, Hank Aaron, and Willie Mays,” Hontz said. “Jackie Robinson has only eight cards. The rookies like the ’48 Leaf are pricey. Prices have settled since the pandemic.” A friend of mine bought a dead-centered SGC 2 blazer at the peak of Leaf two years ago for $12,000. It has probably dropped $10,000 or a bit less. That could mean now is a good time to buy.
Another Brooklynite who rarely earns much attention is Duke Snider. Although he was probably the most beloved Bum next to Pee Wee Reese and Robinson, he was overshadowed by two other superior center fielders in New York, Mantle and Mays. Ironically, Bill Robinson’s partner, Pete Travaglini, 80, grew up a Brooklyn fan, too, in New York City’s suburbs. His favorite players were Snider and Hodges and he went to Ebbets Field three times, once each year from 1955 through 1957. He had a beautiful signed Snider ball with the full inscription “Duke of Flatbush” for only $100, but no takers. “Yes, he’s a hard sell,” Travaglini said. “I don’t understand it. He was a great player and a great guy.”
As a footnote, Travaglini added that his dad was a Yankees fan and his mother a Giants fan. The family sure must have had lively dinner conversations.
The Portland show featured two of the more unique dealers I had ever encountered. Darrin Chandler sells only vintage football from the 1950s to the 1970s, with a smattering of 1930s and 1980s, because he grew up loving the sport as a child. He had four cases filled with raw and graded Bowman, Leaf, Topps (particularly 1951 Topps Magic). “My three biggest sellers are Walter Peyton, Jim Brown, and Joe Namath,” he said.
“Namath?” I asked with surprise. While those collectors who are 60+ remember his guaranteed Super Bowl win, his career numbers are borderline Hall of Fame. “Yes,” Chandler replied. “He’s over Starr and Unitas.” Once again, Namath’s card popularity underscores New York’s outsized influence in the card market.
Another reason is the great appeal of the beautiful oversized 1965 Topps “tall boys,” the set that houses Namath’s rookie card. While talking to Chandler, he sold a raw card of Warren Powers to a big Raiders fan, knocking the price down from $12 to $3. The three of us shared our enthusiasm for the handsome player’s classic football pose.
Chandler’s biggest sale to that point in the show had been a 1961 George Blanda for $70. “Vintage football is a tough sell in Maine,” Chandler lamented. During the last century, the New England Patriots were far from a dynasty. Occasionally, he will be asked for a rookie Steve Grogan, the Patriots quarterback from the 1970s through the 1980s.
Chandler noted that one of the most mythical football cards that keeps rising in value is the 1935 Chicle rookie Bronco Nagurski. “Five years ago, I could have had a nice one for $1200,” he said. “Now a low grade PSA 2 is $8,000.”
At the Portland show, there was considerable interest in modern, particularly among the young. Two dealers focusing on it were Matt Bennett and Matt Sheehan. Without becoming too mired in the infinite versions, they discussed what’s moving and what’s not. The players with southern trajectories suffered from poor performances, injuries or bad behavior.
In baseball, Shohei Ohtani, Ronald Acuña Jr., Elly De La Cruz, and Gunnar Henderson are in demand. Since we were in New England there were requests for the Red Sox’s Masataka Yoshida and Rafael Devers. On the downside were Tyler O’Neil, Wander Franco, Jason Dominguez, and Nelson Cruz.
In basketball, Jayson Tatum, Nikola Jokić, Steph Curry, LeBron James and Scottie Barnes are hot. Trae Young (owing to his team’s play), Zion Williamson, and Ja Morant are cold.
In football, Brock Purdy is popular. So was Baker Mayfield until his first loss. “Football is very cyclical, depending on a team’s record,” Bennett explained. “There’s a lot of prospecting. It’s very much like the stock market.” As the Cincinnati Bengals and Minnesota Vikings struggled out of the gate, Ja’Marr Chase, Joe Burrow, Justin Jefferson cards weren’t moving at all. Collectors were also taking a wait and see approach on Eagles quarterback Jalen Hurts.
Both Bennett and Sheehan agreed that the trend towards collectors concentrating on quarterbacks is increasing and that other positions, particularly running back, are trailing behind. Not surprisingly, Patrick Mahomes rules. Bennett held up a 2017 Panini Mahomes rookie priced at $450. We discussed his 1-1 rookie 2017 National Treasures Platinum, which commanded $4.3 million in 2021, setting an all-time record for a football card. “That Mahomes card is practically worth what the average running back is making these days,” Bennett said.
The big sellers in hockey are the autograph patch cards of Connor McDavid, Connor Bedard and Lucas Raymond.
Bob Nelson, the only dealer at the show specializing in hockey, narrowed his list to McDavid and the two veterans, Sydney Crosby and Alex Ovechkin. Among old timers, he added Bobby Orr and Wayne Gretzky. “Hockey doesn’t have the fluctuations that other sports do,” Nelson said. “Sometimes a player drops when he retires. Collectors also like the local guys. A couple of them here were looking for players who went to The University of Maine.”
My last stop for the day was at the old school booth of Brian Cataquet. His case was packed with vintage raw, dog-eared baseball cards wrapped in rubber bands, mostly for set collectors. I told him how happy this sight made me because it reminded me of the first New York show I attended in 1973 with my late father who drove me. (It was also one of the first in the country.) I bought a vg 1954 Topps Jackie Robinson for $1 and the dealer threw in a 1954 Billy Martin for free.
Northeast Sports Card Expo’s next show will take place in Stamford, CT, on October 7 and 8. For more information check their website.