You often read about the explosive time the hobby went through in the 1980s when sports card shops and shows were everywhere and kids went to school with Beckett price guide magazines. There’s some truth to that, of course. Interest in baseball cards was at a fever pitch by the latter part of that decade, even among those who wouldn’t normally consider themselves avid collectors. There were national news stories and TV segments.
Value and future value seemed to be the focal point of it all, though.
For pure growth and maturity, I’d argue the 1970s were more important–and a lot more fun.
Cards were still aimed at kids (I was one of them) and you could still buy packs with spare change. However, the 1970s is really the decade in which adults came out of the closet and realized there were other grownups who liked baseball cards and other sports stuff as much as they did. It was a game changer.
They found each other through buy/sell/trade ads posted in newspaper classifieds and sports publications. Local tribes were formed, meetings were held and local or regional collecting clubs were created. In the early 70s, the genesis for what we now know as the modern sports card show was born.
Whether you were trading at Bill’s house or walking around a little collector club gathering at the VFW hall, the emphasis wasn’t on prices.
It was on information.
Sharing the Knowledge
There were no monthly or annual price guides. Nothing on the local newsstand anyway. Talking with other collectors and sharing what you knew and what you discovered through letters (remember letters?), phone calls and the fledgling hobby media led to knowledge and really, that’s what every 1970s collector was after.
Why was the last series of 1952 Topps so hard to find? Why were 1975 Topps minis so easy to find in Michigan and completely absent in Virginia? Had anyone seen 1972 football high numbers? Who’s got them? Did anyone have the address to send off for a 1974 All-Star Game program? Did anyone know anyone who knew anyone who owned a T206 Honus Wagner? Had they seen it?
From Slow Growth to Show Growth
In 1975, there was an Associated Press story about the Midwest Sports Collectors Convention near Detroit. The show had become an annual event, launched just six years earlier, not necessarily with the idea of anyone coming home with a wad of bills.
“We wanted to attract a few dozen collectors for a meeting and trading session in a public place for the first time in the hobby,” Jay Barry, one of the organizers, told the reporter (even then, they were using “the hobby” which is kind of fun to see in print). The little meeting attracted a nice crowd and by 1975, the show had 165 tables and a three-day attendance that numbered well into the thousands. Who knows how many more people showed up or started their own collecting club thanks to that wire story, which was a rare dose of national publicity for sports collecting.
By ’75, six (!) hobby publications were producing issues. Some would not last long but collectors absorbed the knowledge that was shared in the articles, columns and notes. They soaked in the photos and devoured the classified ads, responding by way of postcard or letter.
There were no $100,000 cards. There were no $10,000 cards. The only card worth $1,000 was, well, a Wagner. Full-time dealers? In the early 70s, many knew there was a guy in Wisconsin named Larry Fritsch who had a few ads in baseball magazines but everyone else only sold stuff to support their buying habit.
It was collecting in its most pure form.
The sharing is what was important and the collectors of the 1970s were among the hobby’s pioneers in that regard; not quite to the level of a Jefferson Burdick but what it all became in later years stemmed directly from the explosion of information that began to make its way across North America.
Unlike today, everyone, it seemed, was interested in everything. All but the crustiest collector not only liked 1933 Goudeys but was also keen to know that McDonald’s had sponsored a set of Padres discs in 1974 and then began to think about how he could get a set. Did Mrs. Collector know of any relatives in San Diego who could help?
There were full columns in hobby newsletters that were devoted to “finds” big and small. Information about local show auctions was detailed down to the last dollar. Any gathering of collectors anywhere usually got a mention in the Sports Collectors News or Sports Collectors Digest, which obliged to help the local group grow its numbers.
The 70s gave birth to the Sports Collectors Bible, the first widely read price guide and catalog. It wasn’t 100% accurate but it, too, expanded the knowledge base for anyone who knew about some things but not everything. It set the stage for the price guide books and magazines that would debut as the 70s turned into the 80s.
Some realized there was a premium on condition and entrepreneurs created the first plastic pages, albums and boxes made specifically for sports cards to better preserve them.
For many, the 1970s hobby was actually a life-changer. Something they dabbled with in the evening or on a weekend became a communal experience. Partnerships were formed and weekend dealers who traveled to those early events took the first steps toward quitting everyday jobs and becoming full-timers.
There were plenty of real-world problems to deal with in the 70s. Vietnam and the aftermath. Watergate. Inflation. Gas shortages. Disco.
Maybe that’s why the hobby became such a big deal.
We needed it.