The National Sports Collectors Convention is usually a productive weekend for those who make their living in sports cards.
Sometimes it even alters fortune.
Vintage Breaks, a year-old offshoot of vintage card specialist Just Collect, found itself in national news headlines after its big moment in the NSCC spotlight become even bigger. An ultra-rare 1955 Bowman cello pack it opened for participants last Friday yielded a mint Mickey Mantle card that was graded 9 and is expected to eventually sell for more than $50,000. The excitement generated by the greatest “pull” in the company’s short history reverberated across the hobby and beyond.
Vintage Breaks acquires sealed packs from years past, sells spots to customers and then breaks the packs open, awarding the cards inside via random draw during its online broadcasts.
In a matter of minutes late Friday afternoon, they had hit the free publicity jackpot.
“The media coverage has been unbelievable,” said founder Leighton Sheldon, who launched the business in the wake of a wave of online breaking that until 2017, didn’t include a vintage pack breaker. “And the great thing is, everyone seems genuinely happy about this. It’s a fun story. They’re happy for us, for the person who is getting the card and happy for the hobby in general.”
After lining up a daily run of special breaks during the NSCC, including packs of 1965 Philadelphia football, 1969-70 Topps basketball and 1970 Topps baseball, business had already begun to boom a bit, even before the Mantle card emerged from its 63-year hibernation.
“We broke our previous sales record the Tuesday before the show opened,” Sheldon revealed. “On Thursday, we broke that record. On Sunday we broke that Thursday’s record and we were selling on Monday even though we weren’t scheduled to break again until Tuesday evening. We’re extremely proud of what we’re doing and we have a ton of fun.”
Sheldon continues buying and selling vintage cards through Just Collect, which runs weekly auctions through eBay. As someone well-versed in business technology, however, the advent of online case and box breaking of modern issues several years ago caught his attention.
“Walking around the floor during the first case break pavilion at the National few years ago, a light went on,” he stated. “The next year, you could see it was here to stay but there wasn’t a single vintage card in the entire case break pavilion. It was shocking to me.”
He had ditched a traditional business career path after college and went to work for 1980s unopened king Mark Murphy, known as the “Baseball Card Kid.” An affinity for packs from the past never waned. His company had already recorded some vintage breaks that ran as a Sports Collectors Daily feature. It seemed like the right time to create an interactive platform for those who also loved a good mystery.
“I crunched the numbers, worked up some spreadsheets, wrote a business plan and got in touch with David Gelfman of Ripping Wax who has several case breaking operations under him.”
The idea was to lean on Gelfman’s knowledge of the case and box breaking world while bringing his own vintage card expertise. A partnership resulted and after about 12 months, the concept has found a niche of collectors who are willing to play the cardboard lottery on something other than a new card product.
“We started last year at the National, doing four or five breaks during the five days of the show,” Sheldon recalled. “This year, we did four or five in the first hour.”
Breaks on each show vary in cost, depending on the product. Collectors can join in for less expensive packs (think late 1970s basketball, late 1980s football or baseball) for just a few bucks. Every collector who participates gets something. Spots are limited to the number of cards in a pack, but as collectors know, they’re more likely to pull a common card than a Hall of Famer. Some buy multiple spots to increase their odds of landing something good. Others do “personal breaks” in which they buy every available spot.
Quality control during printing and packaging of cards made decades ago wasn’t always top-notch and some breaks will mean every collector lands a card that may have sharp corners but is terribly off-center or miscut. It’s a part of the risk buyers should know but most accept as part of the gamble.
“The cold hard truth is that if the pack is off-center, the pack is off-center,” Sheldon admitted.
And while some may take a ho-hum attitude toward pulling a run of the mill card, those who utilize grading services know that not all commons are alike. The fact that the cards are coming directly from sealed packs means some of those no-name players can turn into high dollar, low population graded assets sought by set registry members.
Iconic rookie and star cards worth good money do emerge. A recently opened second series 1970 Topps baseball pack revealed a high-grade Thurman Munson rookie card. A sixth series ’70 pack landed a mint Pete Rose. A 1975 Topps pack surrendered a George Brett rookie card. A Robin Yount rookie came out of a cello pack of 1975 Topps Minis. On Thursday at the National, a Julius Erving rookie card popped out of a 1972-73 basketball pack, the company’s second Dr. J rookie in a year. “The cost of the break was $35. If that card comes back an 8, it’s going to sell for around $700. In a 9 grade, it’s thousands of dollars,” Sheldon said. Vintage Breaks will often grade some of the better hits for its customers, free of charge.
Acquiring inventory can be a challenge. Like high-end current issues, authentic vintage packs can be expensive and the cost must be weighed with what Sheldon believes his collectors will pay for a spot. Generally, the older the pack, the more it costs, depending on what could be inside. Those packs, however, are the company’s most popular. Everyone, it seems, loves a good roll of the dice.
“There’s an insatiable appetite for really good material,” said Sheldon. “Anything from $35 to $650 a spot, we’re going to sell out.”
He spent much of the National working deals to acquire more inventory.
“It’s not cheap or easy to find them sometimes. We want only good, vintage, authentic unopened material. We buy from collectors, other dealers and auction houses. We buy quite a bit from Steve Hart at Baseball Card Exchange. We’ve even found some things at estate sales.”
At the National, one man approached with two 1986-87 Fleer boxes. Breaking a full box of the same product earlier this year resulted in some national publicity (and three Michael Jordan rookie cards for customers who had bought in). On Sunday, moments before the now-famous ’55 Bowman pack break, a dealer brought Sheldon an unopened box of 1986 Topps football cello packs that likely has at least one Jerry Rice rookie hiding inside. A deal was quickly struck and the 24 packs will be spread out over several break sessions in the coming weeks.
It’s not just 1950s,60s, 70s and good 80s material, however. The company will buy higher end products with potential top dollar rookie card from recent years and feature those alongside the really old stuff.
“Virtually non-existent is anything from the 30s,” said Sheldon. “I’d love to open a 1933 Goudey pack or even a non-sports pack from the 40s.”
The exposure earned at the National has also led to an expansion. Currently live from 6 PM to 11 PM Eastern time Tuesday and Thursdays and a “Happy Hour” broadcast from 4-7 on Friday, Vintage Breaks will soon move to five days a week.
There are no more ’55 Bowman packs available but there is always something to rip.
“On Sunday, we opened a 1972 Topps Second Series football rack pack and pulled a Roger Staubach rookie for one of our customers that might be a PSA 8. Normally, it would have been our headline from the weekend. I’m very happy that someone paid $35 and wound up with one of the best football rookie cards you can get, but a 1955 Bowman Mickey Mantle is hard to top.”
Cards no longer come with pink slabs of bubble gum but many of those old packs do. It’s usually the first thing discarded when the seal is broken. Has he ever tried chewing any?
“Yes and it’s disgusting.”
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