This is the latest in an ongoing series of articles written by readers who tell the stories of the sports memorabilia they collect and why.
As a young boy growing up an hour and a half north of Detroit, I remember going to my first baseball game at Tiger Stadium. I was naive, innocent and from a small town. Just driving to a “big” city was exciting—seeing the tall buildings and massive amounts of cars and people everywhere. It was dusk and I remember parking the car in some dark, far away lot and quickly joining the mass herds of people walking towards the magnificent bright lights dominating the night sky. My senses were heightened and eager curiosity began to swell inside me. People had a tense energy about them and seemed to be worried the game might start without them.
Vendors selling merchandise and food all around filled the air with a welcoming smell.
We entered the gates and began looking for our section. Then it happened. We began to walk up the ramp towards our seats and the lights became wide, the grass glowed a shade of green that is still seared in my mind and I was forever changed. It was my beginning to a love relationship with this game called baseball.
The Tigers were my favorite team and “The Boys of Summer” in 1984 won my heart over for good. But, despite the World Series banner won that year, another player had won me over with his incredible speed and pizzazz, one who had stolen bases like no one ever before—Rickey Henderson. 130 bases in ONE season! What? Who was this super human? I couldn’t get enough of this guy.
In the summertime our family would venture to Northern Michigan to a cottage on a quaint little lake. One of my favorite childhood memories of this time was walking the seawalls along the lakeshore to the “candy store” as we called it. It was just a gas station for boats, but to my brothers and me, the candy store meant baseball cards. This is when my fascination with collecting began. We still have all those cards from the late 70’s and early 80’s, although not all of them are in the greatest condition, mainly because we played with them as kids used to do once upon a time.
Soon I began searching for every Rickey Henderson card I could find. Baseball shows would occasionally come to Flint, which was the nearest city to us, and if it worked out my father would take me.
In the 80’s card collecting was a different hobby. Yes, people still looked at the value of cards and wome wanted to sell for profit or play the investment game, but for the most part the hobby was still associated with kids. Today, not only are there fewer kids interested, the hobby in the form I used to know at their age has become largely inaccessible. Yes, there are packs you can buy for $1-$5, but right next to them are the expensive ones. $20, $30, $100 or more for a pack of baseball cards? And, only a few cards in the pack? Kids today are very observant and they quickly understand the difference. They put 2 and 2 together to make the connection that the cheaper packs do not have the “good” cards in them.
That doesn’t mean I’ve given up on collecting.
I now have my own son, who also loves baseball, among other sports. When he was born in 2008 I began buying either a box of packs for his birthday or Christmas. I put them in a box and set them aside every year. After five years of doing this, unbeknownst to him, he had already amassed a pretty decent collection. One day he noticed me going through my own collection and asked what I was up to. I explained to him the basics of collecting and then told him he had a box full of packs waiting for him to open if he so desired. He looked at me wide eyed and said, “They’re mine? I can open them?” I replied yes, as long as he was willing got take good care of them. We discussed the fun aspects but also the potential value of the cards and how condition was important. He seemed to understand and jumped into opening packs from the past five years with unabashed excitement.
We got out the price guide and he soon began to find some treasures. And then his “aha moment” arrived. He pulled a Mike Trout rookie card from a pack of 2011 Topps Update. At the time I believe it was about $60. He just looked at me like he was holding a priceless gem. To a five year old $60 is a lot of money. We carefully placed it in a case and he was off and running.
He observed I had many cards but also that there were certain players that I collected more passionately, namely Rickey. But I also had a pretty nice collection of Roberto Clemente, Rod Carew and Jose Conseco. I explained to him the reason I enjoyed collecting these particular players and that he could pick out some favorite players and start his own collections.
For some odd reason Derek Jeter was his first choice. Jeter had just retired, but it didn’t seem to matter to him. Then Miguel Cabrera, his favorite Tiger, Ken Griffey Jr. and Kris Bryant. He now has a fairly extensive Jeter collection, including all of his major rookie cards. It is an impressive collection for an 11 year old but he’s got a ways to go to catch up to dear old dad.
Right now, my collection includes over 1,800 different Henderson cards including nine 1980 Topps rookie cards, one of his minor league issues, over 75 different relic cards, over 100 serial-numbered cards, over 100 “oddball” (regionals, minis, etc.) and two autograph cards.
One of the things I love about my Rickey collection is the true diversity of the cards from the beginning to the present. His career spanned nearly 25 years and he began at time when there was only one–that’s right, one— issued card from that year, his rookie year 1980. Imagine only one card of a player in today’s world of collecting.
I have all of his cards sorted by years so in some ways it is a time line of history of sorts as you walk through the collection from beginning to end. Of course, he is long retired and in the Hall of Fame, but the beauty of being the greatest leadoff hitter and base stealer of all time is that they keep making new cards of you.
As you turn through the pages of my collection you begin to see the evolution of baseball cards from the early simple days to the extravagant and complex days of the present. His famous rookie card from 1980, well known to be a difficult to find in high grade still has that old cardboard, almost vintage feel to it. And I do love the feel of baseball cards, especially older ones. His earliest cards are similar but you slowly begin to see the change through the years. You also see the advent of the newcomers as Fleer and Donruss jump into the game in 1981. Then come the subsets, traded and update sets, parallels. The quality of the card stock and photos gets better.
The designs become elaborate. Shiny, glossy, Tiffany cards enter the hobby. Oddballs, refractors, scratch-offs, Sportflics, variations, die cuts and soon the sky is the limit. Today’s hobby is dominated by autographs, relics and tough to find high grade lower population cards.
As my pursuit of collecting all of Rickey’s cards continued, I slowly realized it was becoming nearly impossible to achieve. As the hobby evolved and much of it became geared toward adults chasing high-end products, the feat became not only impossible but impractical. Graded and numbered cards began to create extravagant values and greater scarcity. Try as I might to hunt down every card it became too expensive. 1/1 cards sealed the deal as I threw in the white towel and admitted defeat. It was at that point, though, that I had to step back and ask myself why I was truly collecting? Just to achieve a goal or because I enjoyed it? I made the decision at that point to simply collect for the pure joy of it and not worry about finding every single Rickey card ever made or the value the various cards.
Now that the pressure was off I began to enjoy it much more. I would keep collecting Rickey and my other favorite players and simply recognize it for what it was—a hobby that was supposed to be fun!
My son and I collect together and we both love it. The first time we went to a card show together I had him put together a couple books of cards to bring along to see if he could trade or sell any of his cards he was willing to part with. At first I didn’t know how the dealers would welcome a little boy wandering around a baseball card show with mostly adults filling the aisles with their credit cards out and ready to spend big bucks. But to my joy and surprise they welcomed him with open arms.
At first he had no idea what he was doing. He would just walk up to a table and say, ”Do you want to trade any cards?” I held my breath, but nearly everyone one of them would take the time to explain to him some little bit of information to help him understand the hobby better and make it worth his while. Often times, even if there wasn’t something they were truly interested in, they would still make some sort of deal with him—and it would leave both of them grinning from ear to ear. This made me smile and just proved that despite the hobby being filled with mostly adults, there was still a child hiding inside all of those grownups who all remember when they were young and the hobby was pure, innocent and done simply for the enjoyment of collecting.
Do you want to tell the story of what you collect and why? From players to teams to complete sets, autographs, game-worn material and anything else that has kept you busy for years, we’d love for you to share your story in your own words and photos. Send us an email: [email protected].