So, just what is a vintage baseball card, anyway?
The idea came to me recently, though it certainly wasn’t on my own. See, a baseball card group to which I belong, Old Baseball Cards, debated the topic a week or so ago. As you can imagine, answers were sort of all over the place because getting a consensus on something like that is basically impossible.
To find a technical answer, I suppose one has to start with the definition of just what is ‘vintage?’ Unfortunately, there’s no easy answer there. And believe me, I looked.
No real consensus was to be found. While many define an antique to be 100 years older or more, the ‘vintage’ definition is a lot more vague. Some cite items as little as 20 years ago as technically being vintage. Others say it has to be older, like 30, 40, or 50 years.
That’s right — those 2000 Topps Chrome baseball cards you’ve got in 1,600 count boxes? Technically vintage to some folks as of this year.
In the world of baseball card collecting, the vintage era has thankfully been more defined, even if not technically accurate by a textbook definition. More collectors than not place the cutoff date for non-vintage cards at or around 1980 or a year later in 1981, when Donruss and Fleer joined Topps to begin producing cards. However, as we move forward, years continuing to accumulate, when, if ever, should the vintage definition change?
It’s a tricky question. I mean, 100 years from now, will 1990s cards that will technically be antiques be considered vintage? I suppose so. But if it’ll be sooner than that, how much sooner? When should the cutoff occur?
I’m not sure it matters all that much. But let’s do a bit of exploring, anyway.
I’d argue that the term for vintage, in baseball card terms, is less about an actual date and more about an era. In 1981, Topps was joined by Fleer and Donruss and by the end of the decade, we really began to see the oversaturation of the market. That wasn’t just in terms of the number of brands as Score and Upper Deck, along with others, were joining the fold. But also in the number of cards that were produced.
When did said oversaturation really begin? That’s tough to say because we don’t have the actual numbers of production for most sets. Even developing estimates isn’t all that easy. Sometimes, inserts can give us a rough idea, like I once explored in a mindless Twitter thread. But, yeah, not easy.
So what’s my thought on breaking cards into eras? If I had to, I’d probably distinguish actual eras of cards something like this:
- Pre-War Vintage era (before World War II)
- Post-War Vintage era (after World War II – 1985)
- Junk Wax era (1986-1994)
- Modern era (1995 – Present)
I realize my vintage era is slightly different than the truest definition by most collectors. When I initially pondered the question, I was inclined to stick with the current hobby standard of something like 1980 and earlier. But the more I thought about it, the more I wondered if that was really correct.
After all, what do we do with cards issued between 1981 and 1985? Do they need their own era? Not really. And I can’t in good faith put sets like 1983 Topps in the same breath as things like junk wax cards like 1988 Topps or 1989 Topps. 1983 Topps cards aren’t rare by any means. But there are clearly a lot less of them than those pesky 1988 cards.
I know there are some dicey issues there. I mean, cards like 1995 Topps are markedly different than modern Panini cards and whatnot. I get that. Realistically, I think you can create a more defined modern era that sorts the years of superfractors from mid 1990s sets. I’d even argue that you need something like that. But someone with more nuance in modern cards would need to make that distinction.
It’s also worth pointing out that collectors will never be able to define precisely when the junk wax era began and ended because production rates of those sets fluctuated greatly. 1992 Bowman, for example, isn’t a junk wax set — it just happens to fall within that era. These are very loose definitions, if anything.
So what about future years? When does the line, if ever, move?
Beats me. But, again, I think the vintage tag applies more to the eras of cards based on production and type, and less to actual established years. I can’t bring myself to call a 2000 card vintage just yet and I’m guessing that most collectors can’t, either.
New eras of cards will certainly continue to present themselves. But trying to predict when those shifts will occur simply can’t be done since that’d be predicting the future. For now, let’s just agree that something like 1989 Topps can’t be considered vintage. At least not yet.