Things may happen at this year’s show but chances are it will be relatively tame compared to the headline-grabbing circus by which all others will be measured. Held at the height of the runaway freight train that sports cards had become, the 1991 National Sports Collectors Convention in Anaheim, CA had everything. Some of it was awesome. Some of it was not.
Mr. Mint raffled off a ’52 Mantle. And that was just a footnote.
I was there and I kind of wish they’d handed out “I Survived the 1991 National” buttons when you left.
Here’s a look back at a show hobby veterans won’t ever forget.
People who had never collected baseball cards before were buying them by the summer of ’91. Word of rising values had reached the national stage. With every article on the interest in vintage cards, the stunning arrival and quick success of flashy Upper Deck and the money being made by rookie card speculators, interest was skyrocketing. There was no internet. No streaming video. No cell phones. Buzz is what was in the newspapers and on local or national TV. And there was plenty of buzz about baseball cards.
Guys who collected as kids in the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s were back. Also in the game were those who just saw dollar signs. Buying cards with the expectation of profit seemed good. Getting cards for free and selling them for quick cash was even better.
Ads in Southern California newspapers actually touted the giveaways and the fact that cards that had been given away at the 1990 NSCC in Dallas were now valuable. No doubt, that advertising push fueled the already kindled fire.
When the National conducted a ‘Corporate Trade Night’ on July 4 (yes, July 4), just ahead of the show’s regular run, the idea was for dealers and other hobby business people to get an exclusive look at some new stuff manufacturers were making. Word that dozens of free promo cards and sets were going to be handed out had reached the masses, however. An expected crowd of 2,000 turned into “a grasping mob” of 10,000 according to the Chicago Tribune’s hobby writer, John Leptich. More were turned away. Collectors, speculators and others had taken advantage of some lax entry requirements and turned themselves into dealers. The line outside became unruly. Anaheim police officers were called. Suddenly, the National was no longer about collectors filling want lists.
“What they`re basically doing is handing out money,” Josh Evans of Lelands said at the time. “People are here collecting money. Hey, you pick up a piece of cardboard that a company made for about a penny and it`s automatically worth $25 or more.”
The promo giveaways continued as the week went on. People lined up as early as 4 AM on Thursday’s opening day to ensure they’d get what they came for. The fire marshal made an appearance. Pre-eBay, the lucky ones who had lassoed some of the more limited promos were still able to flip the “exclusive cards” to local shops, through national magazines or to dealers they knew or had just met at the show.
The hottest of the freebies, if you can imagine, were from a Warner Brothers/Upper Deck collaboration that paired Reggie Jackson and Nolan Ryan with cartoon characters. The free “Comic Ball II” cards were going for $200, which paid for a lot of stuff in 1991 (today you can find them for a lot less). An Action Packed Emmitt Smith promo was going for $75.
There was also a charity auction for an 18k gold Action Packed Randall Cunningham card with a five-point diamond chip. The winning bid was $25,000.
Police made more than one trip to the Anaheim Convention Center during the 12th National. Investigators spent time looking into three separate six-figure thefts of vintage cards, at least one of which somehow happened after the show’s doors closed and locked on the first night. High-end cards of Ty Cobb and Babe Ruth were among those stolen and the incidents generated more national headlines.
On the show’s last day, there was a fourth attempt. This time, a 44-year-old man was arrested and charged with grand theft for trying to stuff about $10,000 worth of cards into a Louis Vitton bag.
Overall, though, dealer tables were buzzing. And just about everything was selling.
It had only been a few months since Wayne Gretzky and the man who owned the team he played for at the time, Bruce McNall, generated international headlines when they bought a Honus Wagner T206 for $451,000. Eventually it would be graded ‘8’, sell for $2.8 million and then become the subject of an FBI investigation of Bill Mastro, who admitted to trimming it from a larger production piece but never disclosing that important fact. In ’91, though it was one of the National’s featured attractions as further evidence that baseball cards were a big deal.
The Autograph Guest List
Sandy Koufax. Hank Aaron. Don Drysdale. Duke Snider. Willie Stargell. Harmon Killebrew. Pee Wee Reese. All of them were signing that weekend. So were Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Carl Yastrzemski, Elroy Hirsch, Tom Fears, Jim Brown (some things don’t change), Steve Carlton (yup), and Rod Carew (also still at it).
NINE guys were free with your paid admission including Stargell, Spahn, Drysdale, Brooks Robinson and Bobby Hull, who according to promoters was contracted to sign for two hours but stayed for five and a half until no one else was waiting. Koufax and Aaron were $20 with a 1,000 signature limit. Some were outraged at the cost.
The National no longer releases attendance figures but when the numbers from the 1991 show were counted, nearly 94,000 people had come to the show, more than doubling the previous record. Over 63,000 had paid to get in, with the rest being kids, dealers, media, those who had free tickets, etc.
By the time the 1992 National was held in Atlanta, Chicago-based Smith, Bucklin and Associates had taken over management of the event and the promo giveaways were regulated. Eventually, it returned to the control of a group made up of collectors. While there’s still a stampede to card company booths for some of the annual NSCC-exclusive promos that are handed out to those who buy boxes and packs, not much is truly free anymore.
Maybe that’s a good thing.
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