The 'Boys of Summer' live on in baseball card collections
by Leigh Elmore
In the vast arena of collectibles, baseball cards have experienced some of the most dramatic fluctuations in value and popularity, relatively speaking, than any other genre.
Millions of boys who grew up in America during the 1950s, '60s and '70s dutifully paid a nickel for a pack of five Topps cards complete with a stick of stale bubble gum, and traded and competed for their friends' cards by flipping them against the wall during recess. Many of us lost our cards when the principal came by.
Jackie Robinson, here in a 1955 Topps baseball card. (photo courtesy tuftsjournal.tufts.edu)
Those boys grew up and many continued to collect cards as adults. Speculation in the hobby mushroomed and values grew enormously during the 1980s all to come crashing down in 1994 with the disastrous Major League Baseball players strike, which alienated millions from the sport as well as the hobby of collecting cards.
Well, that wasn't all that contributed to the decline in the hobby – kids growing up in the 1990s and 2000s went digital with their hobbies. Shooting aliens on their computers and interacting on social media seemed a lot more fun than a shoebox full of baseball players' pictures that you could just hold in your hand.
A passionate collector
Nevertheless, collecting baseball cards continues to attract a passionate core of enthusiasts. And if the value of cards produced in the late 20th century and early 21st remain somewhat depressed by previous standards, a collector can still fetch a handsome price for any Mickey Mantle card in decent condition. Plus, the really old cards from the 19th century still maintain special places in any card collector's heart.
"At one time, there was value in collecting cards and complete sets, not just in speculating on their future value, but because there was an established pattern of mint cards yielding returns," wrote Cee Angie on the sbnation.com website.
"Perhaps the average kid just wanted to play with their cards, trade them, and stick them in their bike-wheel spokes, but there was a sect who were serious about collecting, opening every pack hoping to find something of value to add to their collection," Angie stated.
One such baby boomer still tending to his collection after all these years is Mike Marcucci of Carol Stream, IL.
"Collecting baseball cards is still my hobby. It's something I started doing in 1963 when I was just a kid," Marcucci said. "I'm nearly 60 now.
"I really got obsessed with cards and I focused on the Topps brand, as they were the main player of card companies," he said. "I would go around during the baseball season and trade with other kids in the neighborhood. At the end of the summer, I'd use my pop bottle money and buy them from other kids. Then I would spend the winters organizing them."
This series depicts Hall Of Famer, Ron Santo of the Chicago Cubs throughout the 1960s beginning with his rookie card. (Mike Marcucci Collection)
Marcucci quickly learned that cards were issued in successive series of about 130 cards each throughout the baseball season.
"The first series came out in stores in the spring as the baseball season was beginning. Then they changed month to month," he said, noting that fewer series of cards came out later in the season. "The seventh series became scarce by the end of the summer," he said, and his obsession led him to seek them out.
"Who cares if the Cubs are in last place as long as I could get players to complete my sets," said the Chicago area baseball fan. He had a paper route and would scour his suburban neighborhood's card venues. "It was a nickel a pack, a penny a card. It's a different world today, they are different cards. So for collectors like me it's a legacy.
"I went away to college in 1973, the same year that Topps stopped issuing cards in series. It was hard to collect a set of 660 cards, so I used to buy complete sets," he said.
Marcucci was able to capitalize on the exploding value of cards in 1985 and sold some to help make ends meet early in his marriage, he said.
Earlier that decade the Topps Company lost a lawsuit, which allowed a whole raft of new card manufacturers to flood the market.
"All of a sudden there was a glut of cards by different makers and the hobby took a dive," Marcucci said. They included companies such as Fleer, Donruss and Upper Deck.
"The cards didn't have value back then and they are worthless today."
Ron Ranto of the Chicago Cubs, 1964-66. (photos coutesy Mike Marcucci)
Things changed for the better in the early '90s, Marcucci said, with the addition of parallel sets, low production items and other "value added" techniques such as image manipulation and autographs.
"That's where the collectors still are today. The main sets are way over-produced and of no value. It's the parallel sets that retain value, cards with serial numbers, you know there's a limited number of them out there."
Marcucci acknowledges that the Internet, specifically eBay, revolutionized the hobby.
"That was the best thing that ever happened to me as a collector. There were big dealers out there and I could get all the cards to build my collection on eBay. I still continue to deal there today," he said. "It's all happening on-line today."
As testament to that statement, in the Kansas City area, for example, there are only two brick and mortar businesses that specialize in baseball cards, down from about 50 at the peak of the speculative boom 15 years ago. They are Show-Me Sports Cards in Blue Springs and The Baseball Card Store in Overland Park.
For Marcucci, collecting cards hearkens back to his days collecting pop bottles for spare change.
"I do it for the nostalgia. When I sort my cards, I'm tapping into the eight-year-old in me. Although, I can see this as a sort of retirement business. But, I'll deal with that down the road."
Meanwhile let's look at Ron Santo just one more time…
Ron Ranto of the Chicago Cubs, 1967-69. (photos coutesy Mike Marcucci)
As old as baseball itself
Cincinnati Red Stockings pitcher Tony Mullane on an 1888
Baseball cards have been made and collected ever since 1870, just one year after the Cincinnati Red Stockings became America's first professional baseball team.
"A young Babe Ruth may have found an old trade card in the attic and marveled at its age. A young Ty Cobb may have been given a tobacco card of Cap Anson and wondered who was that old geezer," said David E. Rudd, a respected authority on photographic images. He operates www.Cycleback.com, a website for collectors of all kinds of photo images.
Before there was bubble gum, baseball cards were distributed in packs of tobacco.
"Starting in the mid-1880s baseball cards were mass produced and distributed nationwide for the first time. This era produced many attractive cards, which are still popular amongst collectors," Rudd stated.
"Goodwin & Co., a tobacco company in New York, issued the Old Judge cards, a small picture card that was inserted into packs of Old Judge brand tobacco. Goodwin & Co. produced these cards both as a 'stiffener' for their cigarette packs and to boost sales.
"Stars from these days include Cap Anson, Mike 'King' Kelley, Buck Ewing, Charles Comisky and Charles 'Hoss' Radbourne," Rudd explained.
This Honus Wagner T206 baseball card sold at auction for more than two million dollars in 2013. (photo courtesy Robert Edward Auctions.)
Many regard the period from 1909-15 as the golden age of baseball cards. Tobacco and candy companies produced some of the most beautiful, original and expensive cards of all time.
"Popular issues from this era include the T206 White Borders produced from 1909 to 1911 and sold in various brands of cigarettes. This set includes the undisputed king of baseball cards, the T206 Honus Wagner. This card was removed early in the printing of the card, making it rare. There are only about 50 of these cards in existence.
Popular players from this era include Ty Cobb, Shoeless Joe Jackson, Walter Johnson, Christy Mathewson, Cy Young, Napolean Lajoie and Wagner. In the 1930s another extremely popular era in cards were introduced by the Goudey Gum Company of Boston. "
The Goudey cards, especially from 1933, '34 and '38, are among the most popular cards ever produced," said Rudd.
With colorful art, they picture all the era's stars, including Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig and Jimmie Foxx. From 1939 to 1941, Gum Inc. produced the Play Ball cards. These include popular cards of Ted Williams and Joe DiMaggio.
In the early 1950s Topps Chewing Gum Company of New York City joined the mix.
"Their first major issue in 1952 is regarded by most as one of the greatest sets of all time," said Rudd.
The large colorful cards are highly sought after by collectors today. The 1952 Topps #311 Mickey Mantle is the most sought expensive card in the post-War era.
Mickey Mantle's rookie card on Topps 1952 #311 is the most sought-after. It recently sold at auction for $382,400. (photo courtesy National Sports Collectors)
For a long time Topps had a virtual monopoly in selling baseball cards. In 1980, however, a court ruled that other companies could join the fun, though they weren't allowed to package their cards with gum.
"In 1981, Fleer and Donruss produced baseball cards. From that time until today, more companies have joined the mix," said Rudd.
Today if you go to a card store, you will be able to buy one of many types of cards sold in packs. Just deciding which pack to pick can take some time.
Not all cards were produced in the same amounts. Different issues are produced in different amounts. Even within an issue, a particular card or cards may be more rare or more plentiful than the other cards. There is no set equation for determining the demand of a card.
Some important factors are: age of the card, attractiveness of the card, who's depicted on the card, popularity of the issue, scarcity of the card and condition of the card. "If a card is from a popular issue, depicts a popular player, is rare and in high condition, it will no doubt be an expensive card," Rudd said.
In the end, your cards are worth the amount of money that you get for them.
"It doesn't matter what the price guides say a card is worth," said Rudd. "If you can sell your card for five dollars it's worth five dollars."
The biggest disappointments come when collectors try to sell cards and find that they had overestimated their worth.
"If you start by having a realistic idea of what cards are worth, your collecting experience will be much more enjoyable, especially when you sell."
Leigh Elmore can be contacted at email@example.com
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