The obsession and business of baseball cards

The monthly meetings in El Cajon, Escondido, and at the Clairemont Bowl.

The players of the Fifties and early Sixties were rugged he-men.
  • The players of the Fifties and early Sixties were rugged he-men.

About five months ago I heeded years of pleadings from my mother and removed from her garage the baseball cards I had collected as a child. The cards, about 2000 of them, dated back to 1955 and continued through 1961, the last year I collected them. In the ensuing years, I hadn’t been tempted to purchase cards again. But that all changed when I brought the cards home and began perusing them once again. As a boy I had spent countless hours buying, trading, and studying the cards, memorizing each player’s height and weight, birth-date, home town, and hitting or pitching statistics. Looking over my cards, I realized the players of that era were somehow different from those today; at least I viewed them differently then. As I pored over the cards, I felt like an elderly man reminiscing about the old days when the world was simpler.

In my memory, the players of the Fifties and early Sixties were rugged he-men who played the game with a kind of noble intensity. There was Hall-of-Fame pitcher Early Wynn, a grizzled veteran who once said he would have thrown a brush-back pitch at his mother (or was it his grandmother?) if it would have helped him win a game. There were scrappy guys like Nellie Fox and Harvey Kuenn, big plugs of tobacco in their cheeks, wearing rumpled, dirty uniforms, executing the hit-and-run and bunting like nobody does today. The players were more colorful, too. Outfielder Jim Piersall on at least one occasion ran the bases backward after hitting a home run. Once, when two punks jumped out of the bleachers at Yankee Stadium and ran menacingly toward Piersall, he simply booted one of them in the butt, and did it with the grace of Lou Groza kicking a field goal. Then there was big Ted Kluszewski, an imposing muscleman who delighted the fans and intimidated opposing pitchers by wearing sleeveless jerseys that fully displayed his bulging biceps. Several years later, a rookie Los Angeles Angels pitcher named Bo Belinsky created a sensation with his late-night carousing and his romancing of Hollywood actresses, most notably Mamie Van Doren, and by his slugging an aging Los Angeles Times sportswriter.

“It’s like stock — things go up, things go down."

“It’s like stock — things go up, things go down."

Eventually though, the sport began its well-documented slide into a game played by chic young capitalists who hired agents, consumed drugs, and fattened their paychecks by endorsing every sort of commercial product imaginable. And as the character of the game began to change, my interest in its participants began to wane.

A few days after rummaging through my mother’s garage, I told a colleague at my office about my old baseball cards. Later that afternoon we were in a 7-Eleven store and happened to espy this year’s crop of cards. My friend, Jon, had also collected baseball cards as a kid, so on a whim we decided to see what the 1981 versions looked like. As it happened, they looked pretty good. Not only was the design good, but the cards had many more statistics than those we had collected years earlier. We purchased some more cards the following day. Jon and I had only intended to buy a few packs of the cards but before long, a funny thing happened — innocent curiosity ripened into obsession. For many weeks we would look forward to rushing surreptitiously down to the 7-Eleven for our daily fix of gum (which only I would chew) and cards. To reduce expenses and duplicate cards, we split the cost of every pack we purchased (thirty cents for seventeen cards) and divided the cards, taking turns on who got the first selection. We also agreed each of us would automatically get to keep the players from his favorite team. Since Jon is a Cincinnati Reds fan, he was entitled to players from that team. Being a Cleveland Indians rooter, I received first crack at their players. This worked out to Jon’s advantage, since he had his pick of such stars as Tom Seaver, Johnny Bench, and George Foster. I had exclusive rights to such notables as Jerry Dybzinski, Mike Stanton, and Jack Brohamer.

Despite our attempts at secrecy (we were slightly embarrassed with ourselves), word soon spread at the office that we were collecting baseball cards. More than once we were discovered in the conference room, that day’s acquisitions spread out on the long table, as we discussed trades with the gravity and acumen of George Steinbrenner. After some initial disbelief and condescension directed toward us, some of our co-workers began speaking to us privately about the cards. One fellow expressed an interest in obtaining some players from his favorite team, the Angels; and a woman we work with began buying cards and trading us for some of our “cute” players. Some of the best deals of my life were completed with her. Outrageous swaps, such as my giving her Steve Mura (whom the woman ranks as one of the cutest of the big leaguers) for Graig Nettles, were not uncommon. The woman also liked the Padres’ Gene Richards, not because he hit better than .300 last year, but because he has high cheekbones.

Three companies manufactured baseball cards this year: Topps, Fleer, and Donruss. After a couple of months, Jon and I had collected all but a handful of players in the 660-card set produced by Fleer, plus perhaps another one hundred cards each in the Topps set. We still didn’t have Rick Wise or Lemarr Hoyt, but it soon became obvious it was no longer worth the thirty cents a pack or the tedium of collecting doubles, triples, and quadruples of some players (I was saddled with seven Luis Aparicios in 1957) in order to obtain just a few players. Still, when we finally resolved to quit buying them, it was a bit of a letdown. Lunch hours have been considerably duller ever since.

Baseball cards have been around for nearly a century. Goodwin & Co. of New York, which manufactured several brands of cigarettes, was possibly the first maker of such cards, which it issued between 1886 and 1890, along with boxers, wrestlers, and nonsports subjects. The production of cards stopped around 1895 and didn’t resume again until 1909, when the American Tobacco Company and, to a lesser extent, the candy and gum companies included them with their products. In the ensuing years, a number of different companies issued baseball cards, but there remained periods when none were produced. In 1948 Bowman Gum Co. began producing baseball cards, followed by Topps Chewing Gum Company in 1951. The two companies split the card market and were involved in several court battles, leading to the purchase of Bowman by Topps in 1956. The latter had a virtual monopoly on the cards until this year, with the exception of 1976, when a publishing company issued a 630-card set.

As an inducement to get me to remove my cards from her garage, my mother had been telling me for some time how she had heard or read that they were worth quite a bit of money. And once I had possession of the cards again, I began to wonder just how valuable they were. A couple of months ago I saw a small ad in the sports pages of a newspaper telling of a meeting of collectors at Parkway Bowl in El Cajon, so I decided to go.

Inside a large room rented for the occasion (the meetings are held every month), tables were set up for the fifteen to twenty sellers. Nearly all of the dealers were adults, and to my amazement they didn't seem the least bit abashed about behaving like kids. Perhaps sixty people milled around the room, picking over the cards being displayed. Most of those doing the looking were kids of Little League age, who probably knew that Hank Bauer is a running back with the Chargers, but who likely never heard of Hank Bauer the outfielder. who played with the Yankees and A's. Most of the kids were looking to buy cards from this year’s offerings or to talk dealers into buying boxes of their wrinkled and bent “commons” (as opposed to stars). Dealers say they don’t make much money at the monthly meetings in El Cajon, Escondido, and at the Clairemont Bowl. The real money is made at large shows, many of which are held in the Los Angeles area. San Diego is hosting such a show this weekend, and serious collectors from as far away as Ohio and several western states are expected to attend.

The talk at the local meetings is not of the days when New York had three Hall-of-Fame center fielders at one time (Mantle, Mays, and Snider), nor arguments over who was the better catcher. Yogi Berra or Roy Campanella, but rather of prices paid, other meetings and conventions attended, and market trends. The dealers could just as easily have been trading grain futures as baseball cards.

The meetings aren’t completely devoid of sentiment, however. Most dealers sold only cards they had in duplicate. One such person was Vic Liquori, an intense young man who has about 25,000 cards in his personal stock (insured for $12,000). “I wouldn’t sell them," said Liquori. “There are some things that don’t have a dollar value.” But Liquori is selling a substantial number of cards not in his private collection. It wasn’t too long ago that he took out a $2000 loan “and just started running ads [to buy cards] and buying and buying to build up my stock.” Liquori may love the cards, but he also loves selling them. Two years ago he bought a complete set of 1975 Topps cards for thirty dollars. Now, he said happily, the same set is worth $250. Prices of cards can fluctuate either way, Liquori said. “It’s like stock — things go up, things go down. I know people who have had good jobs and quit them to do this for a living. They were sitting on a gold mine.”

Indeed, baseball-card collecting has become so popular and lucrative that several publications with names such as The Trader Speaks and Baseball Hobby News keep collectors informed of the latest trends and offer subscribers a forum for advertising their wares. At least two baseball-card price guides are published every year, listing the value of cards whether they be in mint or merely fair condition. The Kelly Blue Book of these guides, the one that many dealers regard as the bible in setting their own prices, is called simply the Baseball Card Price Guide. Its authors claim it contains more than 100,000 prices for virtually all baseball cards in existence. Included are cards going back to the turn of the century, Canadian cards, and cards that were on the backs of cereal boxes and the like.

Thirty-five-year-old Jack Kidwell sells cards too. but only so he can buy more of them for his collection. Kidwell is a large, beefy, bespectacled Navy man who is stationed at Miramar and who looks a bit like former big-league catcher Clint “Scrap Iron” Courtney, except that Courtney was shorter. He said he has been a devoted hobbyist for only a year, and that he and other collectors aren’t embarrassed about their participation in what some might see as a child's pursuit, because the public is becoming aware of the value of the cards. ‘‘It’s really approaching stamps and coins,” Kidwell said. “It’s gaining respectability.”

According to local collector Walter Evans and others, baseball cards soared in value in the last few years, and only in recent months have prices stabilized somewhat. As word has spread that the cards are valuable (a Topps 1952 Mickey Mantle in mint condition will bring at least $1500; a 1953 Willie Mays, $600), collectors and dealers have found fewer bargains at garage sales and swap meets. Those who aren’t knowledgeable about the hobby are trying to sell their cards for more than they are actually worth. “People have gotten too smart for their own good. It’s gotten very difficult to get cards anymore,” complained Evans, whose wife was going to keep her eyes open for any bargains on a recent trip to the couple’s former home in South Carolina. Added Liquori, “The publicity has ruined this business.”

A business is what card collecting has become for Nelson Katz, 46, who opened “The Collector’s Dugout” in Escondido one year ago. Katz’s long, narrow store is lined with photos and posters of ballplayers on the walls. He also sells pennants, bobbing heads in different team uniforms, caps, jerseys, football cards, sports publications, and such nonsports items as political buttons, Billy Beer cans, autographed photos of movie stars, and cards for girls, called “Supersisters.” The latter are cards featuring female idols, including Gloria Steinem, Mario Thomas, and Helen Reddy.

Katz called his opening of the shop — which is a full-time job — “a fluke.” As a kid he collected cards, but “when I became interested in girls, I gave them away,” he recalled. A few years ago, while living in Canoga Park, Katz, on a lark, bought a pack of cards. “I told my wife, ‘Hey, they still make cards.’ She looked at me like I was nuts,” he said. Soon Katz attended a meeting of collectors and his interest in baseball cards was rekindled. He attributes the popularity of the cards to the general sports mania in America and also to the fact that kids nowadays realize the cards are an investment that can pay off in the future. He told of one seventeen-year-old he knows who sold a portion of his card collection and used the money to help pay for a van. For adults, the attraction to the cards is nostalgia, said Katz. “What people like best are the things that jog their memories, that they don’t want to give up. It’s part of their lives. They come into the store sometimes and say, ‘I have to have this.’”

The growing business of selling baseball cards is creating unique problems. Because of the value of the cards, there now exists the possibility of swindlers, of counterfeit cards. One local collector, for example, recalled a meeting as far back as 1972 when a man attended a meeting selling hundreds of valuable Ted Williams cards in mint condition. And when word got out this year that Fleer had produced several “error” cards, there was a scramble among some people to acquire them. Error cards contain a mistake, a misspelled name, a player’s position listed incorrectly, or, most commonly, a mistake in its check-list number on the back. Fleer produced twenty-four error cards this year which were corrected in a subsequent printing, making them scarcer and more valuable to collectors. One man known to local collectors got hold of Fleer’s distribution lists so he could find out at what outlets the error cards were dispensed.

Some collectors and dealers are convinced Fleer’s errors were intentional, so that its cards would generate more interest and sales. “I know dam well the Fleer mistakes were on purpose,” said Katz. “I think they made a lot of money because of it.” What Katz and others fear is that the manufacturers of the cards, realizing their value to collectors and dealers, may increasingly manipulate the market through the production of error cards and other devices.

Baseball cards and players’ salaries seem to have escalated drastically about the same time, and just as baseball fans bemoan the fact that the national pastime is no longer merely a game but is primarily big business, so too, the nature of baseball-card collecting has changed. One is just as likely to see a shrewd speculator as a small boy coveting the cards of rookie sensations Fernando Valenzuela and Tim Raines in the hope they will pay big dividends later. Somehow it just isn’t the same.

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