Death of the Baseball Card Industry, Part 37
It was late last night that this article from the New York Times came up on my twitter feed. It was yet another doom and gloom piece on the baseball card industry; which, sadly,has been all too frequent over the past decade or so.
But let’s flashback to a brighter time. For me, that was 1990. My father had collected baseball cards from the late 1970s to the mid 1980s and, over one weekend, we went through all of them. I was instantly hooked. I bought my first issue of Beckett Baseball Card Monthly magazine and I remember it clearly because it had a slightly concerned looking Jose Canseco on the cover. Canseco, man! That was the absolute peak of the craze, when you practically couldn’t go anywhere in the United States without being bombarded by baseball cards. I think we had around twenty(!) baseball card shops in my hometown of Austin, Texas. You could buy packs at the grocery store, the drug store, the gas station. Baseball cards were given away at Denny’s and came packed inside of your favorite cereal. Baseball card shows happened on a monthly basis and, at least for the big ones in town that occured bi-annually, it was not uncommon to have to wait 1-2 hours to get inside the doors. I met Chipper Jones at a baseball card show in Austin, as well as Warren Spahn. The big shows in Houston, namely Tri-Star, drew the biggest names. Mays, Williams, Mantle. Baseball Gods. They were all there and so were the people who desperately wanted to be a part of the action.
Fad isn’t really a fair word because fads don’t produce industries. Baseball cards were, and in a limited capacity, still remain an industry. But things began to change in the 1990s. There was more competition than ever before and card companies, to try and stand out to a now more discerning customer, began to rework their product in to something more special. Cards also got more expensive. Upper Deck, Fleer Flair, Topps Finest were just a few of these new luxury brands. Limited-edition “rare” inserts were introduced. Collecting as a source of income began to get out of hand. It changed the game. A lot of folks just couldn’t afford to collect anymore and, honestly, it just wasn’t fun. Also, personal video gaming systems suddenly got way better and this thing called the internet came along. I got older and, just like that, the idea of collecting cards just didn’t seem as important as it once did.
2008, a full decade after I had stopped, was the first time I bought a pack of cards again and, honestly, it was a blast. A more expensive blast, yes, but I was making more money now and could finally afford it. A lot of other guys have similar stories and started collecting baseball cards again, too. But it’s a bit different now than it was before. It’s not about collecting for the pure joy of collecting or to trade among friends. It’s all about the hits. What sort of value-to-hit ratio does one Topps product have over the other? Gambling for the big hit. That’s what it’s all about these days.
My new found enthusiasm has petered out and I’ve pretty much stopped buying cards—again. I’ve become disillusioned with the baseball card industry as a whole and underwhelmed with too many lackluster products from the Topps monopoly. Prices have stabilized some, but it’s still way too expensive for anyone to just want to start collecting. Kids certainly don’t have $100 lying around to buy a box and, honestly, even if they did why spend it on baseball cards?
Just like stamp collecting, baseball cards will never truly die out. There will always be that die-hard group of collectors out there who will manage to keep the hobby on life support. I will continue working on finishing my 1953 Topps baseball set here and there, just as I’ve done for the past couple of years, but the thought of spending any more money on something I don’t really need just doesn’t have the same appeal it once did. The fun is gone, folks, once and for all.