What happened to sports cards

I remember a time when sports cards were toys.

Then I remember a time when they were everywhere.

Now I see people unloading boxes and boxes of them for $30, or trying to.

What happened?

I grew up in the 1960s and 1970s. In those days, make no mistake: we were concerned with the value of cards, or at least the heaviest buyers were. But only one major company produced them. That was Topps, which had held an effective corner on the market since the mid-1950s. In those days, production was often sloppy. Cards came poorly centered, color overlays were messed up, and one card in every pack had waxy residue from vile-tasting gum that was so hard you could shatter it just by dropping it on the floor. Reverses were not glossy or white, most years, but the natural dirt brown of the basic cardboard.

Cards could be unintentionally hilarious. In addition to some pranks and errors (Billy Martin flipping the bird, Bob Cerv’s arm airbrushed out, Claude Raymond pictured two years in a row with his fly open), card manufacturers had to struggle to say something good about each player. When a guy hit .171 and fielded as if wearing oven mitts, that wasn’t easy. We would hear about his great performances in the minors, his tremendous potential, and if all else failed, his achievements outside sports. This was more of a problem in baseball because baseball players were more likely to get cards. With 40+ people on a football team and some 20+ professional teams, anyone could see there wasn’t going to be a card for every reserve offensive guard. Basketball was easier, because there are something like twelve people on a basketball squad. Hockey (about 18 per squad) just didn’t produce that many cards. In baseball, you could expect cards for about 75% of a 25-player roster, with full sets being 500-700+ cards. Which meant that the writers at Topps could end up trying to convince us that a washed-up 2-9 pitcher with a 5.58 ERA was, in fact, an important personage.

Through the 1970s, cards were still playthings for most kids. This meant that they became worn, creased, impaled, water-damaged (I’ll really never forgive our cat for peeing on my 1972 Roberto Clemente cards, even though the cat has been deceased since about 1985), and otherwise mutilated. Very savvy forward thinkers did protect their cards from wear, but many cards that avoided damage did so because someone forgot about them in a shoebox.

After a court ruling, the Topps monopoly broke in the 1980s. Around that time and shortly thereafter, now-adult collectors began to see small fortunes in those old shoeboxes. Some began to buy up others, transitioning from collecting to investing. Early birds got the best bargains. As non-Topps companies got into the game, production values improved. Bad centering became rarer; metallic decor began to show up; the photos improved. The mud-colored reverse became something of the past. Imagining value, kids and also some adults started to buy the flood of new cards–and they didn’t play games with them. Gum went away, an impediment to value. For the next twenty-five years, it was all about so-and-so’s rookie card, or stars, stars, stars. Price guides told everyone what the cards were supposed to be worth, and a grading system emerged. Guys even bought cases of unopened card packs, figuring to sell them for good money some day.

I didn’t collect during this period. It all looked like flashy garbage to me. But neither did I get rid of my own cards. Some were worn playthings, some were in pretty good shape, and they all represented one of the happier memories of an unhappy childhood. That quarter-century simply happened without me.

After 2000, in my estimation, enough buyers figured out that most of the money in cards was already made. The bubble burst. Nowadays, people sell boxes of them on Craigslist for bargain basement prices, usually trying to tell potential purchasers that these in fact are worth thousands. Few seem able to anticipate the obvious rejoinder: “If they’re worth that, then why are you dumping them for $20, which no one seems willing to pay you?”

Things seem to have come full circle. Last I saw, only two major producers were still making cards. Everyone who sank thousands into cards during the glut is hoping to get a bit of the money back. Sitting pat, I was unscathed. I found other ways to lose and waste money, but not on cards.

Got some old cards? With noteworthy exceptions, if they are post-1980, don’t expect much. Anything from the 1950s has some value just for showing up in decent condition. 1960s, less so, but there’s a little value. 1970s cards go cheaply.

I still remember when they were toys. And I still hate to think how much of my limited disposable income went into them, but what the hell. I had fun with them.

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2 thoughts on “What happened to sports cards”

  1. I loved the old cards. Maybe it was because I grew up with them that I prefer the old portrait style over the action photos that took over by the 80’s. The old cards were worth countless hours of fun. I played with them so much that the photos became imprinted in my mind. My older brother would show me just a small corner of a random card and I could identify the player almost every time. Ah, the good old days.

    There was alsothe ’89 Billy Ripkin card with “f–k face” written on the knob of the bat.

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    1. I do too, Gary, and for all the same reasons. Just the silhouette would tip me off. The ‘fuck face’ card is hilarious, especially because Fleer flailed about so much trying to correct it–there are numerous variations. They try to say it says ‘rick face’ but there’s no doubt in anyone’s mind who sees it.

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