Thursday, August 20, 2009

The End of an Era for Baseball Card Collecting

I certainly hope that your nest egg does not consist of baseball cards, sir.

Next season, only Topps will be licensed to make baseball cards, and even that business is dwindling. Shops are closing. Cards are worth almost nothing now. Businesses that used to turn tens of thousands of dollars a month in sales to furious collectors now give away baseball cards just to get rid of them.

Sitting at the top of the heap is an iconic must-have baseball card--the Upper Deck rookie card for Ken Griffey Jr.
You have to go back 20 years to find a landmark baseball card: Ken Griffey Jr.'s 1989 Upper Deck Star Rookie, the number 1 card in that set. That was Upper Deck's rookie year too, and the company stormed onto the scene that March with a wildly successful premium product. Branded the Collector's Choice, it was twice as expensive as its peers' (99 cents per pack, compared with 49 cents for such top competitors as Topps, Fleer, Donruss and Score) and twice the quality (packaged in foil with color photos on both sides and a hologram on the back). But this is what mattered: Upper Deck had the undisputed Griffey rookie card. Topps and Score didn't have the foresight even to include the Mariners' 19-year-old phenom in their first-edition sets, while Donruss and Fleer were virtual afterthoughts in the hobby's frenzy over Upper Deck's premiere.

By the time, say, Derek Jeter came along in the 1990s, the market had become oversaturated with Upper Deck copycats; the Yankees shortstop had eight different rookie cards. When Albert Pujols arrived in 2001, he had 43. In '89 Griffey stood alone, and his card's value has held up reasonably well: at a high end of $40 in the most recent Beckett Baseball. But as his 21-year, surefire Hall of Fame career comes to an unremarkable end in Seattle, it appears unlikely that baseball cards will regain the cultural significance they had 20 years ago. The Kid's Upper Deck debut could very well be the last iconic rookie card ever made.

The image of Griffey that became part of collecting lore, with his blue turtleneck and 'fro-mullet tucked beneath his cap, was doctored. In his home office in Corona, Calif., 75 miles north of Upper Deck's headquarters, Tom Geideman hands me a Polaroid that had been sitting atop a binder of Griffey cards and says, "This—it's cut off a little bit—but this is the original photo." Griffey's wearing the navy-blue hat of Seattle's Class A affiliate, the San Bernardino Spirit, whose logo is a silver S over a red star. The picture was taken by the late V.J. Lovero, an Angels team photographer who shot Griffey and his father for a Sports Illustrated feature in 1988. Lovero sold one of his extras to Upper Deck, which airbrushed the hat royal blue, erased the star, made the S yellow and—ta-da!—completed the makeover.

I never caught the bug. I was too busy serving time in Federal Prison. I do know that, in the 1950s, I probably incinerated quite a few baseball cards and collectibles, many of them valuable or otherwise. Baseball card collecting went the way of the day trader--down the tubes with a fantastic amount of value. What happened to the money that disappeared? Think of the value that dissipated when someone's $20,000 or $30,000 investment in baseball cards just vanished into almost nothing. People complain about the stock market--no, they should really be glad they didn't buy into the baseball card hype.

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