A Labor of Love

People think I am like Peter Pan, like I have never grown up, because I sell trading cards and sports memorabilia. Maybe that is true. Maybe I haven’t ever stopped being that young boy with the dream of owning every Topps card ever printed. But is that such a bad thing when being that person allows me to make a pretty nice living off of something that I have loved nearly my whole life?

I don’t know about you, but I don’t think so.

I am able to meet so many of my sports idols—from way back and from the current era—because of my job. I’m not just some guy taking off work on a Tuesday afternoon to meet some rookies and get autographs. That IS my job. If these athletes wind up hot commodities, I need to be ready with their signatures on something. I have carefully cultivated relationships with players, managers, agents, locker room attendants and whoever else I need to so that I can get access to athletes in the Seattle area. I would be lying if I said I didn’t love meeting players. It is my favorite part of the job, just ahead of sitting around talking about baseball cards all day. I’d also be lying if I didn’t tell you that it was a lot of work to get to this point. All those hours spent establishing a rapport with players to get signatures and to prove I am a legitimate source of signed memorabilia to customers has taken time.  It has been so worth it, though, because it is something I love. I don’t mind putting in the time.

At least once a day some guy will come in and look through the stock under glass near the register and launch into a story about how he’d be rich right now if his mother hadn’t thrown out that shoebox full of baseball cards he’d had as a kid. The guy will usually go on to tell me which rookie cards he had, and all kinds of other tall tales about his collection. I wish I could say to him that I highly doubt those cards would be worth anything at this point because there are only so many cards out there in any given year that don’t have autographs that are actually valuable. But you can’t say that to these people because I buy and sell based on their nostalgia, and his mom actually did me a favor by throwing those cards out—less cards in circulation, plus he might buy some to replace those that he lost.  My collection is only worth something if someone like him decides that it is and is willing to pay for it. Otherwise, all I have is a lot of ink and cardboard, and no money to show for it. So I smile and nod and keep listening to their story. I see the look in their eyes as they remember that shoebox full of Ken Griffey Jr. or Jamie Moyer rookie cards because it’s more fun to pretend what you had was worth something. I know because I am that guy too. The only difference is that the other guy’s mom knew that their son had moved on to other things. Mine recognized the feeling in my heart and didn’t throw my collection away. She recognized the love there back then, the love that is still there now.

How Much is Your Collection Worth?

rookie year cards

I hear this question a lot. Mine is worth a lot, but then again, I count my collection as everything in the store, too. Technically it is mine until I sell it to you, or at least that’s what my insurance company tells me when they collect that giant premium every month. But yours? I have no idea. At least, not without it in front of me and a lot of time. I never give estimations of worth over the phone sight unseen.

There are a lot of factors that go into the value of a card. First, of course, is the player. Clearly there are players who are worth more than others. Then you have to consider the year. As players get better, they get more cards. So the early years are going to be worth more. Generally, the older the card the more it is worth, with rookie year cards worth the most. Next, we have to take into consideration how many identical cards are out there. In the boom years of the 80s/90s, they made so many cards that you can still buy pallets full of unopened packages. If there are still a lot of that particular card around, the valuation will be lower. The easier I can get the exact same card, the less I’ll be willing to pay top dollar for yours. After that is the condition, what kind of shape it is in. Is it graded or ungraded, and if it is graded, by which company? How much better is it than the other identical cards floating around out there? The better the condition, the more it will be worth. But here is the thing people have trouble understanding: the value of the card actually means nothing. It isn’t like money where the amount printed on it is the amount that you get out of it. You may have a card worth 50 grand, but unless I can line up a buyer for you when you want to sell it, the card’s value is zero.  That is the difficult thing about any collectible item—you aren’t only dealing with the value of the item itself, you have to look at the other end as well: how much can I actually get for it? Your mint condition Mark McGuire rookie card might be worth a pretty penny, but blacklisted players like him, Canseco, Clemens, and Sosa can be super hard to offload.

Unfortunately, even knowing the above criteria does not mean I know the value of every card from every brand off the top of my head. The ones I am always looking out for or that I know will sell, I can absolutely give you a good idea of the ballpark price. However, there are just too many of them out there for me to be able to tell you with any confidence what every card is worth. That’s why I rely on things like the Beckett Guide to fill in the gaps in my knowledge. Here at the shop, it is used so often we just call it the bible.

Basically, what I am trying to say is that I’m not going to give estimated values over the internet or the phone. If that is what you’re looking for, I highly suggest visiting a local memorabilia shop or show to have someone who can physically look at your collection appraise it. They’ll be able to do it correctly and fairly, and you may be pleasantly surprised.

Goofs

People love printing mistakes. Upside down planes on stamps. Misaligned printings of $20 bills. Some baseball cards are the same way. Below are several styles of mistakes major baseball card brands have made and my favorites of each type.

  • The unintentional mistake picture. Claude Raymond and his open fly. Guy adjusting his…er, cup, in the background of a Paul Gibson card. Billy Martin pretty much giving the finger on his card in ’72. Or Billy Ripkin and his @#$% face bat that Fleer had to scramble to fix after the fact, which resulted in a ton of different cards circulating out there—the original swear word card, some where it has been whited out or airbrushed, others where the words are scribbled out, and finally the black box that went out in all the factory sets. On Ripkin’s website, he shows 10 different versions of the card that were printed. There’s also Jim Nettles’ 1990 Pacific card. For his profanity card, he apparently picked up someone else’s bat and he reportedly is not a fan of the card. He’ll sign right over the swear word if you give it to him for an autograph. Also, there are actually more of the swear card than the corrected version, so the clean version is actually worth more (although still not worth a whole lot). Takes a little of the fun out of it if you ask me.
  • Reverse negative cards. There have been a few of these, although my favorite makes Hank Aaron a lefty. John Littfield became a southpaw for his card in ’82. Another reverse negative happened in ‘89 with Dale Murphy’s Upper Deck card. There are a few other instances. You would think, that in a sport where being left or right handed truly matters, companies would examine proofs at least a little more carefully than that. But you would be wrong. It’s just funny.
  • The wrong guy. Topps switched Carlos Beltran and a not-nearly-as-impressive teammate named Juan LeBron for his first baseball card. Donruss put Johnny Ray’s photo with Barry Bond’s name in ’87 by accident. They caught that one pretty early and switched it. 1969’s Topps card for Aurelio Rodriguez featured the bat boy instead. I always find these mistakes hilarious, because some are actual mistakes on the card company’s behalf, and some are baseball players being baseball players and messing around. These are hands down my favorites.
  • Quality control problems. The ’62 Topps Green Tint series where they ran out of ink. The 1990 card without Frank Thomas’ name on it. The ’82 Tops Blackless set. There are a ton of these, in varying rarities and obviousness of their mistakes, and they’re all funny in their own way.

Some of these errors are rare and/or hard to find, and therefore valuable, turning a “nickel card into a $30 dollar card,” as Billy Ripken said. Others, while hilarious, aren’t worth that much. Others can be valuable if you have the whole set. It’s one of the things I like about baseball cards: when you’re paying attention, you’ll never know what you see.

How Did You Grow Your Collection?

I still remember being a kid and opening a brand new pack of baseball cards. The sound of the wrapper opening was the soundtrack to my childhood summers. I can still feel the stiff cardboard and that bubblegummy scent that lingered on the card long after you chewed the poor cement-like stick that came in the package. “Who’d you get?” was the most common phrase spoken between my friends and I. There was always someone to get excited about, even if it was only because you knew a card could be used as trade ammunition with a friend.

I spent the majority of my summers riding my bike, doing chores around the house, and then spending my allowance money on baseball cards. I would build entire cardboard teams. My friends were all interested in cards but I was different, even then. I was too serious about my collection. I had the cards all in binders, in pocket pages, organized by team and position. I loved the Topps cards. That fake wood background! Come on, how could you not love that? My goal was to have every card Topps made. All of my spare money and time went into collecting.

As we all got older, my friends lost interest. They moved on to other things like cars, girls, music, or something else. Not me, though. Trading card companies were booming, adding different series of cards and glossier, better-quality photos. So I stayed interested in them. I kept adding to my collection. I needed more and more pocket pages to add to my ever growing collection of binders. My parents, I think, started to get a little alarmed, but they never outright discouraged me from collecting.

I didn’t go far for college and majored in business. I worked, and between the hours there and the cost, financially and time-wise, for school, I did not have a lot of time or money to add to my collection. I think everyone thought I had finally let go of my “childish” hobby. Until I went to my first trade show one summer and made over $300 dollars selling cards. My parents couldn’t believe it—although whether it was the amount of money or the fact that I had to part with some cards to get it is still unclear. I went to a few more trade shows during breaks in school, buying and selling cards, until I graduated college.

Then I graduated, and everyone was curious to see what I would do with this great new degree I had in my hand. I am not sure why they expected anything other than me opening my own card shop, which is what I promptly did. I’ve been doing this for awhile now and I can honestly say that I love my job. I’ve expanded into trading cards for other sports and memorabilia as well. I don’t mind going to games and getting stuff signed “for work” at signing events. I can’t think of a better way to spend a day.

So that’s the story of my collection. How about yours?

How to Store and Display Your Collection

There are so many ways that you can show off your baseball cards, ranging from fairly cheap in price to very costly. It depends on your budget, the size of your collection, and how you want to display everything.

The most budget friendly (and also inefficient) wayto store your cards would be to put them in boxes. It works for the casual hobbyist and young collector alike. Most people who choose this route pick it because it is easy. It will protect your cards from damaging UV rays and some other pesky elements, but it isn’t really displaying them. So if you would like to brag about your collection or have it organized in some way, this is not a viable option for you.

Another low cost option that takes up minimal space is a binder (or binders) with pocket pages. The front and back of the card remain visible, the cards are still protected by the light (as long as you don’t get a transparent binder), and your collection can be organized any way you wish. When you run out of pocket pages, you can easily and cheaply get more. Run out of binder space and you can pick up another. I liked this method as a kid because it was easy to set up, easy to bring with me everywhere I went, and the cost fit well within the confines of my allowance. The drawbacks to this method are that it isn’t really foolproof—you can damage the cards just putting them in, bending the corners or accidentally creasing a card. Also, because the pocket pages are not completely sealed, they are not totally protected from liquids or other damage. Also, the portability factor can be a liability if, say, you forget your collection on a bus or at a convention. Yes, I am bringing that up because I’ve done it. Luckily it was before my collection was really worth anything and it wasn’t everything I had, but it still sucked. The cards also aren’t really on display like this. As your collection grows, you also need room to store the binders, whether it be in a bookcase, on shelves, or in a closet.

My other two ideas are more for the collector who wants their cards out on display. Single card displays are a choice if you have a breakfront, curio cabinet, or bookcase you can use to showcase your collection. These card displays are often made from hard plastic, are sealed, and are easily displayable. Especially if you have any cards that are autographed, be sure to get a case that offers UV protection. Put the display away from direct sunlight and heat to keep the cards looking great no matter what display you put them in. I have a lot of the shop cards in these under glass. It makes it easy to show a single card to a potential buyer, and the cards always look good displayed this way. It can be costly to put every card you own in one of these depending on the size of your collection, however.

An option for those of you with a lot of cards, if you have the money and the wall space, are wall-mounted display cases. Good cases are expensive, and the more cards you have the more you will shell out to give them a good home (and the more wall space you will need to mount them to). There are some monster sized ones that can hold 200 cards, and much smaller ones for a few of your favorites. They typically sell these as graded or non-graded, so pay attention to what you are ordering.  I have one of these at home so that I can keep a small collection of my most treasured cards in sight.

Hopefully, this will inspire you to think outside of the box for your own collection of cards!