Monday, March 2, 2015

Zen and the Art of Card Collecting

A few years ago, my mom delivered a few boxes of my childhood things. There were a few items worth holding onto, but most of it was going to end up at a donation center or the trash. The highlight of those boxes was my card collection.

This was no ordinary collection. By 6th grade, I had arguably assembled the best card collection of any kid I met growing up. Years of buying and trading had left me with two massive binders (a major and minor league one, if you will), a couple sets, dozens of individually slabbed rookie cards and other miscellaneous gems.

Barry Sanders, Cal Ripken, Bo Jackson, Jerry Rice, Walter Payton, Michael Jordan were all very well represented. I literally spent hours going through every single card that day, appreciating the history of each one as well as the lot as a whole and feeling as though I was on the winning side of sports betting. Even from an adult’s perspective, I had to admit that this was one hell of a collection – regardless of who put it together.

My main binder was sorted by player, and each individual page was perfectly balanced by a combination of book value, sentimental appeal, and perceived coolness of the card. It contained only the elite versions of the player’s card from each card manufacturer. These were cards of players I kept and admired for their longevity and consistency, which was clearly evident by their accumulated statistics on the back of the card. Think Nolan Ryan, Dan Marino, George Brett, Wade Boggs/Tony Gwynn (essentially interchangeable but slight edge to Gwynn). Even my box of “commons” could contend with other kid’s collections. It was full of All Stars, Pro Bowlers and future HOFers but players I couldn’t get too excited about: Roger Clemens, Emmitt Smith, Karl Malone and Thurman Thomas, for example. 

The truly amazing cards – 1950s Mantles, Mays or Clementes, the Lew Alcindor Topps rookie, a Babe Ruth Goudey – you never saw those outside of card shop or show. Only once did I come across a kid whose dad miraculously kept some of his cards from his own childhood, and we only saw those beauties once or twice in secret while his dad was out of town. If some kid actually owned one of these historic cards, their credibility was instantly lost because you knew Mommy or Daddy bought it for them, and now they were just being spoiled braggarts.

No kid owned this card.
An honest collection was acquired through mowing lawns, allowance, birthdays, chores, trades and dedication. That’s what made the impact of the binder, especially, all the more significant when comparing. It was really a representation of the passion for your collection. It didn’t necessarily need to be huge and expansive (quantity does not equal quality), but it needed to be appreciated. Were the cards centered in their sleeves? Did he handle the pages with care? Could he insert a card into a case without damaging the edges? These were legitimate concerns, especially if you were to engage in the art of trading where you were going to trust him to potentially handle your cards and ask him to put that trust back into you.

And you could also see what the guy’s interests were. What era, what sport and what player card you were into said a lot about you. If the heart of your collection was full of Score Tim Raines and Jim Kelly, I’d probably just keep that to yourself. If you somehow compiled a page full of 1986 NBA Fleer rookies, you definitely had my attention but then we would have to chat why those cards weren’t in individual cases.

A good friend, John, was obsessed with his precious 1984 Donruss Don Mattingly. To be sure, it was a kind of a classic looking card and Mattingly was a solid player, but the card didn’t exactly blow my hair back. But the fact it was always off limits interested me. Any discussion of moving it – no matter how ridiculously advantageous the offer for John was – sent him into a heated defensive retreat. No trades. No way. End of conversation with immediate change of subject! And therefore, I had to have that card. Can’t say I ever pried it away from John, but months later acquired it elsewhere for a Tony Gwynn Fleer rookie. I realize now I didn’t want the card as much as I wanted the memory and story behind the card.

For fun, I decided to research some of their current day prices online. It would be an understatement to say this process left a bad taste in my mouth. Time after time after time cards that were bought and sold at market prices while I was growing up were selling for a fraction of what they cost today. A Walter Payton rookie for $40? A Yount rookie for $10? You have GOT to be kidding me.

This is a joke, right?
I learned that the card manufacturers mass produced these things like crazy. They got away with it because nobody outside the industry really knew. Cards you were led to believe were scarce and valuable were printed by the boatload, and things really got inflated in the late 80s and early 90s. That time period was both the height of the card collecting craze and the time period I grew up collecting. It was nothing more than a money-making scene that millions of kids bought into. Hundreds of dollars. Cards. Binders. Sleeves. Cases. Price guides. Certificates. A joke. The Internet literally made people aware of the surplus, slapping our faces, essentially saying “Oh, you thought your card was special? That’s cute…”

I often still get asked to evaluate someone’s childhood collection for its monetary worth and it kind of breaks my heart to tell them. I see ads all the time for collections. They cite the names and the years and I know immediately: junk. The only cards that still fetch high premiums today are the ultra-rare old, often graded ones. It really is unfair.

In 2011, I sold my collection for $100 to some guy on Craigslist. The ad said “someone is going to have a great time going through all of this.” This random guy, with zero connection to the cards, was thrilled to “take them off my hands.” It was painfully obvious that he was only thinking he struck gold with some sucker’s cards who knew nothing about their true value.

He was right.

Regardless of its monetary worth, a card’s overwhelming inherent value is the history to the owner. It’s the reason I took such pride in that collection and also the reason I regret selling it. Each and every card was purposefully kept and organized because of my unique personal connection to it. Like that Mattingly. Or like the 1989 Upper Deck Ken Griffey Jr. rookie card my dad and I bought at the card shop on my 10th birthday that I never once took out of the plastic holder.
My favorite card of all time.
I could re-purchase some of my favorites, I suppose, at a fairly low cost. But they’d be someone else’s story. And buying them now would cheapen the legitimacy of the effort it took to acquire them back in the day. It wouldn’t be the same – not even close. 
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