Baseball trading cards have been around a lot longer than you might suspect. They date all the way back to the late 1880s when they were used inside tobacco-issued products to help stimulate sagging sales.
The most famous of all tobacco-issued baseball cards remains the 1909 T-206 Honus Wagner card. As the story goes, Wagner -- a career .327 hitter who won eight National League batting titles while playing shortstop for the Pittsburgh Pirates -- was neither a smoker nor tobacco chewer, so he objected to his likeness being associated with the sale of cigarettes. His card was quickly pulled from circulation, which accounts for its scarcity in today's market, but at least 50 copies were inserted in packs and sold. Today, the number of Wagner cards in the market is thought to be less than five. It drew great notoriety in 1991 when one of the originals was sold at auction for $451,000. The buyers were Bruce McNall (former owner of the NHL's Los Angeles Kings) and hockey legend Wayne Gretzky. Since then, that particular card has twice been sold at subsequent auctions; the first time netting $651,000 in 1996, the second time scoring $1.1 million four years later!
Since 1887, when Goodwin & Company was packing out baseball trading cards inside of cigarette brands like Old Judge and Gypsy Queen, baseball card manufacturers have taken on many shapes and sizes. Major trading card producers in the 1930s included the National Chicle Co. and Goudey Gum Company, both of which used to sell one trading card and one slab of bubble gum inside colorful wrappers for just a penny. Most of the cards at that time measured 2 1/2 inches wide x 2 1/2 inches high and depicted players via colorful painted portraits.
The Brooklyn, N.Y.-based Topps Company didn't make its entrance until 1951, but soon found itself as the only player in the market. Topps held a stranglehold on the industry until the 1980s when Leaf, Fleer, Donruss and Upper Deck made their respective debuts. Today, however, there are just two still standing: Topps and Upper Deck.
How to get started
Now that you have some perspective on where the hobby's been, you need to know how to get started with your own collection. Depending upon your budget, there are a number of different routes you can take. For instance, you can always walk right into your local hobby shop or card store and see what the shop owner has on display behind his glass showcases. The region of the country usually dictates which players he'll have featured, but special insert cards have become all the rage since Upper Deck first debuted autographed versions in some of its earlier "Heroes of Baseball" releases.
Insert cards, for the record, are not part of the base set. They are "inserted" into the regular set less frequently than base cards. Today, insert cards sometimes include game-used memorabilia swatches featuring players' game-worn jerseys, bat barrels, even pieces of their fielding gloves. And when you open a pack of cards and discover a signed game-used memorabilia card featuring a sought-after player, you've pretty much hit the Holy Grail in regards to rare collectible finds. In hobby circles, these are often referred to as "lucky pulls."
A single foil pack, which can hold from three to 12 cards depending on the set brand, can range in price from 99 cents all the way up to $100. Upper Deck, for one, offers several price points for its discriminating collectors: From "First Pitch" (99 cents per pack) to its flagship brand "Upper Deck Baseball" (Series I and II, $2.99 per) to "MLB SP Legendary Cuts" ($6.50 per) to "MLB UD Epic" ($33.75 per pack). Obviously the bigger the buy-in, the better the chances for a big reward: Coveted, rare insert cards. But because high-end inserts are randomly seeded in packs, there's no guarantee that the foil pack or even the retail or hobby box you're buying holds the rarest cards. It's simply the luck of the draw.
For the true baseball fan, however, nothing beats attending Major League Baseball's annual FanFest event. This show of shows, now in its 17th year, is held in conjunction with MLB's All-Star Game and includes a Collectors' Showcase area that features hundreds of dealers offering their choicest cards for sale. This year, Pittsburgh will be hosting the All-Star FanFest from July 7-11 at the David L. Lawrence Convention Center. It provides those in attendance the opportunity to see the biggest card and memorabilia collections outside of Cooperstown.
Before the advent of the insert card craze, hard-core hobbyists sought out to collect just the rookie cards of particular up-and-coming players. Wannabe investors saw this as an opportunity to capitalize on the potential of first-year stars who they hoped would blossom into superstars, and if all went well, eventual Hall-of-Fame inductees.
The basic factors behind a player's card appreciating over the years are simple: popularity, individual stats, championship rings and Hall of Fame potential. Scarcity and the condition of the card are two more factors that play a role in how much a player's rookie card appreciates, but because today's hobbyist is more savvy and more concerned with preserving his cards in mint or near-mint condition, there simply are more rookie cards in better condition than ever before.
In the 1980s and '90s, many card dealers and investors bought up 100-card lots of some players' rookie cards at low prices on the secondary market thinking that the cards could wind up selling for as much as $50 down the road depending upon the player's career. But just like our culture's fondness for fast food and fast cars, today's collector would prefer to pull a high-end insert card immediately from a pack of cards and sell it on eBay rather than waiting out a player's career to see if his initial investment paid off.
Completing a set
When is a set complete? That's usually determined by the individual collector's perseverance. Years ago, many hobbyists went out of their way to collect every card in a set release. But with more and more rare insert cards popping up, not everyone can afford to complete the pursuit. And while the base level cards are nice, it's the inserts that ignite pack sales at hobby shops and subsequent pack cracking by customers. Some card products still contain set checklists within packs, but there are also several hobby publications such as Beckett Baseball, Sports Collectors Digest and Tuff Stuff magazines that list the set contents so collectors have an easy checklist to follow right down to the last card in the set.
It's important to try and keep your cards organized and in good condition. That way, it's easy to refer to the cards when you need to peruse your collection -- perhaps in the middle of a potential trade situation with a friend.
One way to go about this is to dump the shoebox-and-rubber-bands theory and invest in three-ring card binders with nine-card pocket sheets. This way, you can store the cards cleanly and safely without risking the potential for dinged corners or creases. This also places the cards out of direct sunlight, which can often fade the colors of your favorite cards over time.
For your most prized cards, you might even want to invest in screw-down slabs or airtight cardholders. That way, you can show off your most prized possessions in impressive fashion. And for the very serious collector out there, you can even get your cards graded by independent, third-party companies like PSA (Professional Sports card Authenticator), SGC (Sportscard Guaranty Authority) or BGS (Beckett Grading Service). They not only authenticate cards, but also provide graded conditions of card (10, 9.0, 8.5, mint, near-mint, very good, etc.), which ultimately helps you sell your cards quicker and easier to prospective buyers. It costs a little bit of money up front, but could go a long way in helping you upgrade your overall collection.
Besides teaching youngsters about the advantages of keeping their possessions in good condition, card collecting promotes discussion and trades among classmates, fathers and sons, mothers and daughters, even business colleagues. It also helps keep baseball fans current with their favorite players and teams and, ultimately, more well-rounded with topical events on the sports scene. Both young and old, male and female, can participate in this pursuit and reap the benefits of following our national pastime.
Terry Melia is the sports content manager for the Upper Deck Company and the former editor of Trading Cards Magazine. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.