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Baseball Needs To Save Itself Before It Saves Baseball Cards

August 13, 2009 - John Whittaker
I've been collecting the 1987 Topps Baseball card set since I was nine years old.
One of my favorite memories is getting a dollar from my parents and running up to the general store in Dewittville for penny candy and two packs of baseball cards. Sometimes my sister Beckie would go with me, other times, my best childhood friend, Damian, would come.
I'd run home and rip open pack of cards, hoping for a Don Mattingly, Rickey Henderson or Dave Winfield (my favorite Yankees), happy with any Yankees (even Paul Zuvella or Wayne Tolleson) and ticked to find any Red Sox (yes, it goes that deep) or guys I'd never heard of (Ed Lynch, anyone).
Over the course of the summer, I assembled probably 500 or so of the 792 cards in the set. I've got so many doubles kicking around from that summer of card buying I could probably wallpaper a room in our apartment. At the very least, I could cover that hallway I've got to paint (hmmmm, that's an idea).
Unfortunately, I never completed the set. It's not worth much, not that I'd ever sell it anyway. Its value isn't monetary.
I picked up a few individual cards at flea markets or yard sales over the years. The News Wife surprised me with some cards she ordered from a guy on eBay that netted me about 30 of the cards I was missing. A stop at the Dart Airport flea market last summer - with the News Wife's blessing - brought me about another 30 or so of the cards.
I've got a checklist somewhere that I have to dig out, though the cards I'm missing seem to be different every time I look at it -- the number ranges from 50 to 80 that I'm missing. I swear terrorists are stealing some of my 1987 Topps cards when I'm sleeping. At this rate, we'll find Osama bin Laden, and my missing cards, before I get my hands on the last 40 cards I'm looking for.
With getting married and moving on my agenda this summer, scouring the Internet or card shows for the pieces I need for the set probably isn't happening. In fact, I think I'd be happy if I completed the set before I was 40. That seems like a worthy goal.
Yeah, I'm probably going about this the hard way. It'd cost $10, tops, to buy the whole set, shrinkwrapped and never opened, on eBay. In five to seven days, I'd have the whole set. It just doesn't seem right for my pursuit of this set to end like that. Quests like this one don't end that way.
For now, let's just say I'm handling this one like I did when I was 9 - hitting yard sales, flea markets, collectible shops. I've even toyed with buying an unopened box of 1987 Topps cards just for fun, because I miss opening packs of cards.
Yeah, I know I'm a dork.
If you're reading this and wondering why I'm blathering on about a 23-year-old baseball card set, it's because of an article I saw today on www.slate.com. (http://www.slate.com/id/2224864/)
Dave Jamieson's piece in Slate magazine was about Major League Baseball awarding an exclusive contract to Topps to make baseball cards - shutting Upper Deck out of the market - and asking if that move will save baseball cards.
I have a very fond recollection of 1980s baseball card sets, kind of starting in 1984 but hitting a peak in 1987. It's when I became a real baseball fan, when I can remember sitting on my grandpa's bed watching the Yankees or hearing a game on the radio, when I'd wait every afternoon for The Post-Journal to come so I could see if the Yankees won or lost and read the box score, of scouring week-old Sporting News from Jane Currie, a woman at our church, captivated by news that was a week old but was earth shattering to me.
Those cards were a connection to a sport I loved - the statistics, pictures, little nuggets about the players, a way to piece together your favorite team, one piece of cardboard at a time. It's how boys have a visceral, very real attachment to grown men they will never meet. Topps baseball card.
I know Mattingly hit .352 in 1986 because the statistic is burned into my head from that 1987 card. I know Willie Randolph led the league in walks in 1980 with 119 because Topps bolded and italicized league-leading totals, so Randolph's 119 walks stuck in my head.
That was baseball cards at their peak, before money started changing the industry and pricing itself out of the reach of its key demographic.
Little did I know, five years after all those trips to the corner store, Upper Deck would burst onto the card collecting scene and change everything, ratcheting up the price and quality of baseball cards. The age of big business, of baseball card collecting magazines (think fantasy sports magazines now) and of adult collectors was here -- and it killed an entire market for your typical, baseball-loving kid. It was the age of baseball cards as a stocks, checking Beckett every month to see how your cards had gone up or down and becoming a constant factor when you traded cards with your friends.
I remember trading a 1989 Gary Sheffield future star card for a 1989 Don Mattingly card and getting crap about it from kids in my class. "How can you trade a Sheffield for a Mattingly? Do you know what that Sheffield card is worth? Let me get my Beckett and show you how dumb you are."
We were in seventh grade.
Now, with the knowledge gained over the years, I'm even happier with the trade. Sheffield's a jerk, always has been a jerk and probably always will be a jerk. I'm glad he's no longer a Yankee, because it sucked rooting for him. I like seeing him flailing away at breaking pitches as a Met. I like the thought of him being miserable coming off the bench. I just never liked the guy. And, every time I see him strike out with men on base, I think about that 1989 Mattingly card.
Over time, the card companies I grew up with either got out of the business or went out of business. Now, the business has collapsed to a fifth of its former size and industry executives can't figure out how to get kids interested in collecting again.
Jamieson says it won't - and he's probably right, but not for the reasons he thinks.
The industry can fix the way it markets itself. It can fix design issues or quality issues. It can fix pricing issues.
One more story as an example of something the baseball card industry can't fix.
I never flipped baseball cards or put them in the spokes of my bicycle, but people did - I know because I've read about it. I used to take my cards and make lineups - when I went outside to hit (throwing a ball in the air and whacking the crap out of it) I'd go through the lineups, doing play-by-play in my best Phil Rizzuto voice.
That doesn't happen now.
Fans used to root for a guy like Roger Maris because his family worked the mines in Fargo, and if Roger wasn't playing baseball, he'd be a regular guy working in the mines, too. You rooted for Yogi Berra because there was a chance you'd run into him running his bowling alley in the offseason. You could see those guys hanging out, having a beer, playing with their kids or working on their house. When we were disappointed with a player, it sucked because they let us down, but we still identified with them. They may have let the team down, but they were still our guy.
Now, we're ticked off because the rich crybabies popped up with the bases loaded and none out, angry more with the money they're making than with the fact they stunk up the joint in the first place.
Jamieson's article is interesting, but I think he's asking the wrong question.
Rather than Major League Baseball saving baseball cards, can it save itself?
Discuss amongst yourselves.

 
 

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I never got this card in a pack. Instead, I had to buy it from a dealer for $5.