January 08, 2007

A Valuable/Valueless Argument

Who was the greatest center fielder in New York in the Fifties? What is the best baseball card set ever—before the war and after? Who had the funniest name? The largest head? And how about the ugliest mug only a mother could love? There are a few topics that will be debated forever, and the one that I keep hearing about lately is the idea of value, and more specifically, the appropriateness of assigning a value to a card produced after a certain date, and whether or not it's worth buying.

Some people might tell you that no card made after 1969 has any significant value, and that it’s a waste of time to even consider otherwise. Others believe that value in cards ends with 1989 and that the last card to have any worthwhile value is the Griffey rookie in that year’s Upper Deck set. And then there are others still who eat up what the Becketts and the Krauses feed them about inserts, low production runs, high-end product and other mid-Nineties innovations that have since become standard hobby practice: that the high pack prices they pay and their perceived or actual scarcity ensures their value. And the truth of the matter is, all three groups are right. And none of them are right. I know my conclusion is a little vague. Let me explain.

The collectors who insist on 1969 and before have it right because it’s pretty easy to walk into a hobby store and ask for and receive boatloads of commons and star cards from the Seventies through the present. It’s much harder to walk into the same hobby store and ask to see 1953 Bowman Color and be presented with more than two or three examples. Of course that’s just an example, and I would venture to say that if you make the rounds of the major paper and ephemera shows (like Allentown, Hartford, etc.), you’d have a better shot of finding older cards than new. They also have it right because not only is it harder to find specimen (if you don’t where to look), it’s harder still to find specimen in decent condition. So this argument has a double dose of scarcity: actual, physical scarcity in terms of number of cards, and scarcity pertaining to those in decent condition within that universe.

But vintage collectors have it wrong when they pull up their tree house ladder and alienate the rest of the hobby, especially novice collectors who don’t know where to start or what to believe. If anything, the first image a new collector sees in a book, magazine, on the internet or in a museum is invariably the 1952 Mantle or the T206 Wagner (though if it’s a lucky kid who just got a book of Dover reprints, he or she might see the 1912 Cracker Jack Shoeless Joe first). Point is, impressionable minds are confronted with the unimaginable riches of old baseball cards every day—why do we need to shoo them away from those that they can actually afford? There were plenty of cards made between 1969 and 1989 that are suitable for investment, perfect for younger novice collectors looking to get a foothold in the hobby. And with the relatively new idea of professional grading, cards from this time period are enjoying a second life.

Yet like the first group, there are holes in this argument. Not all of the cards made between 1969 and 1989 (and really I should extend this time period to 1995 or so) are worth investing in, where as most to all of the cards made in the first hundred or so years of cards are (even if in relatively poor condition). In fact, you could say that when I said there were plenty made between 1969 and 1989 that were suitable for investment, I should have said that there were a handful made that were suitable for investment—a short stack from nearly twenty-five years of cards. Truthfully, many of the cards made in the Eighties and early Nineties (and you could write a whole book about this, and maybe someday I will) are completely worthless today. It’s a hard fact to face and it pains me to write this…tears clouding vision…Kleenex accumulating next to keyboard…but it’s true. The reason? Well, let’s just say that scarcity will never be a problem for most to all of the cards made in this time period. Of course there are other factors, and exceptions to the rule, but for the most part if a card is still readily available everywhere, nearly thirty years after it was made, it’s just not worth very much (at all).

And now for one quick sidebar I want to get off my chest about the 1983 Topps set: Despite what I’ve just said about overabundance and relatively little demand and the collapse of the baseball card economy way back when, I still stand by what I wrote about the 1983 set. It is undervalued at $75.00. Beckett and Krause do this thing where they value the complete set at a much higher value than the sum of its parts for sets made between certain years, and then flip flop that policy for the Eighties (sum of parts higher than set price). Granted, the cards are worth a lot less in the Eighties, but still. I think this is one of the few sets that you could judge on the merits of the previous category (1984 Donruss, 1984 Fleer Update and 1985 Topps being the other three from the decade). Mark my words: there will be three hot vintage 1980s sets this summer: 1982 Topps, 1982 Topps Traded and 1983 Topps. You’ll be lucky to get the 1983 for $75. There, I’m done digressing.

So that just leaves us with one last category of collectors: the new stuff guys and girls. And really, this is where the idea of ‘significant investment’ gets the trickiest to navigate. Even with the respective demises of Fleer and Pinnacle and the proverbial denial of the car keys to Donruss by Major League Baseball, there have been so many different sets made in the last ten years that it’s kind of ridiculous. Still, those companies that do still make cards (Topps and Upper Deck) have figured out a formula that seems to work for them: a fleet of sets and brand imprints aimed at different collectors (with different budgets) all offering sort of the same thing.

On average, a set will have less than 500 base cards, at least one limited-run parallel set, a number of separate insert sets and a lot of jersey, bat, seat and other memorabilia and autograph chase cards. So where are the cards worth the time and money? Well, it’s probably not the base set—which is a total shame, and probably the first sign that the end of the hobby is near—though short-printed base cards are making a comeback (sort of like an insert set within the base set). And it’s probably not the low-end insert sets either.

No, the real spot for investment-level cards is the memorabilia or ‘relic’ and autograph chase cards. Of course this is a no-brainer, seeing as how before the card companies chopped up the bats, gloves, bases, seats and jerseys to fit neatly onto cards they were real pieces of sports memorabilia with real scarcity and real value.

But you’re not getting the whole bat or the whole jersey—just a little swatch of it. And because there have been so many sets, with so many different inserts and relic and autograph cards, is there really a market for all of this stuff?

I don’t know. And I don’t think anyone will really know for sure for another ten or fifteen years. By that time I’ll be up in my tree house, yelling down to anyone who’ll listen that you shoulda got that 1983 Topps set back when it was $75—the last set with rookies of three bona fide Hall of Famers, two retiring legends and a Super Veterans card of Gene Garber. Now that’s a real investment.

Photo credits: 1953 Bowman Color Mickey Mantle, 1983 Topps Gene Garber Super Veteran. More 1948 - 1979 Set Countdown to come next week. I promise.

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