To paraphrase and then deftly segue away from Bono, there’s been a lot of talk (maybe a little too much talk) about the idea of the ‘death’ of baseball cards. Everyone has an opinion and of course I have mine (though mine is more of a diatribe on how to fix the hobby rather than eulogizing its demise), and whenever this idea comes up a few certain obvious things are addressed and others, perhaps those more telling, are left to linger in the shadows.
The most obvious point is about the monetary value of cards (with a quick mention of Mantle and the Wagner), the second is the endless (and needless) variety of sets, the third is how dealers are no longer making money and the fourth is that kids are no longer part of the core demographic of collector.
Then the article would change gears slightly to tell about imminent change at Topps and whether or not the iconic card company will be able to weather the storm, because the argument is that if Topps fails, baseball card collecting dies.
And these articles—either wistful for childhood lost or disapproving of Topps and company for royally screwing up a helluva cool product—are real bummers to read. And I’m not sure if they add anything of any use to the very real question that faces the hobby: if it’s broken, how do you fix it?
I have a solution (though I doubt that anyone who enjoys the current state of the hobby is going to agree with me). Actually I have a number of solutions, but they all hinge on one important idea: privatizing Topps.
One of my childhood dreams was to buy a share—just one—of Topps. I think it cost $14 when I was ten or eleven. It was one half of my master plan (the other half of the plan was to buy a share of Marvel Comics). I know, not much of a master plan, but give me a break. I was ten years old. I was going to slowly amass shares of each company until I owned just enough of both to have my voice heard. I outgrew that idea, but I kind of wish I hadn’t. I think my ideas could have made some great cards (that’s another post altogether), because the choices the incumbents have made haven’t really panned out.
Not to digress or anything, but I don’t think much of what’s wrong with the hobby is Topps’ fault. I would pin the blame on Upper Deck, personally. They launched autographed cards in the early Nineties and the insert card frenzy that followed. They launched specialty lines up the wahzoo and ground up priceless memorabilia to make indistinguishable jersey, bat and equipment cards that no one can afford. Upper Deck has controlled the hobby, its ebb and flow, since they started in 1989. Topps has been playing second fiddle for over a decade, so it’s unfair to blame them for the hobby’s faults.
But their position outside of the hobby, their name-brand, iconic contribution to American culture and their virtual ownership of the word ‘baseball card’ in the mind of the uninitiated sets them up as the perfect hero on the ridge, here to save the day.
Here’s how it should progress:
Step 1: Warren Buffett or someone equally tired of their money but in for a little turn-the-ship-around, feel-good crowd-pleaser project buys 99.9% of the stock in a massive day of trading that would make Jay Gould blush. I would buy the other 00.1% of stock, just for fun.
Step 2: The new owner would replace everyone on the board with either young children on summer break or perhaps responsible adults who still enjoy collecting cards and maybe one or two of them could have a background in business or maybe a law degree.
Step 3: With a new board intact, the big cheese makes a speech along the lines that ‘Topps is no longer interested in turning a profit.’ At the end of the speech, the big cheese announces that the company will only make one set that year, and possibly one traded set at the end of the year. There will be no insert cards, though there will be a thing available at supermarkets called ‘Grab Bags’ that will include three packs of cards, two packs of Wacky Packages, five pieces of Bazooka gum, a few Pixie Stix and various other nickel and dime candies.
Step 4: The big cheese does not announce the MSRP of packs, but does announce that there will be 15 cards per pack “and maybe a sticker or a piece of gum, or possibly a puzzle piece,” as well as a sweepstakes card for an un-winnable sweepstakes.
Step 5: Three months later, just in time for Spring Training, Topps unveils its new cards at a local drugstore and formally announces the new set will cost 25¢ a pack. If the big cheese actually does turn out to be Buffett, he will then treat all the reporters to Dairy Queen.
Step 6: Topps has saved baseball cards! Huzzah! (There is much rejoicing.)
So before Topps’ impending crisis and the ‘death’ of baseball cards spark congressional hearings and lengthy shoutfest debates on MSNBC, let’s just settle this now: what would be so bad about starting over? So far I haven’t heard a better solution.