Dead Imitates Art: The Cultural Imagery of Fernando Valenzuela and his 1984 Topps Card

A number of years ago, my father gave me an 8”x 10” painting of Fernando Valenzuela’s 1984 Topps card.  The subject of the painting, however, was depicted as a calavera, a Mexican iconography image celebrating Dia de los Muertos, playing for the “Deaders.”  At the time he presented me with the painting, I was thrilled, of course, but also overwhelmed with other things going on around me.  I placed the painting on one of my shelves housing numerous baseball books and artifacts, and never paid much attention to it over the years.

Recently, among my random baseball card buying sprees, I came across the ’84 Fernando card and remembered, “Oh yeah, the painting.”  So, I went back to the piece and really started to look at it in a new light.  I found a new appreciation for the work not only in the sentiment that this was a gift from my father, who would pass away two years later, but in thinking about the painting as a reflection of my own culture and its place in the history of Chicano pop culture.

What we find is the intersectionality of baseball as art in the form of a baseball card, and the traditional and celebratory imagery of one of the greatest baseball heroes in the Mexican and Chicano community.

In Mexican culture, “calaveras” or skeletons, are ubiquitously depicted in “Dia de los Muertos” or Day of the Dead celebrations, in usually fun and happy scenes.  Dia de los Muertos, celebrated on November 2nd, is a time when we remember our friends and family who has passed on.  We build little altars, and make bits of food and desserts as an offering.  It’s a sacred time in our communities.  Calavera scenes in art portray normal life and everyday activities, just in skeleton form.  It might seem weird, but it’s home to me.

By the time the 1984 season rolled around, Fernando was having a pretty good start to his career.  He was 49-30 with an ERA of 2.55 in 97 starts over three years as a pitcher for the Los Angeles Dodgers.  No one had ever quite seen a pitcher like Valenzuela before.  He was a baby-faced, pudgy kid with a wide smile, who could light up a room and galvanize a community.  As he looked to the heavens before releasing a killer screwball or a commanding curveball you wondered how in the hell he did that.  He just did.  He was Fernando!

In 1981, his first full season, the 20-year-old led the National League in games pitched (25), complete games (11), innings pitched (192.1) and strikeouts (180).  Remarkably, he won Rookie of the Year, the Cy Young Award, the Silver Slugger Award (.250 batting average with 16 hits), and was 5th in MVP voting.  Not to mention, he was an All-Star.  Over the next two years, the Mexican native’s star would continue to rise, as did his popularity.

For kids and families in East Los Angeles, Fernando had reached cult hero status.  There was an incredible sense of pride when he pitched.  It was as if he was pitching on behalf of all Mexicanos and Chicanos in southern California!  That affinity translated into repeated sold out crowds when Valenzuela took the mound at Dodger Stadium in those years.  As with most cult heroes, we must find a way to uniquely capture their essence in a visual medium.  Among the shops on Brooklyn Avenue and Whittier Boulevard in the barrio, Valenzuela’s image was everywhere!  This was pride.  Pride in him, pride in our community, and pride in the Dodgers.

Years later, the calavera representation of one of my baseball heroes came into my possession, thanks to my dad who knew what it would mean to me.  I honor his memory, and the painting created by Joaquin Newman, here in these words.  I hope to continue this discussion in a presentation at SABR47.  Mr. Newman has created similar works with several other ballplayers that I will also showcase this summer.

 

Those Damned Slabs!

I love the feel of cards. Not modern glossy cards and definitely not those uber-glossy, oily mid-‘90’s cards that stick together when stacked! I hate those.

In 1998 I started working on the 1963 Fleer set. It seemed easy to put together from scratch, a 66 card set with one harder to find checklist. I lucked out with a few reasonably priced lots, then, since I was already hooked on eBay, started hunting down stars. I did well, finding EX-MT or better cards for reasonable prices. Soon enough, I’d have the whole set and sock it away in a box, my preferred method of storage.

Then I started winning auctions for graded cards. Not because I preferred them (see tactile thoughts above), but because the price was right. Now I had a dilemma. How to store the set? I couldn’t put nearly all of a complete set in a box and put what would end up as four graded cards somewhere separate. I thought about cracking the holders, but I’m pretty feeble when it comes to the most basic skills and, for sure, that would have resulted in ruined cards and me bleeding. So I ended up putting 63 cards in top loaders and finding a box to hold those and the oversized graded cards. Now, when I look at that set, I don’t get the enjoyment of having a stack of 50+ year old cardboard in my hands.

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The rise of the graded card ruined the hobby for me (until recently). I get it – it provides a certain consistency of grading, better than the old days when you had to take the seller’s word for how a card looked (though putting up actual scans goes a long way in accurately portraying raw cards). It definitely made it easier to buy online with confidence and, in the beginning, it made sense to grade stars and superstars, but when commons started getting graded, it killed the joy of completing sets for me (again, until recently). Every card in remotely nice shape was slabbed.

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I came up with a solution to knock me out of my card doldrums and the problems of slabbing. Starting last year, I completed a 1971 Topps baseball set in a condition only a fool would grade. Many many are EX-MT, some pretty sharp for a set notorious for chipping and bad centering. A lot are VG at best and some look like they were run over by a car, repeatedly. Still, now I can pull out the box and flip through them all, getting that smooth sensation from the fronts and that rough feel of the backs.

Still, as I work to complete multiple older sets, I’m running into the problem of key cards in slabs. I’m not sure what to do – pass them up and wait for a raw card, or suck it up and end up with a card or two in slabs? I know what I’d prefer – raw cards only – but I know that price will dictate results, exactly like it did almost 20 years ago.

Field Generals

During the 1960s and ‘70s Topps included manager cards for each team. I’ve always enjoyed these cards due in part to the staged shots which made the skipper appear to be in the act of managing his charges.    A typical pose had the manager with his hands behind his back as if surveying the practice field.  Also several cards depicted a manager putting his hand to the mouth to create the illusion of barking out orders.  Another frequent tactic was having him point as if giving directions to the players on the field.  In addition many shots featured the manager poised on the dugout steps or near a batting cage.   Some shots had the manager appear to be giving signs.  Let’s examine a few of these classic poses by focusing on some iconic field generals.

 

The “Little General”

Best known for piloting the 1964 Phillies to an epic collapse, Gene Mauch had a long managerial career with stints in Philadelphia, Montreal, Minnesota and California.  The 1968 card (left) is a classic example of the shouting out orders pose.  Perhaps he is telling Richie Allen to stop writing obscenities with his foot in the Connie Mack Stadium infield dirt.  In 1967 Gene is pictured at the batting cage.  Hopefully, batting practice wasn’t in session since he is standing in front of the cage.  1970 finds the Expos manager pointing not toward the field but at the Shea Stadium seats.  Is he signaling for the hot dog vendor?  Is he pointing out a plane taking off from LaGuardia?  Finally, the 1966 card has him posed apparently in the dugout.  But what is Gene holding?  Is it a jacket draped over a seat?  Is it a seat cushion?  What is with the strip of tape?

“Senor” Al

The Al Lopez cards of the 1960s had all the classic poses.  Lopez was the manager who twice interrupted the Yankees pennant run with flags in 1954 with Cleveland and 1959 with the White Sox.  The 1960 version (left) has Al on the top step of the dugout while the 1961 shot has him pointing.  Al is behind the Yankee Stadium batting cage in 1962 and hollering commands in the 1965 image.

The “Lip”

Leo Durocher’s long and colorful career culminated in the early 1970s.  His stewardship of the Cubs during the 1969 collapse in face of the Mets onslaught will forever be remembered in Chicago.  The 1970 Durocher finds him in the often used hands behind the back pose before a game at Shea Stadium.  I had to include the 1973 Astros shot since it is a prime example of airbrushing gone horrible wrong.  Topps’ art school drop outs provided Leo with a poorly rendered orange lid and windbreaker collar.

 

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“Smokey”

This 1972 Walt Alston is a perplexing pose as he points skyward. Is a foul popup coming his way?  Alston always appeared to be 20 years older than his actual age.  He is 60 in this picture but looks ready for the “old managers” home.

Mets in Jackets

Here we have two Mets legends, Casey Stengel and Gil Hodges, resplendent in Mets jackets.  The “Old Perfessor” is pontificating on the top step of the Polo Grounds dugout in this 1965 card.  Gil stands behind the batting cage on a sunny day in Queens for this 1972 card.  Tragically, Gil died of a heart attack during spring training in that year.  I had to include this great 1970 shot of Luman Harris who led the Braves against the Mets in the first National League Championship Series in 1969. The Braves jacket is a satin beauty.

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Dark Signals

I will conclude with this 1964 Alvin Dark apparently giving the indicator to his coach as he exudes authority with an imperious gaze.  Al’s bench career would see him lose in a classic seven game World Series to the Yankees in 1962 but win the championship with Oakland in 1974.

 

Al Rosen: 1980’s Card Icon

al-rosen-headshot-264x300Late last month Al Rosen lost a long-term battle with leukemia. He was 71 years old and although two decades past his peak as a card dealer, much of his influence remains in the sports card and memorabilia business. Since I lived less than a half hour from Al, I would see him quite frequently at local New Jersey/New York events and seeing him in action was a site to behold. Many collectors and dealers both bought and sold from Al over the years. I did a few small deals with him and every one was handled very professionally.

He could be abrasive to people who offended him in some ways and, as arguably the most powerful card dealer of the 1980’s, when Al spoke the card collecting community listened. But I prefer to think of the positive aspects of his personality. If you had a chance to talk to Al, as I did, without the benefit of a large crowd at a show or when he felt he had to perform, you talked to a man who understood his business and his role within the card collecting community.  I knew I was seeing the real Al Rosen when we sat next to each other flying home from the National Convention in 1985, 1986 and 1987. This ended in 1988 when the National was in Atlantic City, a drivable distance.

During his peak, Al would get so many calls and letters that he was constantly on-the-go buying and  selling. I know members of his coterie who would finally get home for a day of rest and be called to go back on the road. Al never seemed to tire of looking at new collections as each deal truly excited him.

How did he know what to pay for collections? It all came down to the simplest terms he once imparted on me nearly 35 years ago. The most important aspect of this business is knowing what to pay for material. That simple sentence is pure genius. Why? Because if you pay correctly for an item, even if the value (real or perceived) goes down, you still have room to make a profit. And if you are a dealer, knowing how much room you have into an “piece” allows you to make a deal which may seem equitable for both buyers and sellers but also allows you to put money into your pocket. Sounds simple, but in actuality, it is the hardest thing for most dealers who are collectors to understand because they get smitten by seeing additions to their collections.

Rich Klein is a catalog maintenance expert for COMC and lives in Plano, TX with his wife and two dogs.

 

 

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Future Stars: Seldom Stars, Sometimes Not Even Future

They say you can’t predict baseball, and the folks who make baseball cards surely agree. Off and on for the past several decades, Topps has made a practice of predicting which players would be future stars and slapping the “Future Stars” label right on the cards. Sometimes they do a pretty good job — Cal Ripken and Tim Raines are among the Future Stars who became Hall of Famers — and sometimes they don’t — just ask Bob Bonner, Jeff Schneider, Roberto Ramos, and Bobby Pate, the four guys who shared those Future Stars cards with Ripken and Raines.

bo-jackson-tim-pysnarskiThe same year that Topps nailed it with Gary Sheffield and (to a lesser extent) Sandy Alomar Jr., they also dubbed Steve Searcy and Mike Harkey as Future Stars. I’ll see your 1987 Bo Jackson and raise you Tim Pyznarski.

So anyway, the point is that predicting which baseball players will become stars in the future is a losing game. That’s why I have so much respect for Upper Deck, who in the mid-2000s made a bold decision: If the Future Stars hardly ever turn into “Stars,” they reasoned (I assume), then why are we so beholden to the “Future” part of the equation?

I recently came across the 2007 Upper Deck Future Stars set. It jumped out at me because I was surprised to see Johnny Damon and Matt Cain in the same Future Stars set. It turns out I was right to be surprised.

I won’t go through the entire checklist, but let’s highlight a few of the players who, in 2007, Upper Deck was willing to go out on a limb and predict stardom for, along with their career accomplishments before they were named Future Stars.

Miguel Tejada. Age 32. Winner of the 2002 American League Most Valuable Player Award. Four-time All-Star, two-time Silver Slugger, and receiver of MVP votes in each of the previous seven seasons.

Andruw Jones. Eleven-year veteran. Nine-time Gold Glove winner. Five-time All-Star.

Chipper Jones. Age 34. National League MVP in 1999. Five-time All-Star. MVP votes in nine different seasons.

Manny Ramirez. Eight consecutive top-ten MVP finishes. Nine straight All-Star appearances. 470 career home runs.

Ken Griffey Jr. American League MVP in 1997. Twelve-time All-Star. Ten-time Gold Glove winner. 563 career homers.

Okay, this is just getting tedious at this point. Others in the set include John Smoltz, David Ortiz, Curt Schilling, Jim Thome, Ivan Rodriguez, Gary Sheffield, Derek Jeter, Alex Rodriguez, Mike Piazza, and Greg Maddux, among (many) others.

In 2007.

griffey-sheffieldI’m sure there was some rhyme and/or reason to this set. They did a similar set the year before, and they obviously didn’t think they were actually fooling anyone. I’ve looked at several of the cards, trying to find a wink or a nod or some indication that they’re messing with us, but it’s not on the cards themselves. There doesn’t appear to be any “throwback” aspect to the set — Johnny Damon is pictured as a Yankee, Griffey as a Red, Sheffield as a Tiger, etc.

It can’t possibly be true, but it seems, at least to the eye of the casual observer who happens to come across some of these cards ten years later, as if Upper Deck just really wanted to make sure their Future Stars set included some actual stars.

To be fair to Upper Deck, the set also included several players you would traditionally find in a Future Stars set. You know, rising stars like Mike Schultz, Sean Henn, and Jamie Vermilyea. For every Andrew Miller or Ryan Braun, you have a Rocky Cherry or an Other Ryan Braun.

Once you get past the first 100 cards, most of which feature established stars, there’s the usual hit-and-miss assortment you’ve come to expect from Future Stars sets. And now Zack Segovia and Devern Hansack will be able to tell their grandkids they were in the same set as Greg Maddux and Derek Jeter.

1964 Giants: Topps’ Photographic Pinnacle

I am just going to say it: the most attractive baseball cards ever created were the 1964 Topps Giant-Size All-Stars. The over-sized cards (about the size of a standard post card)  were sold in wax packs — three cards and a stick of gum for a nickel. You can buy these 60 cards in great condition today relatively cheaply considering the quality of the cards and the depicted players.The design is simple and elegant; my favorite Topps designs (1957, 1961, 1967, 1969, 1976, etc.) are minimalist, and this follows a similar ethic.

All 60 players are shown in their current uniform and hat, a blessing when compared to other Topps sets from the 1960s. How did they do this? They were still putting the set together well into the 1964 season, so they had plenty of time to react to off-season trades. Below you see Rocky Colavito, traded from the Tigers to the A’s during the winter, in Topps base set and its Giants set. Which are you gonna take?

The “Giants” did not hit store shelves until very late in the summer, around Labor Day. This allowed Topps to select the players and take photos well into the season. The back of Johnny Callison’s card tells us that he hit a game-winning home run in the All-Star game, which took place on July 7. (Several cards mentioned that year’s All-Star team.)  Getting the cards updated and onto shore shelves in a few weeks is impressive.

The card backs looked like a newspaper, highlighting one particular date in the player’s career but touching on the full story.

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The 60-card set was comprised of three players from each team, and Topps clearly intended these to be the “best” players on their teams, or at least players who had a claim to be. They were called “All-Stars,” after all.Let’s take a look at some of the selections and see if we can understand Topps’s thinking. I will assume that Topps made their choices in mid-summer of 1964. I am not interested in criticizing Topps for choosing among a group of comparably good players, but I will still point out choices that seem odd.

Baltimore Orioles: Brooks Robinson, Luis Aparicio, Milt Pappas

You could make an argument for Steve Barber or Wally Bunker as the third choice, joining the two perennial All-Stars. But this is a solid group.

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Boston Red Sox: Carl Yastrzemski, Dick Stuart, Dick Radatz

Stuart and Radatz were one-dimensional but famous, and Yaz was their best player. Tony Conigliaro came up that year and was showing promise, but I expect Topps spent little time debating these three.

California Angels: Jim Fregosi, Dean Chance, Albie Pearson

The first two were easy, but Topps had to struggle to find a third guy. Pearson had a fine 1963 which ended up carrying the day. Bobby Knoop probably might have been a better call.

Chicago White Sox: Pete Ward, Gary Peters, Juan Pizarro

They could have gone with Hoyt Wilhelm, or Joe Horlen, or Ron Hansen — the White Sox had a lot of good players. But I think this is fine group.

Cleveland Indians: Leon Wagner, Johnny Romano, Max Alvis

Sam McDowell and Luis Tiant were called up early in the season and became sensations, just a bit too late for Topps. The Indians had no obvious stars, and the three they chose were as close to qualifying as anyone I suppose.

Detroit Tigers: Al Kaline, Bill Freehan, Dave Wickersham

The Wickersham choice seems weird today, but he was in the midst of somewhat fluky 19-win season and Topps was suitably impressed. Norm Cash would have been a much better choice, even at the time. Dick McAuliffe too.

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Kansas City Athletics: Rocky Colavito, Jim Gentile, Wayne Causey

These guys were arguably the three best players on a lousy team. By WAR, the best player on the 1964 A’s was reliever Wes Stock, but I’m not really going to defend that hill.

Minnesota Twins: Harmon Killebrew, Tony Oliva, Camilo Pasqual

Oliva was such a great rookie that he not only forced the Twins to move Bob Allison (a legitimate star) to first base, he probably also forced Topps to kick Allison out of his honored place in this set. “Thanks a lot, rook.”

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New York Yankees: Mickey Mantle, Whitey Ford, Elston Howard

The toughest omission was Jim Bouton, but I suspect it took Topps about five seconds to settle on these three.

Washington Senators: Chuck Hinton, Bill Skowron, Ed Brinkman

It’s hard to see how Claude Osteen did not make this set given the competition. Hinton is fine, but Skowron was all reputation, and Brinkman was a glove-only shortstop, a type that seemed to be everywhere in the 1960s.

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Chicago Cubs: Billy Williams, Ron Santo, Dick Ellsworth

Don’t laugh: Ellsworth was positively Koufaxian in 1963. (Look it up.) Sure, that season stands out like a mountain over the rest of his career, but it was great enough to get Topps to pick him over Ernie Banks, the most popular Cub who was quite a bit off his great peak of a few years earlier.

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Cincinnati Reds: Frank Robinson, Vada Pinson, Jim Maloney

A year later and Pete Rose would have gotten one of the slots, but these three stars are pretty easy picks. Guys like Maloney are my favorite part of the set — although he eventually got hurt, he was absolutely not out of place in this group of 60 players.

Houston Astros: Nellie Fox, Ken Johnson, Dick Farrell

In April 1964 Johnson pitched a nine-inning no-hitter and lost, still the only pitcher ever to “accomplish” this. This event was famous at the time, and was probably enough to get Johnson his card, along with two teammates who were also not stars (though Fox once had been).

Los Angeles Dodgers: Sandy Koufax, Tommy Davis, Frank Howard

Don Drysdale’s omission is odd — he was famous, and he really was a better player than Davis or Howard. For proof, he even started the All-Star game for the National League, the fourth time he had done so (he would start again in 1968). Maury Wills ordinarily might have warranted a spot as well, but Topps did not have Wills under contract until 1967.

Milwaukee Braves: Hank Aaron, Warren Spahn, Joe Torre

Spahn finally collapsed in 1964, but Topps was not ready to give up on him, giving him this spot over over Eddie Mathews, who was in decline but still a very productive player. The other two were easy calls.

New York Mets: Ron Hunt, Galen Cisco, Roy McMillan

Hunt was the only actually good Met. Cisco enjoyed a pretty decent run in early 1964, the best run of his career, and this was just enough to get into the set. McMillan was basically a utility player at this point, but that was true of the entire team.

Philadelphia Phillies: Johnny Callison, Jim Bunning, Tony Gonzalez

Given the inclusion of Oliva, its hard to justify the omission of rookie Dick Allen, who was one of the best players in the NL from April onward. Gonzalez was a good player, but not in Allen’s class.

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Pittsburgh Pirates: Roberto Clemente, Bob Bailey, Bob Friend

Other than Clemente, the Pirates were transitioning in this period and Topps went with a guy on his way in (Bailey) and a guy on his way out (Friend). They could easily have gone with Bob Veale or Bill Mazeroski, but whatever.

San Francisco Giants: Willie Mays, Juan Marichal, Orlando Cepeda

At first glance, Willie McCovey (the NL home run champ in 1963) seems like a shocking miss, but he was having a down year in 1964 and Topps chose three other Hall of Famers. Hard to complain, really.

St. Louis Cardinals: Bob Gibson, Dick Groat, Ken Boyer

The Cardinals acquired Lou Brock in June and he was their best player the rest of the year, but this was a couple of months too late for this set. With apologies to Bill White and Curt Flood, Topps chose well.

For my money, the biggest miss in the set was Drysdale, who lost out to lesser (albeit very good) players. There are many candidates for the “Least All-Star” because many teams did not have three good candidates. I might go with Galen Cisco for this coveted trophy, though.

As I have said, one of the reasons the set holds up so well is that the late release date allowed for up-to-date photography. The late release also likely hurt sales — Topps never tried a significant late summer release again. Fortunately, they printed tons of these cards, making collecting it today somewhat of snap.  It is a fabulous set, and well worth a little time and investment.

Shows, real and virtual

I’ve been on eBay since 1998, but my frequency of visits since last July, both as a buyer and as a seller, is ridiculous. I’m checking in all day, all the time, but I wouldn’t have it any other way. I remember the hassles of card shows.

Starting in 1973 (yes, 1973!), I attended at least one big show per year. Back then, there were only one or two big shows in all of New York, either at a church whose name escapes me or the Roosevelt Hotel. We would drive in from Long Island for the day and I’d spend my dearly saved $100 very carefully. I got some good stuff back then, missed out on more.

By the mid-‘80’s, I started frequenting shows a bit more, both locals and nationals. The Chicago National shows were impressive, maybe too big, and while it was fun to see all the merch on display, it could get grueling to go from table to table, looking for what I needed, haggling with dealers who held all the power and, by the end of the day, I was usually pissed off and had a headache.

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A small story: I used to go on Sundays because you could get deals. Dealers wanted to sell rather than pack up. I forget what year it was, but one dealer had an unopened box of cards I wanted. Let’s say it was $75. Another dealer came up to him and said, “I’ll give you $35 for each box.” He had three. “Sold,” and that was that.

“Can I buy one?” I asked. Maybe I offered $35, maybe $45.

“No, they’re $75 each.” You can imagine my response.

So card shows were a mixed blessing. I’d often find a lot of what I set out for, usually got as good a price as I could, but the power balance was way off. Buyers had no power other than to walk away.

eBay is great for truly sussing out what is rare and what isn’t and, even better, getting a true sense of supply and demand. Something rare may not be expensive if nobody wants it. Case in point: I’ve been working on the 2000-01 Topps Heritage Basketball set (yeah, I know that’s outside our blog’s purview) for 15 years and still need five of the short prints (1,972 of each made). I usually pick them up for $4-6, but I STILL NEED FIVE!

Having a vast amount of listings, easily found, is a  buyer’s paradise. I’ve been working on the 1949 Remar Bread set. The Billy Martin rookie is the only card that is relatively expensive, but the rest of the 32 card set won’t set me back much. In the last week, three listings for an Artie Wilson card, of varying quality, were up for auction. Wilson was a Negro League star, so there’s some additional interest there. I watched them all – one went for $20, another went for almost $40 – and the third popped up because I’ve got it tracked as a “followed search.” I bought it for $10.

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From a seller’s point of view, shows were a disaster for a normal non-dealer type person. Though I never sold anything to dealers, I watched one scene consistently unfold. Someone comes up to a table with, say, a 1952 Mantle. Dealer says, well, I can only give you $100 for it. Person says, but it’s worth $1,000. Dealer says, it’s going to be hard for me to sell, I have to keep it in inventory, I don’t have the kind of customers who pay a lot for cards, blah blah blah. Person either walks or gets ripped off.

Between eBay and PayPal the seller will give up a meaty percentage of the sale price, but it’s a fraction of what dealers would skim off the top. I’ve been selling more doubles and triples (sometimes quadruples and quintuples) to pay for cards I need. It feels great, like a solid trade, and the market rules. I usually get around what I want.

I don’t miss much about real card shows. Dealers tended to be unfriendly, fellow collectors absorbed in their quest. Even went I went with a friend we’d go our separate ways, with different want lists in hand. What’s there to miss? Plus, I can go to a card show on eBay whenever I want. In fact, I bought 4 1971 Kellogg’s 3-D cards at dinner last night, right in the middle of my Chicken Tikka Masala!