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.



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.


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.

Author: Jeff Katz

Jeff Katz is the former Mayor of Cooperstown, the “Birthplace of Baseball” and home to the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum. His latest book, Split Season:1981 - Fernandomania, the Bronx Zoo, and the Strike that Saved Baseball, (Thomas Dunne Books, 2015), received national attention, with coverage appearing in The New York Times, Chicago Tribune, Sporting News and NPR’s Only a Game, among others. Katz appeared on ESPN’s Olbermann and The Sporting Life with Jeremy Schaap and MLB Network’s MLB Now, with Brian Kenny. Split Season: 1981 was a finalist for the 2016 Casey Award for Best Baseball Book of the Year.

30 thoughts on “Those Damned Slabs!”

  1. I share your aversion. I understand the reason for the slabs *during the transaction*, to aid in determining what you are buying. But once the transaction is done, the only purposes of the slab are (a) to aid in resale, or (b) to aid in your bragging about the card to others. I am not really interested in either, so the slabs detract mightily from the card.

    Would you encase your Van Gogh in a hard plastic screw case? Personally, I would not.


      1. 95% of my pre-1983 cards are in penny sleeves are in penny sleeves. It used to be 100%, but I recently got nervous and upgraded my Hall of Famers to top loaders. How about you? Do you just keep your graded cards separate? (All collection methods are AOK by me.)

        Liked by 1 person

      2. I place all of my non-graded cards in penny sleeves and toploaders, even those that do not have significant market value. All cards in my collection bring me joy in their own way and so I process, store, and record all cards in a consistent manner.

        Cardboard storage boxes designed specifically for graded cards can be found pretty easily (try eBay for example). I place all of my cards (graded as well as raw cards in top loaders) together in these types of boxes.


  2. I don’t want to get into the debate about graded vs. ungraded (I collect mostly graded myself), but there’s an easy solution if you want a perfectly good card and find it in a PSA 5 or less. Especially with the older graded PSA cards (You can tell those when the word grade — “Mint” or “NM-MT” or “EX”, etc., is on the same line as the numeric grade), cracking them open is quite easy, and then you have a very nice ungraded card, likely for little more than you might have paid for the raw card in the same decent condition. My guess is that post-’60 PSA cards of “commons” graded 5 or below often get cracked out of their cases.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. Very carefully! There are videos online, some cases are easier than others. You crack it open by the label and then insert a flat head screwdriver or knife and slowly get open enough that card will slide out. This was a particularly harder case to crack. I’ve done this on several cards and all survived.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Interesting post, although I disagree with your (admittedly brief and not really the focus of your post) assessment of 1990s cards. All card eras bring something great and unique to the hobby. The 1990s were an interesting transition period between classic/vintage sets and modern day game-used and autograph cards. Yes, many of the sets from the 1990s do stick together, but then again, many of the cards from the 1950s and 1960s are horribly off-centered. Do you dislike vintage cards because many of them were off-centered? It doesn’t seem like it. The two eras just had a different quality-control issue. Many of the so-called “oily” 1990s cards are beautiful works-of-art that stimulate my eyes. Like cards from all eras, some 1990s designs have aged well, and some have not. You just have to have patience to find sets that have good designs and interesting textures, because they are there. Do I think 1990s cards are “better” than vintage cards? No, I do not. But I also don’t think vintage cards are better than 1990s cards (nor contemporary cards). The reality that cards change over time should be celebrated.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. I love this comment. I tend to also not like 1990s cards for various reasons, but it is my fervent wish that everyone stick up for what they love and collect. Many of our most frequent posters, I included, love and preach about the 1960s cards. But this blog could really use some great content about the 1990s and beyond. So, bring it.

      Liked by 1 person

    2. It’s not that I don’t like the cards, it’s that the ultra high gloss is a real problem. I was looking at a set recently and I literally had to peel one card from the next, which caused some slight damage to many cards. The gloss has, overtime, become like a glue and the cards merge together into a brick.

      Everything but the gloss does appeal to me. In fact, I was looking at my 1991 Fleer set recently (the yellow ones) and was struck by how great it was. I’m a big fan of all cards from all years, but the oily cards have become a problem. Hope that clears things up.


      1. I feel your pain. I was just opening a box of 1994 Donruss with my 4-year old son (his first real experience opening up cards). He had fun, but the cards were too-often stuck together. Very frustrating.

        But back in the 1990s opening these types of cards was such a thrill – the era’s thicker card stocks, acetate designs, amazing photography, die-cut cards, serial numbered cards, etc. It was all such an amazing change of pace from where the hobby was in the 1980s. Year after year, I just kept coming back for more. For these reasons (and more), I’ll always love 1990s cards the most.


    3. As an autograph hunter in the 1990s I never liked the super-glossy cards because they made getting signatures hard. What I do remember fondly though is the smell. Even today, when I get a UV-coated glossy mailer or something the smell brings me back to my youth of card collecting.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. I have the same views on graded cards. I can see why if someone wanted a 52 Mantle or some other super high end card they would make sense, but otherwise it just surrounds a perfectly good piece of cardboard in a sterile, ugly plastic case.

    I took a 64 Topps Ernie Banks out of a BCG holder a little while back and did a step-by-step blog post about it here:

    My Banks card is pretty creased up so I wasn’t worried about damaging it, I wouldn’t necessarily recommend following my method with a higher grade card!

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Jeff – really liked your post and I went through that same dilemma as I completed sets from 58-82. I have cracked every one of the PSA graded cards (about 200) without any damage. Was quite easy and there are videos on YouTube to do it – I am not mechanically inclined either (just needed some wire cutters and a small regular screwdriver). I like buying the higher end cards in nice PSA 5 and 6 quality then break them out and put them into my binder. I have every set in a binder so I can go through and look at the front and back of every card (and even slide them out if I want to go completely old school). Just finished the 1962 green tints with the final cards coming in PSA slabs. All have been liberated. With that being said, my complete T206 set is PSA graded as is the burgeoning 1914 Cracker Jack set. Those cards are too hard to avoid damaging so I prefer the sonically sealed cases.


  7. I have struggled as well with how to store the 1964 Topps Giants sets – that Mark recently wrote about – and that I have very nearly completed, most are in top loaders while some in slabs. I don’t have the confidence in myself to crack them open for fear of either stabbing myself in the stomach a la Adam Eaton or going all “Hulk smash” on the things (after all my name is Rock).
    On the plus side, I’ll be using more binders for traditional sets (thanks Ryan Collier). My girlfriend doesn’t get the buy them and keep them in a box thing so that should help.

    Liked by 2 people

  8. Back in 2001 or 2002, I found a fully graded, NM-MT 1971 Topps complete set on eBay. None of the infamous chips or nicks on any of the cards. Minimum bid was $21,000. I remember having a conversation with a coworker about it and we discussed how it would be a really beautiful set but would feel plastic and sterile if you couldn’t touch and feel the cards themselves. I have occasionally wondered if that set ever sold.


  9. My 1971 set is probably the best part of my collection. I completed the set in the early 1980s, then spent 20 years (off and on) upgrading it. None of it is graded, but each card is at least NM. I would like to say it is not graded out of some higher principal, but it mostly laziness I suspect.


  10. Great post! I love both raw and slabbed cards, for various reasons. Have cracked out many cards (and coins) from slabs using a hammer and haven’t damaged anything….yet.


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