Almost Olbermann

I’d only been to SABR Conventions when I was speaking about a book I had out, so it was Cleveland in 2008 (Kansas City A’s & The Wrong Half of the Yankees) and Chicago in 2015 (Split Season). With this year’s SABR 47 in New York, it was too close to miss. Still, I couldn’t go for multiple days – cost, for one, and conflicts (friends coming to Cooperstown) – but if you read my last post you know how much the SABR Baseball Cards Committee has meant to me so I definitely wanted to be there for Saturday’s committee meeting, in general, and to see Mark Armour and Chris Dial, in specific. That Keith Olbermann was speaking was an added boost.

KO is 3 ½ years older than me and his lifetime of card collecting somewhat mirrors mine. I didn’t know how much until he spoke. Waving around a 1971 issue of the early card magazine The Trader Speaks, Olbermann spoke about going to card shows in NYC starting in 1971, realizing that he could buy 1940 Play Balls for a buck a piece and searching antique stores for T206s at .35 each. His Dad drove him from Westchester to Lake Ronkonkoma in Suffolk County for a show.

I went to those early card shows as well, starting in 1973. It seemed they were always either after my birthday or after Hanukkah, so I had some cash, $100 for each show. Though I was into cards and baseball history as much as Keith, I didn’t have the same focus he had. My first show I bought a 1955 Koufax rookie, a 1957 Paul Hornung rookie, a 1965 Don Maynard, a T206 Mathewson without much trace of a back. Why? I don’t know.

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Over the years I narrowed my focus, sort of. I knew who I liked – Koufax, Frank Robinson, Kaline, Banks – and got all their base cards. I occasionally bought a Mays, Mantle or Aaron. I never really liked The Mick, but my aversion to Mays and Aaron cards is inexplicable to this day. I also was set prone. Sometimes that worked for me – the 1959 Fleer Ted Williams comes to mind – but often it didn’t – the 1979 Topps Comics set comes to mind.

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When I say things “didn’t work,” I’m talking investment and future value. I always bought what I liked; in that way everything worked. Still, I look back and wonder where my head was at. It certainly wasn’t where Olbermann’s was.

As Keith spoke about buying truly old cards, going the extra mile to meet the great Mike Aronstein of TCMA fame, travelling to Lake Ronkonkoma for a show, I could see the monstrously large gap between his devotion and mine. Sure, he clearly had, and has, more disposable card money than I do, but his drive put mine to shame. I lived next to Lake Ronkonkoma, went to Sachem High School in Lake Ronkonkoma, knew The Trader Speaks was published in Lake Ronkonkoma but never, never, sought the local card community.

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The room was packed, a sure sign that the SABR Baseball Cards Committee has touched a nerve. Maybe some were only there to hear Olbermann speak. Even so, he spoke cards and that only reinforced what we’ve been up to on the blog.

As Chris Dial said as we talked about the future of the Cards Committee, “baseball cards are bigger than all of this.” “This” means SABR, Sabermetrics, Negro Leagues, women in baseball and so on. It seemed a shocking thing to say, but I know he’s right. EVERYBODY has come through cards at some point. Not everyone has dipped a toe in the other arenas. So when Keith Olbermann says he started as a baseball card collector and then became a baseball fan, that’s an experience we can all share equally.

 

Author: Jeff Katz

Jeff Katz is 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.

9 thoughts on “Almost Olbermann”

  1. I have always been jealous of kids who grew up in card rich Urban areas. I believe the first card show I attended was in LA in 1984. Too bad you didn’t become Olbermann and live in Manhattan instead of some backwater village of no importance.
    Leon Roberts was M’s “star” in 78. His presence alone was worth collecting the set.
    Almost done with Split Season. I’m in awe of anyone who can take research material and craft it into a well paced, consistently interesting narrative. Well done!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. For my part I’m jealous of all of you who grew up with all these old cards around at semi-affordable prices. As a junk wax kid I grew up with the hobby as being something where many, if not most, of the cards were not only out of the price range of most kids but weren’t even in the “maybe Santa will surprise me” range. Card shows were common but finding the ones which you didn’t have to pay to enter took a bit of work.

    Still, the way that my interest in baseball cards has influenced my baseball fandom (and vice versa) is indeed something I share in common with you all. In the same way that I’m coming back to card collecting I’m also coming back to being much more invested in the sport.

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    1. After 1980, I stopped going to shows. The whole tone f the hobby changed. I started going back in the second half of the decade but the feel wasn’t the same. Dealers were out for cash first, hobby interest second. The ’70’s were a different, and rare, time, in the hobby.

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      1. Not just dealers. The idea that cards were investments is something that pretty much all of us junk wax kids absorbed and obsessed over too. We all grew up reading Beckett and studying the prices guides and hotlists and trying to find those hot rookie cards which were “guaranteed” to be the next big thing.

        I’m kind of glad I was poor—and that may parents didn’t indulge me—in chasing all that stuff. I certainly felt the pressure but I could only buy a handful of packs, at most, of any given release each year. As I got older and got more money you’d’ve thought this number would’ve gone up, but by the time I got tired of the hobby I was buying Topps, Donruss, Fleer, Score, Upper Deck, Leaf, Bowman, Stadium Club, Pinnacle, Studio, and Ultra packs. I shudder to think at the amount of money I’d have wasted chasing stuff that I wasn’t interested in except because Beckett told me to chase it. Instead I was content to get representative samples of each release, enjoy the anticipation of opening packs, and try and snag players (Will Clark!) and teams (Giants!) I liked when the popped up at the local shop.

        One of the wonderful things though about reintegrating into the hobby is remembering the fun stuff, collecting what makes me happy because I like it, and being smart/secure enough to stay away from anything else. The other wonderful thing is discovering that there are a lot of other people my age who grew up with junk wax and are going through the same rebirth of learning to truly enjoy the cards rather than their Beckett value.

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      2. It seems like njwv and I are in the same “generation” – the first set I completed by packs/trades was 1988 Score. When making trades at that time my friends and I were obsessed with getting “even” money trades – if I wanted a card that had HI Beckett value of 15 cents, and my friend wanted one with HI Beckett value at 12 cents, he had to find some 3 cent card of mine with which I would part to toss into the deal. I accumulated a large number of 1988 Score Tim Teufel cards (somehow my best friend always pulled him) as the card to even up the exchange. I also scored a boatload of cards for a 1987 Fleer Will Clark on the “even money” philosophy – it takes a lot of 15 cent cards to get up to $15-$20.

        We had multiple shops and a regular show at the community center in Port St. Lucie, and it was exactly like he said – most everyone was into what was hot at the time. From a certain point of view that makes sense to me (particularly for people who are investing), and it likely still carries over to today – is it really “collectors” driving up Aaron Judge prices right now?* I was probably a little different in that, at some point, I stopped caring about “even” money trades if I really wanted a card (perhaps I took the Beckett comment about it being a guide to heart), and I would also dabble in “older” cards. Unfortunately, “older” cards meant 1981 Donruss and Fleer, and not Goudeys and tobacco cards!

        * It didn’t flow very well in that paragraph but I looked up some Aaron Judge “stats.” I see at least 42 pages – 8400 items with Aaron Judge listed in the title – on eBay with final SALES prices + shipping of $100+. I’m guessing that’s easily over $1 million in Judge related sales from those 8400 items on eBay alone. There are another 40,000+ items that sold on eBay. The 200th cheapest item sold for $1.70 total. eBay claims that someone sold a BGS 9.5 2013 Bowman Chrome Gold Refractor Judge Autograph for 99 cents (with free shipping!) in late June. If that’s true … wow. Those types of cards were selling for $5,000-$7,000 at the time.

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      3. Exactly! “Old” for me was anything 1979-1984. Those came up occasionally in repacks and I was able to scrounge together enough money to buy one (and exactly one) wax pack of Topps/Donruss/Fleer from 1980-1984 (except for 1983 Fleer and 1984 Donruss which were out of my price range). Anything before 1979 was completely out of my league and the best I ever hoped to accomplish was one card per year. (I just realized that never did get my 1965 Topps card so it’s kind of fitting that that was the first thing I bought upon reintegrating into the hobby). And everything pre-1960 was a total unrealistic pipe dream so I didn’t even think about trying.

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  3. Indeed I too knew nothing about baseball when I first began buying one-cent packs of cards (or maybe it was just one card – I can’t remember) from the converted school bus that served as a mobile grocery store and stopped by my apartment complex every couple of days in southeast DC. God knows what happened to those cards, which likely were ’56 or earlier. For lots of us of that era, it all began from there.

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