An Unsettled Set Strategy

I fancy myself as a frugal guy. Maybe not frugal, not anymore. I used to be pretty tight with money, which was fine when I was on my own, a bit more problematic once I got married. Over time I’ve become somewhat more profligate, maybe not profligate, but I no longer spend money as if I was still a kid without a job or had an entire career behind me. Still, I don’t love the act of spending, so I still try to maximize my dollars. If I’m going to spend dough, then I want it to be as little as possible within the confines of market rates.

When I started working on various sets, I had two general situations – 1) I had more than enough of the set that it was way less costly to finish off the checklist and 2) that, for other sets, it would be cheaper to buy the whole set and sell off what I already had from said set. I was more than aware of that, but there’s little fun in buying the whole all at once. Building a set over time is more enjoyable. And yet…

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I had about 30 1964 Topps coins and a solid amount of those were high end guys in EX condition. I figured with Koufax, Clemente, one of the Mantle All-Stars and plenty of other Hall of Famers, I’d be able to finish off the rest for less than the cost of a complete set. I was wrong, and I was wrong in a couple of ways.

The first way I was wrong was that, regardless of book value, there’s a definite floor on prices for commons. Could I get them for less than $1.75-2? Not really. Oddly, I can’t seem to sell my doubles for more than $2, about $1.50 after fees. It’s not a great spread.

The second way I was wrong was in gauging opportunity. I didn’t expect to go back to a card show, which I did, wrote about, and that led to 48 coins in one shot. I didn’t expect a friend to have another 35 he was willing to sell at a fair price.

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That’s it. I’m done. I have the entire set, not counting the Wayne Causey and Chuck Hinton wrong back All-Stars (they say “N.L” when they should say “A.L.”). I’ll likely pick them up over time, though there’s a difference between a complete set and a complete master set with all errors. (I do have both Mantle All-Stars. Less a mistake than a conscious and clever effort by Topps, there are AS coins of The Mick batting right-handed and left-handed).

Even with the 30+ head start, I ended up paying more to finish the set than had I bought it outright. How much more? Maybe $25 bucks, maybe $45 bucks with the error coins. Was that worth it? I’m not sure. I had expected that it would take me a good year or so to cobble together all the coins I needed. Had that been the case it would have been worth the extra money to work slowly and enjoy the gradual build.

But was it worth it for what ended up being about 3 months’ worth of collecting? I’m still not sure. I get an inordinate amount of joy looking at them, but maybe that would have been the case had they all arrived at once.

What I do know is that this is probably the only instance of doubt I’ve had on my process. I’ve been able to make enough good deals (and offset a percentage of costs with eBay sales) on the other sets I’ve worked on that it’s been better to piece them together. At least I’ve managed to stretch those sets out longer in a way that doesn’t give me pause.

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.

13 thoughts on “An Unsettled Set Strategy”

  1. Yeah I’ve noticed this (though to a much smaller degree) with the Mother’s Cookies sets where I can buy a set for the same or less that it’ll take me to buy the last handful of cards I need. In this case it’s a wash since we’re only talking a couple bucks difference but the common floor thing does make it hard to fill those last spots without feeling like you overspent.

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  2. I like the approach you took. It may be more economical to buy the complete set, but there is a lot to be learned by building the set. And I think I enjoy cards more when acquired in smaller batches. If I get them all at once, inevitably a bunch of them get snubbed, or barely remembered at all.

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      1. In my day job I’m an economist. I liked to remind students (when I taught microeconomic theory courses in my pre-administrator days) that utility functions can include all sorts of things beyond profit, we just make them really simple in class (two goods – 1969 Topps Reggie Jacksons and 1952 Topps Mantles) because we can draw those pictures on the board and it makes the math easy. Clearly, the extra dollars you spent piecing the set together led to higher utility than simply buying the set 🙂

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  3. I think you did the right thing; you definitely wouldn’t have gotten the same warm, fuzzy feeling about a set that arrived complete in the mail as you would one that you pieced together. It’s a way of recreating the fun we all had as kids, putting together a set by packs.

    Now, admittedly, you’d probably have more of a sense of accomplishment had it actually taken longer than three months, but the experience of the chase was probably worth more than whatever extra few dollars it cost to complete the set that way.

    My own comparable experience came in the late ’80s and early ’90s. A friend of a relative who was doing some house cleaning had passed along to me a batch of 1950s cards about 10 years earlier, and at some point I realized I had a pretty good starter set for the 1955 Bowman issue, including the Mickey Mantle. This was prior to eBay, but also a time when weekend card shows were plentiful and dealers would show up with binders full of older cards. It took several years, a lot of card shows, and a lot of orders made from ads in Sports Collectors Digest, but I finally completed a VG-EX set. The excitement of discovering cards I needed in a dealer’s binder, the fun of checking one card after another off a want list and the sense of accomplishment of actually completing the set is still fresh in my mind to this day.

    I recently bought the 2017 Topps Allen and Ginter set, complete with short prints, off of eBay. It was expensive, but cost a lot less than trying to put it together by packs. But sadly, that’s just accumulation, not collecting . . .

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    1. Great comments and backstory. There’s so much to be said for a multi-year quest, though eBay makes that impossible (assuming you want to spend the money). I’ll never forget getting the 1967 Red Sox team card at a show in 1986, the last card I needed for the set. (I wrote a post about that months ago.)

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      1. You vintage collectors are spoiled … being able to find anything if only you’re willing to pay the price 🙂

        I’ve been looking for a 2001 Topps Golden Anniversary Autograph of Eddy Furniss for forever. I know it exists because I’ve actually seen one or two sell on eBay before, but haven’t seen one for a long time. Beckett lists a Phil Merrell from the set as well (and may still list a Zeile), though I’ve never seen one of those (or the Zeile) so I don’t think it was actually made. But I know the Furniss exists. Mays, Aaron, Banks, Koufax, Bonds, Chipper, Yaz, Ryan … over the past 15 years or so I have picked up everyone else. Just not Eddy Furniss.

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  4. For newer sets, Topps has made the case for hand-collecting pretty ridiculous. Topps sells their flagship set for $60, which is available at Target and other places — not in April, because of the two series, but in July. But it would cost you literally hundreds of dollars to accumulate the bulk of the set by hand, and then you have to go to eBay to get the last 20-40 cards. The wax packs contain so many inserts/chase cards which, assuming you are not collecting those too, do nothing other than drive the price up.

    I hand-collected the set this year, for the first time in 30 years. Never again.

    Older sets of course are different, because you can start with a couple of big lots.

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    1. For all the insert cards and parallels that are featured in the main Topps set, it at least doesn’t have the greatest impediment to the hand-collator, and that’s the insert-set-within-the-set, the short-printed cards.

      Short prints have been around since the beginning of the hobby, but in the old days it was simply the result of sheet configurations and wasn’t something about which the card companies bragged. Now it’s a marketing strategy.

      With a product like Topps Heritage, I might want to put together a set by pack as an act of nostalgia . . . but there’s no way I’m going to do that because I know going in it’s not going to work, and I’ll just end up spending a lot of money at eBay on a bunch of short prints that I’m not likely to come across in a pack. At least not without spending a ton of money. So while it might be expensive to buy a complete set of that sort at eBay, it’s still going to be cheaper than to buy by pack. And what that means is that not only are we being denied the recreation of that experience of our youth, no younger collector today is getting that experience in the first place. But then, I fear the changes in the industry already work against indoctrinating modern day youngsters into the pleasures of the hobby.

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      1. I agree. I put together a 2017 Heritage 1-500 set (buying most of the short prints on eBay), but i will likely buy the high numbers as one large purchase because the economics just do not make sense.

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