“Ipsa scientia potestas est” (or, How to Help a Friend By Knowing About Cards)

The first time I considered cards as things to keep, not to throw out, was early 1972. I started buying old cards through dealers advertised in The Sporting News and had a mild epiphany – if I’m buying old cards why would I throw out my new ones? Thus a collection, and a collector, was born.

It was too late to salvage pre-1971s, but as the decade progressed I accumulated bunches of what I’d once had, though not nearly in as nice condition. As my friends aged out of the hobby, I dug in and, with a reputation for knowing about cards and their value (no one I knew but me had price guides and sales lists), I managed to set up a little cottage business. For use of my services, which included inventorying, collating and pricing out their collections, I would receive whatever number of cards I needed as compensation. It was a great deal for me. Not sure it meant squat to the recipients. I would visit their houses, leave with a giant box of cards, and perilously ride my bike home, hands holding cards, not handlebars. It’s remarkable that I never took a major, card-dispersing, fall.

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My friend Gabe is moving from Cooperstown out west and, as part of his farewell tour, he was the featured speaker at our local SABR meeting on Saturday. As we worked on setting that meeting up, the conversation turned to 1969 Topps.  Gabe knew I was working on finishing that set, and upgrading those crappy mid-70’s acquisitions, and mentioned he’d put together a mediocre set of  his own. I was welcome to see if I could find any I needed.

We have a tradition in Cooperstown that, after our SABR meeting, we head out for pizza for a post-game recap and talk. Gabe took out his box of cards while we chatted and, quite cavalierly, tossed a card on the table. Lucky for him he avoided Diet Coke drops and pizza grease. I picked up the card and held it out to him.

“Are you OK?” he asked.

I was more dumbstruck than I should have been, but clearly a little taken aback.

“This is a Mantle white letter variation. You can definitely get a couple of hundred bucks for this.”

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We talked about how to sell it, listing on eBay with good scans. Gabe put the card away carefully (not carefully enough for my taste!) and, when I got home, I searched sold listings and sent him the information.

I went through his cards and found 39 that were big improvements for me.  In the box was a second year Nolan Ryan, slightly worse than I’m looking for, but easily worth $30-50. All told, even with pulling the Mantle and Ryan, Gabe’s got a substantial partial set in overall VG condition, with three other white letter variations (including Willie McCovey). All in all he’s likely to get $400-500 for the batch.

It felt great helping him out on this and brought me back, way back, to a time when the only way to find out what your cards were worth was trusting some 12-year-old kid who was eager to schlep your cards home just to reclaim the cards he’d thrown out only a few years earlier.

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.

6 thoughts on ““Ipsa scientia potestas est” (or, How to Help a Friend By Knowing About Cards)”

  1. As a member of the junk wax generation I’ve had the opposite experience where I have to tell friends that their cards are no longer worth what Beckett said they were worth back in the day. I can’t imagine an age where we didn’t all have price guides. Beckett was *everywhere* when I was little and what we all valued was what Beckett told us to value.

    Liked by 1 person

      1. Oh indeed. Part of my leeriness about price guides is how they encourage people to chase what’s “valuable” rather than building their own interests. I’d rather see someone’s weird personal collection than a set of graded “important” cards now and I’m trying super hard to only treat price guides and comps as a way of just knowing the territory.

        At the same time, I’ve begun to benefit from all these cards being truly worthless. It seems that many people from my generation can’t bear to throw their collections away but have no qualms about giving them to someone who still cares.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. I never heard of people chasing the valuable, then again I’ve always collected what I liked. However, that doesn’t mean I don’t regret not buying Mantle cards in the early 1970’s instead of Frank Robinson cards!

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    1. It’s a generational thing. We’ve determined that njwv and I are of about the same age, and certainly the same collecting generation. Growing up I had friends who collected what they liked – Rickey Henderson, Dale Murphy, Braves, Mike Schmidt, Andre Dawson, various Mets (spring training was nearby), Will Clark/Kevin Mitchell/Matt Williams. This group (at least the ones I keep in contact with) are still fans of the players, even if they aren’t collecting seriously any more. If I give my friend some oddball Murphy from the 1980s that he hasn’t seen, he’s pretty stoked about it, even if he isn’t really collecting Murphy like most of us who read this blog collect.

      Then I had other friends who collected what was “hot.” They’d “collect” Mark McGwire not because they really liked McGwire, but because his cards were valuable. Then they’d move on to Gregg Jefferies, then Jerome Walton or Dwight Smith or whoever was next. These were the same people who “collected” Mattingly when he was the king of the card world, but then lost interest when he wasn’t and moved on to Kevin Maas (for that brief period of time when he ruled the card world). This group was into “collecting” because that was what everyone did, and they followed what was hot and valuable at the time.

      Of course there is likely some part of both groups in everyone, but I think if the latter force is the dominant one the individual is much less likely to maintain collecting (I doubt that’s a groundbreaking thought).

      Liked by 2 people

      1. Yeah the sheer number of kids collecting in the junk wax era meant that those of us who collected what we liked were just outnumbered by everyone else. As a result the tenor of the hobby was just weird and the question about “value” became sort of the baseline against which everything else got measured.

        Liked by 1 person

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