Getting Down with Upgrades

A few months before the glorious reinvigorating of the SABR Baseball Cards Committee, I was easing my way back into the hobby. I realized that I was about 50 cards shy of a complete 1971 Topps set. What always stopped me from finishing it was the condition; on the whole what I had was VGEX on average (or at best), well below my normal standards. When it dawned on me that consistency of condition within the set was key, I was freed from my bonds. I could get a Nolan Ryan in EX and not break the bank. This is all very good justification.

I finished that set and then, as we all do, looked for what was next. I was further away from a full 1970 Topps set, but the overall condition of those cards was better than my 1971s. A couple of big gifts from friends put me in line for a set in EX.

Still, happy as I was with competed sets, I knew there were some real dogs in each. When I went through them both recently, again looking for some kind of uniform condition, I counted up about 55-60 cards per set in need of serious upgrading.

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This Yankees Team card from 1970 is so awful – worn, creased, with the soft pliability of a wet paper towel. Even within a sheet (and we know sheets provide some cover for imperfections), it looks like shit. Only Jim Bunning has the nerve to look in its direction. Up close it’s like the Phantom of the Opera, mask off. It clearly is not welcome and things need to change.

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What to do? I whittled a little off the list with two trades (here’s a good example of a before and after from 1971)

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and, shockingly, to me, I had doubles that were in better condition than the cards I had in my set. (Remember to always check your doubles!). When the dust cleared I was down to about 30 cards needed per set.

A card show will take care of most of these, but, with some time to spare last night, I visited COMC. I’ve ordered only once from them and I didn’t love the experience beyond getting the final card of a set I’d been working on for 17 years (2000-01 Topps Heritage Basketball). I spent too much that time, $3.99 postage for one card that I should’ve gotten for a little less.

One of the nice things about our card community is the sharing of information (and cards) and I was tipped off to the trick of COMC. You can load up a cart and qualify for the same $3.99 payment. I ended up finding 35 cards at good prices, the scans showing exactly the condition I’m seeking. I’m still a bit nervous to see what they’re like in person, but I feel tentatively good about it.

Kind of. I’m down to needing 31 cards for both sets to be in a state I can accept, with a few superstars in the mix (1971 Clemente is the priciest). Is this money well spent? I don’t know. For what it’ll end up costing me to upgrade, I could buy all the 1956 commons I need in EX. The reality is one spend doesn’t preclude another spend. I’ll end up buying all the upgrades I need, sort of as an extracurricular project, not exactly counting it when I tally up my card costs. That’s seriously flawed justification, but I’m coming to terms with it.

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.

12 thoughts on “Getting Down with Upgrades”

  1. I’ve upgraded my 68 and 69 which had some really bad cards. I’m satisfied with a creased 68 Mantle. Rich Reece’s card is amusing because his glove appears to be coming off.

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  2. I’ve gone back and upgraded some. Although some of the cards are the original ones I pulled from packs. I may leave them with the set instead of doing an upgrade

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  3. My mode of set collecting is to buy a large and (relatively) inexpensive lot of the set I want and go from there. That usually means I will be upgrading some of the included cards but the economics usually work in my favor.

    Mark just mentioned that he keeps cards he pulled from packs. I only have one of those in my vintage sets and it’s my ’59 Gibson.I could afford a nicer one but it really means a lot to me to have had it all this time. It’s easily the worst conditioned card in my ’59 set but I consider it the centerpiece.

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    1. That’s cool to trace your early cards. As I get to the end of the few sets I’m working on, I think I might pick older sets, buy the whole thing, and sell off what ever I have from them. That’s likely the most economic way for me, but not as much fun as collecting.

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  4. Jeff! Thank you for sharing your experiences with those two sets. It is my dream to own both the 1970 and 1971 sets but the sensitive nature of both those sets makes it a collecting challenging. However, regardless of condition, those are two great sets that capture the game and historical time period in a unique and unforgettable manner. Keep up the collecting quest!

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    1. I’m pretty happy with where I ended up on both sets and will be happier when I nail down the remaining upgrades. The 1971 set will still end up being my worst conditions set – VGEX and better – but it’s nice to have in any condition.

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  5. Not to put too much of a knock on COMC, and maybe it’s because I don’t know as much as i thought about buying there, but don’t you have to deposit at least $10 before you complete you’re purchase?. I keep ending up with a few bucks left there ever time I buy some cards at COMC.

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    1. The first time I ordered I wanted to offer $4 for an $8 card. To do that I had to deposit $10 in my account. I ended up getting the card for $4, paid $3.99 postage and had extra left over. I didn’t like it; it felt like I paid $10 for a $4 card. Then others who had ordered successfully told me to load up the cart and get the one shipping cost. I picked 35 cards and fully expected to have to deposit the funds in my account but, when I went to check out, i was able to choose to pay via PayPal.

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      1. The only other time you’ll want to deposit money into COMC is when they run a special (like the free shipping Black Friday sale) in which case you only get the deal if you pay through store credit. That said if you do buy through store credit you get a better interface for keeping track of what you bought. Also because of how they give you like $5 credit for every 100 cards you ship in a month you can rack up a decent store credit balance without feeling like you’re paying for it.

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