Set Building 101

Set building equates to putting back in order what has purposely been randomized and that is my best definition of what baseball card collecting is all about.  Surely it’s what Woody Gelman of Topps had in mind all those years ago in Brooklyn.  Why else would he have cataloged his own work that way, right? You break away from Mom in the local drug store, Otto Drugs in my 1974 case, to hit the candy isle and see this red wrapper with a baseball on it with a tag line saying “ALL 660 CARDS IN ONE SERIES!”.  Then I had no idea what a series meant in that usage nor had any inkling of the heartache and heartburn it would cause me in my later years as I discovered short prints, double prints, variations, errors, regional test releases and scarcities but my soon to turn nine year old self knew it meant something needed to be completed.   Hammerin’ Hank was just becoming the new Home Run King and what was viewed as our local team in Louisville, Cincinnati’s Big Red Machine, was churning up and waiting for Sparky to put Foster in the starting lineup during the following season – it was a glorious time.  These were all on the shelf.

But returning our focus to Baseball Card set building I’d like to give a few best practices obtained over the last few years since returning to the hobby that I have found to make the process as efficient as possible.  For practical purposes this list works off the assumption of a couple of things:  Topps/Bowman era to present and that you know your budgetary constraints.

handEducate yourself – fully about the set you have interest in. Know not just who the rookie and obvious star cards are but review for any high number series that may be more difficult to obtain and learn if short printed cards are involved.  This will help with the sticker shock of why a 1963 Harmon Killebrew with a far less appealing photo than its 1962 older brother runs three times the price.

Although you will still shake your head in disbelief as you pay more for a 2014 Topps Heritage common short print than you did for an actual 1965 in the same category.  Variations and error cards can also be a deep hole you find yourself in and can greatly affect your budget if not considered before diving in. Base set and Master set are not really a new thing to the Hobby.  1956 Topps for example has six team cards that have three versions each, did I know that going in?  Nope, but I did choose to track them all down?  Oh yes, those team cards are just flat out cool.  Did I then choose to also fill the binder up with all the white or grey back and color line variations?  Oh noooo, one Mickey Mantle with that odd looking grin is enough thank you.  But you see the point, 200 plus extra cards to compile a 1956 Master Set is far less appealing to me than the 18 extra cards needed to “master” all of the 1974 magnificence.  Again that budget precursor is a biggie.  Then we have those printing errors and defects that Topps’ printers have given an unending supply of “how’d they let that out?!?” over the decades for a print guy like me who walks grocery store isles looking for bad print and color variation.coop

Stay focused on condition – Graded, not graded, high mid low grade, targeted graded, there’s a lot going here and it is all, again, related to the budget question.  A collector can be in the rarefied air that is breathed in on PSA’s Set Registry site or just happy to have a particular card and anywhere in between.

I recommend sticking to whatever your comfort level is and knowing what your plan is for the set once completed by answering the Graded/Non Graded question.  The first set I wanted to work on upon returning to the hobby was my birth year set of 1965 Topps.  Once completed and without focus I have Graded and Non Graded Hall of Famers and the same with common cards as well, it’s all over the place and it feels like that great pennant design65 is having an existential crisis akin to an El Camino, unsure as to if it’s a car or a truck.  Targeted Graded can be an option as well if you want to focus on professionally graded cards of just the HOF’ers in the set, or a certain team, etc.  The 1963 Topps set fits this approach well for me as the big names in set have iconic photos that look amazing with many showing fantastic views of now gone ballparks in the background and vintage uniforms.

  As opposed to many of the commons that have loads of boring head shots cap less and airbrushed as Topps was beginning to get lazy in it’s monopoly.

starterStarter Sets and Lots – Ah yeah! Starter isn’t just reserved for sweet throwback satin jackets, it’s also how you get your jump out of the gate when you decide to start a set.  Now short of being able to say any of the following:  “Well, I already have the Mantle”, or sub in “Clemente, Rose, Seaver or Ryan rookie”, then you are going to need a Starter Set.  Maybe it’s a holdover from your childhood recently rediscovered, a yard sale find, a dealer offering to dump a box of 70’s to you for a $20 because he doesn’t want to lug it back to the car or maybe and best of all you find a deal on eBay thumbing through auctions ending soon during the fourth Hallmark Channel movie you have sat through this week while your better half remains teary eyed over the plot line in this new quarantined world.

  • Bold and in italics for a reason auctions ending soon is part of eBay’s search functions that you should make yourself highly acquainted with. Favorite search topics can be saved so you receive notices when newly listed auctions with your keywords are listed.  As a compulsive set builder I will also just search for “starter set”, “card lot”, etc by era under Baseball Cards and Ending Soonest just to see what is out there.  Don’t get too locked into era though because at times you will find deals where sellers have not listed correctly and that buried treasure will appear.
  • Since you have previously educated yourself you will have an idea of how much you want to pay for a card on average until you reach a point where buying in quantity no longer has an upside. Depending upon the size of the set you may want to acquire multiple starter sets or lots to combine and give you potential condition upgrades.  I am currently working on 1959 Topps and purchased six lots ranging from 4 to 205 cards over a four month period.  My goal was to spend 75 cents a card on average up to this point and the reality cost is 85 cents a card has got me to 56% of the set completed with a large chunk of the mighty mighties already knocked off the list.  These starter sets and lots are where you will find most of the value on star cards in my opinion.  Especially if your condition tolerance is more mid grade raw cards.  At this point you can separate the wheat from chafe, the keepers from the doubles and create THE LIST!  Those doubles from your starter sets and lots can be sold or traded to help flesh out the remaining cards needed.

THE LIST!  Once you have obtained around 60% of the set it’s time to create a list of the remaining cards and the search becomes more pointed. This list will also have the running tally of dollar expense so you know where you are in relation to your budget.  I am a collector first and usually do not flip out sets once they are completed but the opportunity has presented itself to sell a few times and having the info stored away is helpful in parting ways with a finished work.  Here is where your local card shop, if your area is fortunate enough to still have one, and websites like Sportlots and COMC come in quite handy.  Both of the latter of these will allow you to select the cards you need at fair prices in large quantities.  Each is different in that Sportlots is more geared to working with an individual seller who has cards in their possession while COMC has a massive inventory built from thousands of sellers who have sent their cards in for COMC to store and ship.  Great success has been had with Sportlots by knocking down lists for sets ranging from the 1950’s to modern day Topps Heritage.  COMC is great for harder to find sets or series where individuals may not have much inventory but having access to many different sellers you can save on shipping costs.

  • This all leads to what has become the best part of the Hobby I’ve experienced over the last couple of years – Twitter Trading. Yes, within that cesspool of keyboard warriors that Twitter has spiraled down into, there is a group of fantastic folks I have been able to complete trades with just like back in 1974.  We exchange lists, send pics of the cards we are offering and accepting in trade and then ship them out.  Once received we post our completed trades as they are received back on Twitter and the cycle continues.  I was initiated into this process by a great ambassador of this trading world, fellow SABR Baseball Card Blogger Mark Del Franco, @delspacefranco, who is very active in trading of this type.  This provides great conversation about cards and sets and really returns what, I’m sure, is the beginning reason for collecting in the first place – it’s just fun!

Hopefully this has provided some best practices for you put into action and provides some help as you build.  Some sets can be completed in short order while you may wait months to years to add to a truly scarce set, let me tell you about my 1968 Topps Action All-Stars sometime.  That’s when you find out about the last second eBay bid snipers who are always watching like the Eye of Mordor!  Happy Building, enjoy the journey!

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Author: Jim Osborne

Ink on substrate, card and oddball sports issue collector, renewed runner.

21 thoughts on “Set Building 101”

  1. Oh good another print guy on the site!

    I’ve only undertaken one “vintage” set and that was 1978 so it hardly counts (just dragging my feet on the big two cards from the set). I can’t imagine tackling something with high numbers or short prints. I have been having fun building junk wax sets though. Yes it’s cheaper to buy one for $5 but the price of a couple of boxes is worth the experience.

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    1. This week I’ve sorted through the early Donruss and Fleer sets that came out in those in between years of collecting as a kid in the 70’s and investing in my future in the late 80’s and while they really haven’t appreciated any value there are some great cards and designs in those sets.

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      1. That use of the black screen to create the border is unusual in cards but works so well with that design. The 87 and 88’s have a clean design, shame there’s gazillions of them out there.

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      2. Went back and read your post on the 85 Fleer/90 Topps use of screen angles. That topic is why, I feel, the modern cards with their over focus on the picture of the player and bleeding it off the card has led to these boring designs that are hard to distinguish between year to year. The flagship set each year should be a snapshot of the current culture. Topps should commission one of these Project 2020 artists to design 2021. Then collectors would either love or hate it but not be yawning in November when the design is released.

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  2. The photography and layout of the ’81 Fleer set is particularly impressive. Even the backs are snappy and, frankly, a relief after years of trying to read Topps backs printed in opaque colors.

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  3. Another great way to trade for cards you need is TCDB, otherwise known as the trading card database. Go to TCDB.com, set up an account, track your wants and traders, and get busy trading.

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    1. I have been in that site several times, overwhelmed by the thought of entering so many cards, unless it’s easier than it appears.

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  4. How about an article about eBay baseball card sellers like me. A lot of twists and stories there dealing with buyers.

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    1. I see loads of horror stories on Twitter from eBay sellers but, for myself, I’ve had only three real issues in over 20 years. My guess is newer cards draw a different buyer than vintage folks.

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      1. I’m working on some thoughts about set building for newer sets. It’s more about master set building than traditional set building (it’s not too difficult to find a complete 2019 Topps set at a reasonable price) but I’m trying to highlight what I think are some of the differences between the two.

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      2. Master sets today require take a lot of patience I would think, I’ll look forward to reading your post.

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  5. I liked it when the cards had borders which helped give them unique designs. It was like when the car companies came out with new designs. I couldn’t wait til September.

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