Player Collection Spotlight – Keith Hernandez

The year was 1986. The Mets were on top of the baseball world and, perhaps more importantly, moving their spring training site to Port St. Lucie in short order. WWOR-TV out of Secaucus, NJ would broadcast what seemed like a zillion games over the next few years in that part of Florida. And baseball cards were collected by every kid in the neighborhood. Topps, Donruss, Fleer, packs, boxed sets, oversize cards, mini cards, stickers – someone had them.

How and why Keith Hernandez rather than Gooden or Strawberry or Carter or anyone else? Two reasons: Gooden and Strawberry were too expensive for a 10-year-old, and I kept pulling this Hernandez guy’s cards out of packs. I have a Gooden and a Strawberry player collection, but they are nowhere near as complete as the Hernandez collection. I have plenty of Carter, Orosco, Dykstra, Teufel, Mookie, Darling, Fernandez, McDowell, and everyone else from that Mets team as well as other Mets teams.

Unlike DJ, I lack … discipline, restraint, or whatever you want to call it (perhaps sanity) that allows him to limit himself to Topps cards of his players and team. I want to go on eBay, buy a lot of Jim Gantner cards, and send them to him (DJ, not Gantner) because I can’t imagine not having as many different Hernandez cards as possible. But then I also don’t want to upset his balance and turn him into … me. As a kid I would always try to swap for Hernandez cards with my friends. The first Hernandez rookie I ever owned came via a trade for a handful of football cards. Supposedly there was a Steve Largent rookie in there, but as I didn’t know who he was at the time it didn’t matter to me – I had the 1975 Topps Hernandez and three other guys. Also as a kid, I created my own alphabetical checklist of his cards, flipping through pages of a late 1980s Beckett Almanac scanning sets for his cards. At some point I tossed that out because I had created an electronic list, though I kind of wish I had kept the hand created list to see how close I had gotten to a complete checklist. I never got his autograph during spring training, though a friend of mine did give me an autographed 8×10.

If you want the stats, I have over 1,000 different listed items in Beckett’s database and many more that aren’t listed. The exact number could change by the time this post is public. For his pre-2004 cards I am only missing a handful that are listed in Beckett, some of which I don’t think actually exist. His number of cards exploded in 2004-2005 (he has over 600 cards from those two years alone due to parallels). Staying at home allowed me to scan the items I have, and the Beckett listed items all have front and back pictures (unless it’s a blank back team issue) if you scroll a little down this page to the links at the bottom. I have over 10,000 total Hernandez cards. How do I know? I always thought it would look cool to have the fronts of a single card displayed in all 18-pockets of two pages (back-to-front) in a binder. I have 689 of those pages, including 57 pages of his 1988 Topps card. You can get a sense of what that looks like below. Plus those thousand or so different cards. Plus about two binders of standard sized cards that don’t have 18 copies of a card yet. Plus oversized and mini cards. And extra game-used and autographed cards.

I didn’t do graded cards – until I got a really good deal on a lot. As one might imagine given my lack of restraint, I’ve pretty much climbed that mountain. I’ve grown less interested in the “master set” as listed by PSA because it now includes team picture cards from the 1970s. As someone once wrote here, you need to define a master set for yourself, even if it differs from the definition someone else uses.

While I don’t get too much into custom cards (unless it’s a Heavy J Studios rainbow dazzle purple refractor 1/1), I’m always looking for oddball items that I don’t have. Sometimes it’s an ad or a magazine with Hernandez on the cover or if he’s featured in an interview. Bobbleheads and figurines are also in there, as are drinking cups, posters, cello/rack packs with his cards on top – pretty much anything. I have about 100 ticket stubs from his MLB games, back when ticket stubs were actual stubs. Here’s a display with a variety of items:

Keith Hernandez shelf

With the increasing number of 1/1s and other low-numbered cards I’ve mellowed over the years and don’t worry too much about not getting every card. I’m usually a player in the market, though sometimes I marvel at how much they sell for. I admit that I get slightly annoyed when I make an offer on a card, have it turned down, and then a few days later see it sold for less than I offered. The economist in me doesn’t understand leaving $20 bills lying on the ground.

I don’t dabble much in game-used jerseys or other equipment because I’m not educated enough on those items to have confidence in my purchases. However, I have purchased a number of Topps Vault items. I think the most interesting piece I have is his original Topps contract, with his signature, his dad’s signature (the younger Hernandez was a minor at the time), and Sy Berger’s signature. And the Hernandez authored pop-up book First-Base Hero:

Keith Hernandez contract

It has been a fun endeavor for over 30+ years and somehow I’m always finding something I haven’t seen before (like a 3×5 miniature version of a poster that I just got in a lot last week). I have other player collections, and more different cards of other players (Ripken, Gwynn, and Piazza) but they all have vastly more cards than Hernandez. I have a higher percentage of cards for other players (like Jose Lind – a story for a different day), but Hernandez tends to be a balance of popular enough to be included in some new issues (I’m guessing that appearing on Seinfeld didn’t hurt his popularity – and yes, there is at least one bobblehead commemorating his Seinfeld appearance), but not so popular that he appears in a lot of new issues.

2000 Skybox Autographics

Cards from 2000 are old enough to legally drive and vote, and almost old enough to legally drink. I want that to sink in – they are 20 years old. I think that qualifies them as vintage according to some definitions of the word. To a 10-year-old collector starting today, they are as old as 1966 Topps cards were to me when I “seriously” began collecting in 1986 (meaning I had a binder and some 9-pocket pages).  Yes, production and collecting has changed over time, but I didn’t have a lot of cards from 1966 as a 10-year-old.

Pack inserted autographs have been available since 1990, when Upper Deck inserted Reggie Jackson autographs into its product. Perhaps the “signature” product is 1996 Leaf Signature, with its one autograph per pack insertion rate.  There are great topical subsets, like the 1997 and 1998 Donruss Significant Signatures, which are essentially all HOFers … and Don Mattingly.  And of course, there are “vintage” autograph sets, like the Topps Stars run of rookie reprint autographs in the late 1990s. There have been a few posts on autographs on the blog but I think only Jeff has a similar type of post on pack inserted autographs with the Sports Illustrated Covers Autographs.

I want to focus specifically on the 2000 Skybox Autographics set. In an earlier post on master set building I mentioned that 2000 Skybox Dominion was one of the first master sets I attempted to put together. Some of these cards were part of that master set building process. However, the Autographics set was a multi-product set, with only a subset of players available in Skybox Dominion. Others were available in E-X, Impact, Metal, and Skybox. Some players were available in multiple products. Eventually the master set building of Skybox Dominion morphed into trying to build the complete Autographics set (Jeter and Pedro being the pricey remaining autographs to that quest).

First, let’s clear up some confusion. Here are fronts and backs from three different years (1999, 2000, and 2001) of autographics cards:

1999-2001 Skybox Autographics - both

The 2000 set is the one in the middle. The 1999 copyright date on the back is the source of confusion, as is the 2000 copyright date on the back of the 2001 card. That was the time period when companies would sometimes release next year’s products this year (a 2000 product would be released in 1999), sometimes last year’s product this year (a 2000 product would be released in 2001), and sometimes, if a product had multiple series, one series would be released in one year and the other in the next year.

To me, the 2000 set is the best looking. The big block “Skybox” running diagonally across the 1999 cards detracts from the photo, and the smaller photo on the 2001 cards, likely to leave more space to focus on the autograph, minimizes the focus on the player.  Also, I’m a bigger fan of vertical cards than horizontal cards.  The 2000 set is borderless, with bright color backgrounds which generally match a primary color of the player’s team (orange for Orioles, blue for Dodgers, etc. – I have no idea if inspiration for these colorful backgrounds came from T206s). There are a variety of shots: some action, some posed, and some in-game shots that I wouldn’t really call “action” shots. The shadows also add a nice effect. There’s some white space for the on-card autograph, which tends to be preferred to sticker autographs. There’s also an embossed Skybox logo that stays fairly well hidden on most of the cards. Granted, the backs of the 2000 and 2001 cards are weaker than that of the 1999 cards, but I’ll trade off a weaker card back to remove that big block diagonal logo from the front.

The set is 132 cards with players ranging from Hall of Famers to prospects who never made the majors.  The checklist is reasonably deep, particularly when one considers everyone was either active or potentially active that year.

2000 Skybox Autographics HOFers

Hall of Famers (or likely HOFers): Beltre, Boggs, Vladimir Guerrero, Gwynn, Hoffman, Jeter, Randy Johnson, Maddux, Edgar Martinez, Pedro Martinez, Mussina, Ripken, Thomas

Guys with HOF numbers: Bonds, Palmeiro, A-Rod, Beltran (I would have had him as a likely HOFer but who knows how the Astros sign stealing scandal will affect his candidacy – does anyone remember the sign stealing scandal with everything else that has happened in the past few months?)

Stars/Semistars/Minor Stars: Abreu, Alou, Berkman, Mike Cameron, Carpenter, Eric Chavez, Will Clark, Damon, Carlos Delgado, J.D. Drew, Jason Giambi (and Jeremy too), Helton, Tim Hudson, Andruw Jones, Kendall, Konerko, Lankford, Magglio Ordonez, Rolen, Rollins, Salmon, Soriano, Tejada, Billy Wagner, and probably a few others I’m missing.

Of course, there’s also Glen Barker (197 plate appearances), Orber Moreno (50.2 IP), and Angel Pena (206 plate appearances), who wound up with limited MLB action. And Norm Hutchins, Cesar King, and Aaron McNeal, who wound up with no MLB action.  And Matt Riley – if you don’t remember him, look up his minor league numbers early in his career. But that’s what makes this set interesting – an autograph set of all HOFers (or almost HOFers) like 1997 Donruss Significant Signatures is great, but the variety of players in this set is more representative of the game.

2000 Skybox Autographics Favorites-busts

The semistars also add to the appeal of the set.  Ray Lankford was a really good baseball player, yet he only has 10 different autograph cards from manufacturers (that is counting the three versions of his 1997 Donruss Signature autograph as three distinct cards and his two versions of the 2000 Skybox Autographics as two distinct cards – more on that in the next paragraph).  Tim Salmon has 110 different autograph cards, and many of those have small print runs (under 100). Lest you think that is a lot, Wade Boggs has at least 1,400 different autographed cards; Cal Ripken has at least 3,700 (these numbers are probably outdated at the time of the post – they are taken from Beckett’s online guide).  Lankford has fewer cards than Boggs has autographed cards; Salmon has fewer cards than Ripken has autographed cards.

2000 Skybox Autographics Purple Foil-semistars

In addition to the regular version of the card, there is also a purple foil version numbered to 50. The words Skybox Autographics running along the side of the card are the text that is in purple foil. I have seen Purple Foil cards without the numbering, which I believe were back-ups to be used as replacement cards. My understanding is that those cards made their way into the hobby through some liquidation sale, but I’m not sure how credible that story is. I have seen other cards (2002 Fleer Triple Crown parallels) without some of the numbering that are claimed to have entered the hobby the same way. I have also seen some numbered versions without the purple foil. I am more skeptical of those – I think they are just the regular cards that someone numbered after the fact. The numbers on the purple foil versions are hand-numbered, which allows that to happen. As always, education is the key.

Overall, the set appeals to me from both its look as well as its player selection. The design was also used in basketball and football sets around the same time and has been used in “retro” sets in 2012 for those sports.

Set Building – Recent Master Sets

Jim Osborne recently wrote a great post about set collecting, with a focus on building vintage sets. For newer products, acquiring a base set, which I’ll define as not including shortprints or inserts, is not all that difficult. If you want a 2019 Topps set without any bells and whistles, they are relatively easy to find.

I have dabbled in master set building since about 2000. I think the first one I tried to complete was 2000 Skybox Dominion. Why that product? The card shop kept getting boxes and they were not that expensive. The inserts were interesting to me. There are some rare inserts like the Eye on October Warp Tek cards numbered to the player’s uniform number – those are white whales. There are two Jeters – I’ve never seen either of them, yet I’ve seen all three A-Rods for sale at some point in time.

Defining “master set”

Two of Jim’s main points – educate yourself and know your budget – are just as applicable here. I will not go into depth on those points beyond stating that you may want a slightly flexible budget, and I’ll explain why later. I will start with:

Define what “master set” means to you. It is a hobby – it is supposed to be fun. Look at your budget and determine the cards that you will use to comprise a master set. I have been building master sets of Topps Opening Day for a while now. I got hooked because, like Skybox Dominion, boxes of Opening Day are not that expensive, and you usually get a complete set or fairly close with one box. When I first started around 2006-2007 there were no relic cards, no shortprinted cards, and the autographs were of players like Toby Hall and Johnny Estrada with a Matt Kemp every now and then. Earlier years did have autographs like Hank Aaron and Wade Boggs, and 2005 had some game-used cards. But they were fairly simple to put together (even though I’m still missing a handful of cards – that happens when you decide to build a master set of a product after it has been on store shelves for a while), and the autographs were not the usual suspects. Opening Day is a fun product, meant for kids, and the inserts are fun.

In 2013 Opening Day introduced shortprinted cards and a more expansive autograph checklist. In 2014 relics came back. In 2020 there are now numbered dirt relic cards with autographs. If I can pick one of those up for a good price I do, but I do not include them in my master set list that I am actively looking to fill because the prices can be extraordinarily high. Nearly every product has 1/1 printing plates – again, I’ll pick those up if I like the price for that player but trying to put together a 200 card set of one-of-ones (or one-of-fours if you mix and match colors) seems more frustrating than fun to me, so my master set list doesn’t include those cards.

To give a sense of how many insert sets there might be, I’ve used Pete Alonso to illustrate the rarer 2020 Opening Day insert sets as he is in many of them, except for the Mascot Patches (so I’ve used Mr. Met). There are other rare inserts not pictured (autographs, ballpark profile autographs, Canada variations, mascot relics, mascot autographs, and mascot autograph relics). There are 346 inserts in 2020 Topps Opening Day, counting those rare low-numbered autographs; removing them still leaves over 300 inserts.

OpeningDay-Inserts

Once you have educated yourself, determined your budget, and decided what master set means to you there are some additional guidelines I follow. I’m going to channel Tyler Durden here – the first rule of master set building is to get started when the product hits the shelf. The second rule of master set building is … to get started when the product hits the shelf. If you have done your homework and you get started when the product hits the shelf you should be able to get some good deals early on before prices start trending to their equilibrium (buy-it-nows on eBay are more likely to lead to better deals than auctions early on). Knowing how many of an insert set fall to a box or a case is important, as is knowing insert set size. If an insert is a case hit and the set size is 30 and another is also a case hit and the set size is 10 then the cards in that 30 card set are likely going to be harder to find. But beware, as there are times right when the product hits the shelf that cards sell for really high prices. There are deep-pocketed player, team, and master set collectors who will spend money to get rare inserts. I do a lot of searching to find deals early on.

The other reason I recommend starting early is because I see the biggest difference between vintage set collecting and master set building of newer products is that it is amazing how quickly some of the cards dry up. Once they dry up, they can be difficult to find at any price. If you want a 1952 Topps Mantle, they are on eBay. They are reasonably expensive in any condition, but you can at least find them. I can’t find the 2019 Topps Opening Day Dugout Peeks cards I’m missing.  I can find the 5×7 cards in regular (numbered to 49) or gold (numbered to 10) versions all day, but the pack inserts are nearly impossible to find. There is a Lindor on eBay right now. There are none on COMC. There are none on Beckett Marketplace. You might get lucky 6 months later and get the card for a good deal once people have moved on to other projects, but there also might be three people looking for that one card that they haven’t seen for 6 months.

If you decide to collect a master set a few months or years after a product hits the shelves you will need patience and persistence (which may mean years, if ever) to find the card at the right price. The alternative is to have a healthy budget for picking up the cards, as some sellers know that inserts and shortprints do not appear regularly and put high price tags on them.

Jim mentioned looking at previous sales prices, and I agree. I will take it one step further for newer products. Unless someone finds a discrepancy reviewing game logs, Mickey Mantle’s numbers aren’t changing. Unless someone uncovers some unknown secret, Mantle’s life story isn’t changing. With newer products I recommend paying attention to price trends. A player’s performance (on and off the field) affects his card prices, which is a second difference between vintage set building (as the players are mostly retired, at least from active rosters) and master set building of newer sets. That’s why I mentioned a slightly flexible budget – if a player is having a monstrous year, you’ll need some flexibility. If a card started off selling at $30 when the product hit the shelf but has consistently sold in the $40-$50 range recently, it’s unlikely that it will be found for $30 unless you get lucky or want to wait. You can wait for the player to cool off, but then there is the risk that the cards will dry up again. Hot players tend to see their cards listed more often.

Trout-puppydog

As an aside, if the card you need is of Mike Trout you are highly unlikely to get lucky with respect to price, so I recommend having a Mike Trout rule (will you go after his rare cards or not). I got lucky once with Trout (I got the puppy dog card for a really good deal) – I don’t expect it to happen again. Sometimes a Kurt Suzuki insert will cost as much as a Nolan Arenado from the same set; that doesn’t happen with Trout and a few other players. Even his parallel cards are going to cost a few dollars.

Parallels

Parallel-lot

In defining master set, do you consider the parallels to be part of your set and if so where do you draw the line? Do you go after the retail parallels as well or just stick to the hobby parallels? I think parallel set collecting is probably the closest to vintage set collecting. I buy lots like I would for a vintage set and try to sell or trade doubles (or at least I used to) to save on monetary cost. Unlike the base sets, there usually aren’t very many complete parallel sets available, and complete parallel sets are usually expensive, so I recommend buying lots until you get down to a few cards. Like with vintage set building, pay attention to the star cards in the lot. Sometimes you can get a lot for the exact same price as buying the star card individually, which to me makes sense because the extras can always be sold or traded. While that part of set building is similar to vintage sets, a third difference between vintage set and newer product master set building is that condition rarely comes into play with newer cards, unless you are concerned with the difference between a graded 9 and a graded 10. It is unlikely that cards from 2020 have been put in bicycle spokes or carried around in wallets. That also means there is not much room to trade off lower condition to try to get the card for a lower price.

Non-rare inserts

OpengingDay-Mascots

Lastly, there are the “non-rare” insert sets. I have focused more on the rare cards because complete insert sets of the more common inserts, at least for a product like Opening Day, can usually be picked up for a much lower cost than if you were to buy the cards individually. For dealers who crack a case they will usually get multiple complete insert sets of this type. For some bigger insert sets I have used the same approach as I do with parallels in that I buy lots of the inserts until I get down to a few cards, and then pick-up the last few cards individually.

Those are just my thoughts given my experiences building master sets. Mostly I work on products with lower price points, so there may be different strategies with higher-priced products. I welcome others’ thoughts on their experiences.