You Can’t Judge a Judge (By Looking At Its Sale Price)

I was an options trader for about 20 years. Was I a good one? There were things I was good at and there were things I wasn’t good at. On the whole I did all right.

One thing I was bad at was picking stocks. That wasn’t a skill set I needed for trading, so when I owned stocks (which was infrequently), I tended to ride them into the ground. Unless I stumbled my way into something that was a no-brainer and, through circumstance, had a lot of stock that I needed to blow out. Which I did.

About one month ago, I bought a pack of 2017 Gypsy Queen at Yastrzemski Sports on Main St. in Cooperstown and pulled an Aaron Judge autograph. Judge was already a great story, I’m not trying to take away from that, but he doesn’t do much for me. I’m not overly excited by Aaron Judge and had no emotional reason to keep the card. Plus, it seemed the perfect time to sell high.

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I checked eBay and watched a few auctions that were close to ending. One closed with a final bid of $26, another closed at $28. I saw there were a few Buy It Now listings at $35 that were not selling, so I put in a $30 Buy It Now of my own. In trading, we used to call  marginally improving the market “carping. ” The card sat for about a day, and then Judge hit another home run.

There was a market frenzy! My card was bought, the $35 cards were bought, and then the market seemed to have hit some sort of equilibrium – for a few days. Then he kept hitting home runs. Now he’s on the cover of Sports Illustrated. The card I sold at $30 is going for $100 more than that.

I’ve been selling a lot on eBay lately and if you sell enough, things even out. I sold a lot of 1969 Topps hockey cards in overall VG condition for over $60. I thought I get $20, if I was lucky.

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Did I learn anything from this? I don’t know. It seemed like a good move to sell and who knows, Judge might be Babe Ruth or, as so many previously burned rookie card buyers have cited, Kevin Maas.

In 2000, I sold a Tracy McGrady Topps Heritage autograph card for 75 bucks. It was a similar kind of situation – McGrady was hot, but I didn’t care, so I sold the card. Years later I looked and the card could be had for less than $10. Now that McGrady is a Hall of Famer it goes for around $20.

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In options trading, all options have an expiration date. I won’t get too technical but on an option’s expiration, either it’s worth something or worth nothing. You could’ve sold it for $.50 and you could’ve sold it for $100 but if it goes out worthless it goes out worthless. You just don’t know until the cycle runs its course. Selling Aaron Judge was like selling an option early and riding out the wave to see where it ends up. And here I thought I left trading behind!

The Other Side of the Coins

We moved from Brooklyn to Long Island in December of 1971. I was nine-years-old and finally had my own room. It was a life changing event.

Sports were my thing then, my only thing really, and I hung up my Sports Illustrated posters of Willie Mays, Hank Aaron, Ken Harrelson, Carl Yastrzemski and two Joe Namaths. I had some 8 X 10’s to add to the gallery – a Willis Reed promotional picture from Voit, another of Reed and Walt Frazier from a game I had that they endorsed and a Pete Maravich Keds’ promo. (God I wish I still had those!)

There was a nice big, empty pace on the wall to the right of my dresser, a void I could see from my bed, itching to be filled. I had an idea. I found a large wooden board in the garage, painted it white and reached for my 1971 Topps coins. I love those coins; they’re beautiful, bright, alive, better, I think, than the funereal black shrouded base set of that year.

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I had 100 coins or so, in nice condition, as you can see. I wasn’t serious about collecting yet and I wasn’t even 10, so this seemed like a good project. I glued them to the board and nailed the board into the wall. It was cool to look at.

A few years later, I was a serious collector, going to card shows and caring about my cards. I freaked out at what I’d done to my precious metal coins and pried them off.

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I tried frantically to scratch the glue off and submitted myself to hours of ancient torture, scraping wood slivers, which would get under my nails and cause me to bleed and cry in pain. I deserved it for what I did to these beauties.

I’ve been thinking of getting the last third of the set but they’re a bit pricier than I thought they’d be. Still, finding 44 in VG condition should, in time, be doable. Maybe there’s another masochist out there in the collecting world who has extra coins with excellent heads and ruined tails. I’m not so condition sensitive, as Rich Reese can attest.

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Great Expectations

I don’t like surprises (it’s a control thing) and I dread being handed a wrapped present. I like three general things – books, records and, of course, cards. It’s impossible to me to fake pleasant astonishment at a gift that, without a doubt, will leave me cold. “I always wanted an old mug from Howe Caverns!” Can’t do it. Keep that in mind for my next birthday. Yet I love packs and I love them because of the surprise. They’re wonderful little birthday presents, paper (or wax) itching to be ripped open.

It’s all about expectations, those being predictably met and those being delightfully unforeseen. Clearly I’ll love whatever is inside. I spoke about Split Season: 1981 last week before a group of guys celebrating the 25th anniversary of their fantasy league, Seasons Past. I got some solid swag, including three packs of 1981 Donruss (well played!). There was nothing new to be found there, I have the set, but peeling away the paper, chiseling away the gum (poor Dave Chalk!) and finding Tim Foli, Mitchell Page, Rick Wise and others, was a hell of a lot of fun.

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Back to expectations. The thing about new packs (as opposed to 36-year-old packs) is that there’s usually going to be something wondrous to be found. I’m not talking about the quasi-thrill of an insert, though I’ll admit to being jazzed when I pulled an autographed Aaron Judge card out of a pack of 2017 Gypsy Queen, which I then sold on eBay, figuring it was best to sell something like that early and high. That was around 5 homers ago. It’s not turning out to be a good call.

I’m talking about this: when Roberto Clemente died on December 31, 1972, that was it for his career. He was gone. Then I opened a pack of 1973 1st series, and there he was, Roberto Clemente, completely alive, at bat and ready to pounce. It was a shock, incredibly unexpected. I’ll never forget it.

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Or the following year, 1974, when early packs revealed a spectacular #1 – Hank Aaron, “New All-Time Home Run King.” What a jolt to the senses compared to the other 1974’s, though that is my favorite set of the ‘70’s. Though Aaron entered 1974 one shy of tying Babe Ruth’s record of 714 career homers, and more than likely to break the record early (he did it on April 8), it was still ballsy for Topps to proclaim him the new king on a card. As Clemente showed the year before, no one, not even Bad Henry, was guaranteed another season in life. It was totally startling to see that card #1.

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I’m finding that stacks of cards, small piles I’ve been buying to work on sets, provide the same kick of unopened packs. When I buy a lot of cards, I hone in on the numbers, comparing them to my checklist. Once they’re delivered, I take a closer look at the fronts.

Bouton56 wrote a post last month. “It’s Miller Times Two” is a fun look at players with the same names in the same set. A recent stack of 1960’s that I bought brought an unanticipated bombshell.

This is not Johnny Briggs:

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This is Johnny Briggs:

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I was kind of bowled over by white Johnny Briggs. I do know a lot of baseball, but I never heard of this guy. Well, I’d heard of him, but not this version of him. I only know black Johnny Briggs. When I was out to dinner with two older friends, writers and baseball card collectors, I told them this minor story about expectations and how often they can be shaken up.

“Oh, Johnny Briggs, the pitcher?” one of them asked. They identified with that one!

That’s the magic in the packs and stacks. There’s going to be something you didn’t know, or hadn’t seen, or comes out of left field, or goes out to center field, like Addison Russell’s Game 6 Grand Slam, a game I was at and was ecstatic to pull out of a pack this year.

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How Long Has This Been Going On?

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“Um, Jeff, you know this is a baseball card blog, right?”

Yes I do, but bear with me. Those two cards are short printed rookie cards from the 2000-01 Topps Heritage basketball set. Why are they relevant? What’s the deal with those rookie cards? Why are they limited to 1972 of each, when the retro design is the 1971-72 set? Why not short print 1971 of each?

All good questions. When this set came out I was smitten. I love the original cards and I fell in love with the Heritage throwbacks, so I bought a box and went down the rabbit hole of short prints. There are 36 of them. I got the two above yesterday. I still need two to finish the set.

For those keeping score at home, that’s 16+ years working on one set. To be fair, I could’ve bought a complete master sett about 9 years ago, but I was already way deep into purchasing the SP’s. To be further fair, I have passed up on cards that were too pricey. My price point is $4-5 each. I will not pay $10 for Hedo Turkoglu or Mark Madsen. So some of this is on me.

What’s too long? I’m working on a 1949 Remar Bread set and a 1952 Parkhurst set. It may take years for me to find the flimsy paper card of Oakland Oaks broadcaster Bud Foster. Funny thing, the supply/demand balance is out of whack. It may take five years to get the card but when I get it it will cost me $8. I realize I may have to wait out these out of the mainstream sets.

I’ve been working on the 1971 Kellogg’s 3-D set and, while more scarce than their other issues, they’re out there. The time it takes me to finish this set will be determined by the deals I get. I’m a patient person. I recently got my wife a Wilco poster that I’de been looking for for seven years.

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There’s a frustration in not being able to fill a want list at one’s own pace. I’m realizing that if the only sets I’m working on are harder to find, I’ll be spinning my meals, getting no further in my collecting, and I don’t want my renewed passion for the hobby to wane. I decided to work on the 1960 Topps set. There’s never a lack of supply for any Topps base set, no matter how far back you go.

I see collectors who are working on a lot more sets than I am and wonder what their time frames are? Do some seek to complete, say, all the Topps sets by the time they die? Do others give themselves a year to finish something? Do some simply save up and buy a complete set when they can afford it?

Am I willing to take years to finish the 1960 set? Yes and no. I won’t overspend, and I have found the joy in trading with other collectors. I’ve never done that before. But knowing I could be done with a few clicks and a few PayPal payments does make it hard to wait and I need to wait. If I finish it too fast then I’ll need to search for another plentiful set to keep me occupied while I wait for a 1952 Parkhurst Aaron Silverman to show up.

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Orlando Cepeda Made Me a Criminal

Does one crime make you a criminal? Does a momentary act of desperation make you a bad person?

There’s the literary case of Jean Valjean, stealing bread to feed his sister’s children. The theft marked him for life, first with imprisonment, then with non-stop running from the grasp of the relentless Javert. A lifetime of suffering for satisfying an urgent need.

If you’ve ever tried to complete a set from packs, you know how horrible it feels as you get towards the end. Pack after pack, dollar after dollar, wading through card after card looking for that final one. In 1973, I was Valjean and Orlando Cepeda was my full loaf.

I needed a few cards to finish my set, the first set I’d assembled only from packs. I know I needed Dave Lemonds, probably a couple of others from the dreaded last series, but, really, the now rare high numbered cards were plentiful and available. (Not like the third series of 1972 Topps football, which I don’t think ever made it to Suffolk County. If they had, I would have bought them and I don’t have any!).

Orlando Cepeda was impossible to find. Orland friggin’ Cepeda, on the final leg of his career, was more sought after by an almost 11-year old kid than he was by any big league team when his card was made. By the end of ’73, when the last series emerged, “The Baby Bull” was finishing up a big comeback season as a Red Sox DH in Year One of the experiment. His Topps card though had him as an Oakland A. Did I know that yet? No.1973toppsbox

I bought pack after pack, scouring the front of cello packs – the one and three window varieties – looking at the fronts and backs in a mad search for “Cha Cha.” No luck.

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Living in Lake Grove in the early 1970’s was interesting for a boy from Brooklyn. It felt like the 1950’s still, except for the Smith Haven Mall. The mall was uber modern, very exciting in its own way. Less exciting was McCrory’s, a pretty nondescript budget department store, but McCrory’s had cards and I bought a lot of them there. Near the candy section was a three-tiered rotating wire rack of dangling three-pack cellos. On yet another trip to kill suburban time, I headed to the mall with a friend to hang out and stopped to continue my card quest.

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Spinning, spinning, top section, second section, third section, nothing – wait! Spinning in reverse to focus my eyes on what I’d seen and missed in my first go around, there he was! Cepeda, right in the front, right in the middle.

“What if I want it more than the person who has it?” Rocket Raccoon was still a few years from his debut but he summed up my situation best. I wanted, I needed, that card. I can’t remember if I had any money on me, probably not, because if I had I wouldn’t have stolen it.

I’d never stolen anything before, and didn’t quite know how it worked. I positioned my friend in front of me as I got to work. Now I didn’t take the whole three-pack, which would have been easier. Why? Because I didn’t need the three-pack, I needed the middle pack. See, I wasn’t really a thief, because I only was going to take what I needed. I tore the bottom pack off, tossed it under the display, and tore off the middle and skedaddled. Fast.

Whenever I see that Cepeda card I cringe a bit.  I have a few now, even one listed on eBay, but it’s not that one. That one is safely tucked between Von Joshua and Jim York in my set. Still, it hurts a little to know what I did, and confession is good for the soul, but only slightly. The 1973 Topps Orlando Cepeda card, number 545, is my bread and my conscience is my Javert.

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Not Hooked on Heritage

“You realize that our mistrust of the future makes it hard to give up the past.”
― Chuck Palahniuk on Topps Heritage cards

 

What is it about Topps Heritage that leaves me cold? It’s the kind of idea I’m predisposed to love, but I don’t.

God knows I’ve tried to dig them. In fact, I collected/bought, a full 2007 Heritage master set, with a smattering of inserts. I don’t even like the original cards that much but there I was, scrambling for 1958 manqués (I love that word!), short prints and all. It’s perhaps in the misery of going after that set that my disdain for Heritage began.

I do love the 1959 design and was all prepared to go at it again in 2008, but there’s something missing in the faux-retro cards. I can’t quite put my finger on it but the new cards don’t seem to put in the effort, pictorially, of the old ones. Compare the two:

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There’s something in Heritage that is fuzzy, fake, quasi-painterly, but not well-painted and not interesting. The hook is all in the design but, as this blog pointed out recently in its poll on favorite 1970’s cards, the attraction of a card goes beyond its mere design and Heritage, for me, points out that design alone doesn’t cut it. The photos need to be dynamic and appealing. It’s why cards like the 1953 Bowman set are so wonderful. There isn’t even a design to speak of; it’s simply a series of incredible pictures.

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I dutifully bought two jumbo packs of the new Heritage. Eh. First of all, the 1968’s do nothing for me. Second, the photos left me flat. I ended up giving all the cards to my 21-year old who first wanted the Cubs, then took them all for the bus ride back to college.

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The thing is he totally loved the cards! They were new to him, old in a non-defined way because he’s not bringing any old man baggage to a 49-year old design, but fresh. They may be enough to restart his interest in the hobby.

I think freshness is the key. An old design with mediocre photography doesn’t feel fresh to me, it feels tired. Maybe I’d feel different if the gimmick didn’t extend over a full set. I kind of like Topps Archive – several different old designs, with old players in new looks and new players in old looks. That works for me; Heritage most emphatically does not.

 

Die Cuts (or, as German card collectors call them, The Cuts)

Die cut cards have been around for a long time, 19th century style long time. I’m not going to write about the history of die cuts; that’s not my style. You want to know more about them, go for it. You’re not gonna get that here.

In the mid-‘80’s, Donruss put out Pop-ups in conjunction with their set of All-Stars. Here’s a Wade Boggs card:

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Here’s the eye-popping special effect:

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The worst Kellogg’s set did a better job of 3-D. Most die cuts don’t even try that hard. You just pop out the player and stick him in a little paper stand. Not very believable, if you ask me.

Every once in a while a die cut set catches my eye.  The 1973 Johnny Pro Orioles set is all kinds of awesome. Great players, good pictures, and even a couple of harder to come by cards – Brooks Robinson, Bobby Grich and Jim Palmer got two poses each! I’m still on the trail of Brooks batting and Palmer in his windup. The supply seems very scarce, but, fortunately for me, the demand is low. If I ever track them down they shouldn’t set me back too much. Orlando Pena’s card, oddly, is not die cut. Pena probably wasn’t worth the price of the labor!

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The next year Johnny Pro put out a Phillies set. While the O’s got 28 cards, the Phils got only 12. The Orioles deserved more cards, they were good. The Phillies were lousy, but, and it’s a big Kardashian-sized but, the Johnny Pro set had a Mike Schmidt card. Though both sets have a solid color background, there’s something unfinished about the Phillies set, all in white. The green of the Orioles cards seems somehow more polished. I have no idea what Johnny Pro Enterprises did, but their corporate filing was forfeited in 1979. The significance of that also something I have no idea about.

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The only other die cut set I went gaga over was a Dodgers team issued pinup set from 1963. A most incredible set of actual head shots on cartoony hand drawn bodies; it seems likely that this set, in its super cool envelope, was sold at the ballpark. They look a lot like the 1938 Goudey Heads-up cards, but so much better. They’re really big, 7 ¼” X 8 ½”.

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People are probably most familiar with the 1964 Topps Stand-ups. Weird that I never dug those; I can’t figure out why. They seem right in my wheelhouse and I probably could’ve gotten them relatively cheaply in the ‘70’s, when cards like that were easy to find and inexpensive.  I should at least have a Wayne Causey in my collection.

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