The Price is Right?

I’m in the home stretch for my 1956 Topps set – 330 down, 10 to go. My tendency is to back into the most expensive card in any set I’m working on, because that puts me in a corner. “Are you really not going to buy that last card, regardless of price?” says the collector voice in my head. Of course I’m going to buy that card, hopefully at the price/condition equilibrium that’ll make me happy. So, yeah, I’m going to end up buying a 1956 Mantle.

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I’ve noticed a good amount of collectors approach the pricey card predicament in different ways. Some go lower condition to get a manageable price; some accept that they’ll simply never be able to afford that high dollar card. Some I’ve come across make do with reprints as a way to fill a sheet and look complete. I have thoughts.

How does one embark on set collecting? For me, from the onset, the overall cost has to be attainable. We all have different budgets, sure (though it seems clear to me that some of you spend far too much!), but putting one’s self on a completion path that you’ll never see the end of seems like bad planning and hugely frustrating. Snipe hunting sucks.

I’ll gulp when I buy that ’56 Mantle, but I knew it was hovering on the horizon when I decided to work on the set. For that reason, I’ll never even begin a 1952 Topps set, and didn’t even in the ‘70’s, when the prices were still relatively high to my income, which was non-existent. I could, back then, work on late ‘60’s sets which, at the time, were closer to my grasp.

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But, if you’re determined to finish most of a set, what’s the best option? It’s got to be the worse condition rather than the reprint. I know even low grade high end cards (oxymoronic?) can get up there dollar-wise, but a genuine card by default is preferable. Want to use a reprint as a placeholder? Sure, I guess. As an end in itself? You’re better off selling all the cards you have and redirecting towards a more attainable year to pursue.

All of that certainly makes it more difficult to pick a set. I’ve been inching my way along a 1970-71 Topps Hockey set, because I had a critical mass of cards to start with (around 25%) and the priciest cards I still need won’t run more than $30-40, and there’s only two of those (Orr and a checklist).  It’s definitely the last old hockey set I’ll tackle, because I know from the get-go that I’m unwilling to pony up the dough for certain cards.

I’m definitely running out of sets that I can reasonable hunt down.  I know I’ve written about that before, but it really bothers me.  I’ll figure something out. Until then, I’ll be on the lookout for a VGEX or EX 1956 Mantle that won’t keep me up at night.

Laughlin to Keep from Crying

There’s been a bit of a debate on the SABR Baseball Cards Facebook page the past few days on the merits of “fake” cards, DIY imaginary cards that people love, or hate, or are confused by. (I weighed in on this earlier in the month). Andrew Aronstein, son of TCMA founder Mike, posited a pretty solid theoretical – “What is a “fake” card? Let’s start there.”

I bet we all have answers to this, but I think all of our answers end up wrong. The real question, to me anyway, is “What do we like and how does that effect what we buy?” From the late 1960s to the early 1980’s, Robert (R.G.) Laughlin, artist/illustrator/cartoonist (I don’t know anything about him), produced wonderful sets. From the 1968 World Series set that he self-marketed,

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to the official Fleer issues (there are many), each Laughlin subject was a joy. I bought a 1971 World Series set, a 1975 Fleer Pioneers of Baseball set

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and packs of Fleer issue – Famous Feats, Baseball Firsts, Wildest Plays and Days. I never, never, bought sets Laughlin issued on his own.

It’s a shame, really, that I was mired in what my young mind thought was a “real” card (i.e., something put out by a company), and what I liked. Talk about being brainwashed by corporate branding! McLaughlin’s Super Stand-ups, All-Star Games, Diamond Jubilee, Long Ago Black Stars, Great Feats (God, there are so many) were not a secret. Dealers I got catalogs from would sell these sets for $5 (I’m guessing. Most were issued in the $3 range), and, though they looked incredible, I demurred. They weren’t “real” cards. Topps was real, Fleer was real, Laughlin wasn’t.

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I rediscovered my Famous Feats cards when I was making a trade and I’m working on the set. It’s a manageable cost, and I have Ruth, Gehrig, and Cobb, which command a bit higher price. Why, I don’t know. Much to my dismay, the other sets are pretty pricey. I’ve been casually looking for random sets but, when they come up, they go for a lot, from $50 – $200. I think I’ll eventually grab a few if I can get a deal, but I feel the ship has sailed on many of these.

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A card is a card. Some made by card companies and some are not. Are old Laughlins any less “fake” than a current DIY card? Or any less “real?” They’re both made by fans with an eye for something unique, created to fill a void. I see now that that’s good enough for me.

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I attended SABR 48 in Pittsburgh last week. It was a great convention – excellent presentations, great conversations. One of the nicest parts of my Wednesday to Saturday attendance was the outpouring of thanks from fellow SABR members about my blog posts. I wasn’t expecting so much enthusiasm, but it was intensely gratifying to know people enjoy my posts as much as I enjoy writing them.

Now go buy some cards, join SABR (if you haven’t already) and share your stories.

Of Lefty Grove and Bad Decisions

The ‘90’s were a good time to be Lefty Grove. Sabermetrics were a godsend to his legacy. You’d think a Hall of Fame pitcher with 300 wins wouldn’t need much of a reevaluation, but Robert Moses did. The preeminent pitcher in a high offense era, Grove often had relatively high ERAs; his nine league leading totals included four times from between 2.81 and 3.08. It took ERA+ to really put it in perspective. That 3.08 ERA in 1938 was an ERA+ of 160, the same as Clayton Kershaw’s lifetime number. Good, right?

I wasn’t immune to the new found wonders of Grove. I bought an autographed newspaper clipping, no doubt real (who would fake such a crummy item. Plus, I got this lovely note).

I also got a 1937 O-Pee-Chee card, and herein lies the tale.

We were out in Southern California for vacation and, in nearby Laguna Niguel, or Laguna Beach, or some other similarly named burg, there was a high end auction house that had a store front. I was still trading options back then, my card interests and income at mutual highs. That was bad; it meant I was going to spend. Didn’t matter on what; I was going to spend.

There was a lot to take in at that store. I remember (though not with great surety) that they had old awards, rings, and, of course, cards. In the throes of Grove-mania, I honed in on this beauty, secretly stashed in a velvet envelope.

Tim Jenkins Tweeted his card show loot a few weeks ago and, in the midst of his horde, there was a 1952 Mother’s Cookie PCL card. It made my heart hurt, because, on that SoCal day twenty years ago, my ultimate choice was between the Grove card and a complete 1952 Mother’s set. I’m a set collector by nature, but, in the thrall of the Grove renaissance, Lefty swayed me. Upon further review, it was a bad call, only made worse by the misgivings that were there from the start.

First of all, though it’s a Grove card, it’s one card. The Mother’s set had 64. Second of all, they were both around the same price and, while Grove is Grove, the Mother’s set had a Mel Ott card and Ott is Ott. Third, I should have sensed that, from a purely financial position, the Grove card was going to top out and the Mother’s set would only appreciate. That’s been the case.

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I’ve managed to live a life, both a collecting life and a real life, with few regrets. This is one of them. The sad part is, though I missed the Mother’s set, the decision I made has always taken away from how happy I should be about the Grove card. That’s unfortunate, but hard to shake.

Fake News, Alternative Facts

Like all of you, I can instantly identify cards from my prime collecting/pack buying years. For me, that’s 1970-1977. I can more easily name and ID the 1973 Mets than the 2018 Mets. The cards from that era stuck with me, permanently.

When I started seeing “what if” cards, custom jobs made with original templates and period perfect pictures, I did Ritz Brothers burlesque double take. “How could I never have seen this 1978 Ken McMullen? Is my memory going?”

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Nah, all these self-made cardboards are brilliant frauds, one-offs of guys who never got their own card, had to share a multi-player rookie slab, or, unlike some other players, never had a career capping card.

The two guys I follow religiously are Bottomms Cards (@BottommsCards) and Gio/wthballs blog (@wthballs). Their Tweets are a joy.

Gio does a great job with players who, I’m shocked, I’ve never heard of and who never even sniffed their own card. These guys didn’t even get to bunk next to Dave Freisleben in a quartet of rookies.

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The other category Gio does well is the career summary cards. That’s a rare thing. A player had to either retire after his card was issued (1969 Mantle) or die (1973 Clemente) to have his entire career stats on the back of his card, yet a summary card, a tribute of sorts, is a solid idea. Here’s that McMullen card.

Bottomms does cool stuff, but lately he’s been doing something amazing – making “cards” of players where their picture mirrors the generic player icon. So great, in conception and execution. Here are two, but there are others.

I love this genre, which is purest online. I have seen that people sell their custom cards but that’s not my bag. It’s cool to have cards of a unique design for sale, but to sell a faux-1972 Topps card seems wrong. I know one of my friends hates these “cards that never were.” It messes him up. “Wait, do I need this card for my Hall of Fame album? Did I miss this card for my rookie album?” I have no such worries, they’re just cool.

Fork in the Road – Take It?

For the last two years or so, I’ve been on a tear, buying cards, completing sets, having a ball. Usually the road to set completion has taken two forms – 1) I had enough of a critical mass of cards that a push to the finish made sense, in number and in dollars, and 2) I had a good amount of the high priced cards that, even if I needed a lot of cards to get to the end, the cost was right. Add to this a healthy amount of eBay (and other) selling of doubles, triples, crap I don’t even want, and I was (and am) happy. I still can’t believe some of the sets I’ve gotten done.

I see the horizon though. I’m working on five sets right now – 1933 Tattoo Orbit, 1936 Goudey Wide Pens Type 1, 1956 Topps, 1969 Topps Decals and 1972 Fleer Famous Feats. The Tattoo Orbit is a pipe dream; I don’t know that I’ll ever finish. The rest are within my grasp. So what to do when I close the books on these? I don’t want to lose the enthusiasm and fun I’ve been having.

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I’m torn though. I really don’t know what to do. Part of me says I should start buying complete Topps sets I don’t have and sell the Hall of Famers, stars and commons that I do have for those years to offset the price. That might work for me, but it would also be less fun. A full set, in one swoop? Appealing, in a way.

Or, maybe, I approach it scattershot, picking up cards here and there, some cheap lots, small sets, type cards. The ideal me is cool with that – buy what grabs you. The real me has a hard time with goalless purchasing of random cards. I’m too focused to be comfortable with that.

I’ve always liked non-sports cards too and have some good old sets. Try those? No way I’d put a set like that together from scratch. I imagine it would be impossible to find individual Mod Squad cards at a pace that worked for me. A complete set would be the way to go.

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Or the other sports? There are sets I could definitely fill in, but I don’t like most older football sets, the older basketball sets are out of reach, and hockey, well, I could find a set that didn’t have some super-pricey early Bobby Orr card.

So, I ask all of you for advice. What is this committee, and this blog, if not an open Group Therapy session for the cardboard addicted?

A Pitching Evolution, Of Sorts

I’ve always loved getting mail. When I was seven-years old (that would’ve been in the summer of 1970, for those keeping score at home), I sent letters to baseball teams asking for a slew of autographs from each. I didn’t get any autographs back, but I did get an assortment of pictures, decals, schedules, etc. Two years later I honed my letter writing skills, pinpointing individual players. Mail started pouring in, and some disasters were averted. My mother almost threw out a letter for me that had this on the envelope:

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She thought it was from a circus. Inside was a Hank Aaron autographed picture. (And why would she want to throw out any letter that was addressed to me anyway? It’s a question I still ponder.)

 

So I still get jazzed when the mail comes, and, lately, there are a lot of good card mail days. Most deliveries are fairly routine – a few cards of the same year – but sometimes there’s a combination of cards that is exquisite in its randomness.

 

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Nothing connects these three other than they are pitchers and they’re all part of sets I’m working on.

 

Ivy Andrews

Finishing the 1933 Tattoo Orbit set is a pipe dream (for now). I’ve never spent as much money on a card as I’ll need to for Jimmy Foxx and Dizzy Dean, but I’ll worry about that towards the end. Right now I have 24 of the 60.

 

Andrews is a short print, books high, but I got this for less than 20% of the VG price (if you’re a frequent reader you know I use the 2009 Standard Catalog). Who was Ivy Andrews and why did he deserve any print run, short or other?

 

When this card came out, Andrews had already been traded from the Yankees to the Red Sox along with Hank Johnson and $50,000 for Danny MacFayden. Andrews performed well for the BoSox from his mid-season arrival in 1932. He was fine in 1933, nothing special, and was traded with Smead Jolley and cash to the Browns in December 1933. Beleaguered by arm problems for much of his eight year career, Andrews is a member of the Hall of Fame – the Alabama Sports Hall of Fame.

 

Andrews was hardly needed in a 60 card set, but, as I’ve written about regarding the 1936 Goudey Wide Pens, the selection of players in these sets is odd. The Andrews transaction register is a Who’s Who of long forgotten players that pepper 1930’s sets – MacFayden, Jolley, Lyn Lary, Orel Hildebrand and so on.

 

Of course, Ivy’s nickname was “Poison.”

 

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Jim Brady

 

I don’t spend a lot of time on card backs, to the chagrin of SABR Baseball Cards Committee HQ, but I have been reading the backs of 1956s. The three cartoons grab me.

 

The back of Brady card got me interested because there’s no statistical information. That was for the best. A Notre Dame alum, he caught the eye of Tigers’ farm director John McHale, another ex-Fightin’ Irishman. Brady was a bonus baby, netting $37,500 from Detroit and, as the rules required, had to spend two years on the big league roster, whether he was ready to pitch or not. He wasn’t. He did pitch for the Tigers in 1956 – 6 1/3 IP, 28.42 ERA.

 

Brady’s success came off the field. He garnered three degrees from Notre Dame, was chair of the economics department at Old Dominion, a member of the eco faculty at ND and Jacksonville U. president from 1989-1996. Solid career, just not in baseball.

 

Tug McGraw

 

I don’t have anything to say about Tugger that hasn’t already been said and isn’t already known. There are few players that always bring a smile, and Tug is one of those. As a still-Mets fan in 1973, “Ya Gotta Believe” is permanently stamped in my heart, and McGraw getting dumped in exchange for Mac Friggin’ Scarce is second only to the Seaver trade in abominably anti-fan front office work for a team that specializes in that trade.

 

And now Tug has a place in my card history – the final one for my 1969 set. It’s a high number (evidenced by the same season info on the card back) and was a bit pricier than I hoped, but for McGraw, it’s worth it. I wouldn’t have felt the same about Bill Voss.

 

 

I think of myself as a well-above average baseball scholar. I’m not top of the heap by any means but I’m pretty high up. At the core of the hobby is finding out about players who I’ve never heard of and lives I knew nothing about. At least that’s a big part of the appeal for me (and probably you too.)

Let Your 2009 Standard Catalog Be Your Guide

I’ve got a lot of price guides and checklists books scattered around the house. It’s the price one pays for collecting for over 40 years.

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My go-to sourcebook these days is the 2009 Standard Catalog. It’s the first (and so far only) price guide I’ve bought with a downloadable version and that has come in very handy.

2009? Are you mad? Those prices are hopelessly out of date! I’ve heard that from some other collectors, some who I’ve traded with and have asked me what I’ll pay for, say, 1968 and/or 1969 commons. When I tell them my price,  they demur, telling me there’s no way I’m getting cards for those prices these days. When I tell them I do, almost always, I’m accused of picking off some poor dealer who has no idea of value. I have never been unable to get commons, low numbers and high, and semi- to real stars, even superstars, for what the ’09 catalog quotes.

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My reality has been that I’m never far off from paying 2009 guide prices and have consistently finished sets well below book. I struggle sometimes to get those decade old prices, but I do end up getting them. When I have to pay a bit more, it’s usually for a better condition card than my usually EX, or something truly has gone out of whack. (The 1952 Parkhurst Bob Betz springs to mind, a card that seems more scarce than the books think it is.) When I feel like I may have missed some seismic shift in the market, I either have someone online email me a scan of a more recent price guide or I sneak a peek at Barnes and Noble. There’s usually been no real change.

The biggest fluke in all this is how lucky I’ve been to use 2009 as a baseline. It was clearly a good pricing year. This week I closed the door on my 1968 Topps set, getting a solidly EXMT Ryan rookie for $230. More than the $175 I was hoping to pay for in EX, but a much nicer card and a bargain for an EXMT. I turned to my older books out of curiosity.

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The 2000 Standard Catalog has the Ryan at $400 in EX. The 1993 Beckett has the card in VG-E (an interesting lumping of two different conditions) for $650! Thank the heavens for 2009!

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I’ll stick to 2009 as long as that’s tenable and there’s no sign it won’t be. In fact, I’m slowly putting together a 1933 Tattoo Orbit set and, while I know I’ll pay up for some big stars, the Ivy Andrews, a short print that booked for $225 in VG in 2009 was mine for $39.06 (and in VG-EX to boot!).