Those Damned Slabs!

I love the feel of cards. Not modern glossy cards and definitely not those uber-glossy, oily mid-‘90’s cards that stick together when stacked! I hate those.

In 1998 I started working on the 1963 Fleer set. It seemed easy to put together from scratch, a 66 card set with one harder to find checklist. I lucked out with a few reasonably priced lots, then, since I was already hooked on eBay, started hunting down stars. I did well, finding EX-MT or better cards for reasonable prices. Soon enough, I’d have the whole set and sock it away in a box, my preferred method of storage.

Then I started winning auctions for graded cards. Not because I preferred them (see tactile thoughts above), but because the price was right. Now I had a dilemma. How to store the set? I couldn’t put nearly all of a complete set in a box and put what would end up as four graded cards somewhere separate. I thought about cracking the holders, but I’m pretty feeble when it comes to the most basic skills and, for sure, that would have resulted in ruined cards and me bleeding. So I ended up putting 63 cards in top loaders and finding a box to hold those and the oversized graded cards. Now, when I look at that set, I don’t get the enjoyment of having a stack of 50+ year old cardboard in my hands.

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The rise of the graded card ruined the hobby for me (until recently). I get it – it provides a certain consistency of grading, better than the old days when you had to take the seller’s word for how a card looked (though putting up actual scans goes a long way in accurately portraying raw cards). It definitely made it easier to buy online with confidence and, in the beginning, it made sense to grade stars and superstars, but when commons started getting graded, it killed the joy of completing sets for me (again, until recently). Every card in remotely nice shape was slabbed.

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I came up with a solution to knock me out of my card doldrums and the problems of slabbing. Starting last year, I completed a 1971 Topps baseball set in a condition only a fool would grade. Many many are EX-MT, some pretty sharp for a set notorious for chipping and bad centering. A lot are VG at best and some look like they were run over by a car, repeatedly. Still, now I can pull out the box and flip through them all, getting that smooth sensation from the fronts and that rough feel of the backs.

Still, as I work to complete multiple older sets, I’m running into the problem of key cards in slabs. I’m not sure what to do – pass them up and wait for a raw card, or suck it up and end up with a card or two in slabs? I know what I’d prefer – raw cards only – but I know that price will dictate results, exactly like it did almost 20 years ago.

Shows, real and virtual

I’ve been on eBay since 1998, but my frequency of visits since last July, both as a buyer and as a seller, is ridiculous. I’m checking in all day, all the time, but I wouldn’t have it any other way. I remember the hassles of card shows.

Starting in 1973 (yes, 1973!), I attended at least one big show per year. Back then, there were only one or two big shows in all of New York, either at a church whose name escapes me or the Roosevelt Hotel. We would drive in from Long Island for the day and I’d spend my dearly saved $100 very carefully. I got some good stuff back then, missed out on more.

By the mid-‘80’s, I started frequenting shows a bit more, both locals and nationals. The Chicago National shows were impressive, maybe too big, and while it was fun to see all the merch on display, it could get grueling to go from table to table, looking for what I needed, haggling with dealers who held all the power and, by the end of the day, I was usually pissed off and had a headache.

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A small story: I used to go on Sundays because you could get deals. Dealers wanted to sell rather than pack up. I forget what year it was, but one dealer had an unopened box of cards I wanted. Let’s say it was $75. Another dealer came up to him and said, “I’ll give you $35 for each box.” He had three. “Sold,” and that was that.

“Can I buy one?” I asked. Maybe I offered $35, maybe $45.

“No, they’re $75 each.” You can imagine my response.

So card shows were a mixed blessing. I’d often find a lot of what I set out for, usually got as good a price as I could, but the power balance was way off. Buyers had no power other than to walk away.

eBay is great for truly sussing out what is rare and what isn’t and, even better, getting a true sense of supply and demand. Something rare may not be expensive if nobody wants it. Case in point: I’ve been working on the 2000-01 Topps Heritage Basketball set (yeah, I know that’s outside our blog’s purview) for 15 years and still need five of the short prints (1,972 of each made). I usually pick them up for $4-6, but I STILL NEED FIVE!

Having a vast amount of listings, easily found, is a  buyer’s paradise. I’ve been working on the 1949 Remar Bread set. The Billy Martin rookie is the only card that is relatively expensive, but the rest of the 32 card set won’t set me back much. In the last week, three listings for an Artie Wilson card, of varying quality, were up for auction. Wilson was a Negro League star, so there’s some additional interest there. I watched them all – one went for $20, another went for almost $40 – and the third popped up because I’ve got it tracked as a “followed search.” I bought it for $10.

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From a seller’s point of view, shows were a disaster for a normal non-dealer type person. Though I never sold anything to dealers, I watched one scene consistently unfold. Someone comes up to a table with, say, a 1952 Mantle. Dealer says, well, I can only give you $100 for it. Person says, but it’s worth $1,000. Dealer says, it’s going to be hard for me to sell, I have to keep it in inventory, I don’t have the kind of customers who pay a lot for cards, blah blah blah. Person either walks or gets ripped off.

Between eBay and PayPal the seller will give up a meaty percentage of the sale price, but it’s a fraction of what dealers would skim off the top. I’ve been selling more doubles and triples (sometimes quadruples and quintuples) to pay for cards I need. It feels great, like a solid trade, and the market rules. I usually get around what I want.

I don’t miss much about real card shows. Dealers tended to be unfriendly, fellow collectors absorbed in their quest. Even went I went with a friend we’d go our separate ways, with different want lists in hand. What’s there to miss? Plus, I can go to a card show on eBay whenever I want. In fact, I bought 4 1971 Kellogg’s 3-D cards at dinner last night, right in the middle of my Chicken Tikka Masala!

The Heroes of Battle Creek

The filthy, vacuous, spiritually empty 1970’s was equally barren for collectors. If America is going to be great again, let’s hope that the ‘70’s aren’t the reference point. Yet, out of this wasteland emerged a hero, riding in from the unlikeliest of places – Battle Creek, Michigan.

kelloggs-1970-maysKellogg’s began their 3-D cards in 1970 with a stunning 75 card set.  It’s a fantastic checklist of players, star filled, simply lovely design. The 3-D effect, only recently surpassed in Avatar, worked, especially in small gaps – between a player’s arm and his head, between his bat and body. In these little glimpses of the background, magic happened.

I had a few cards from 1970-1972, but it was only in 1973 that I noticed the mail-in form on the box and sent in for a full set. Getting that brick of 3-card panels in the mail was a joy, and it only cost $1.25 and two Raisin Bran box tops. Having that set put me at the ready for upcoming issues, and sent me back to get 1970 and 1972. That damned ’71 set was the only one not available through the mail and, as a result, was much harder to come by, either complete or individually. It still is.

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Even back then, collectors knew there were two problems with cards – they’d curl and, in time, they’d crack. I was on the problem early. I’d get a set and immediately bind them like a Chinese woman’s feet, but with less pain. My ingenious process was to put two pieces of cardboard on both the front and back of the set and strap the cards in tightly with rubber bands. The cardboard prevented rubber band marks on the first and last cards. It was a pretty good system and held the cards solidly in place for decades. Over time, some bands would get flabby, some would break, but it worked. What curl I had was manageable. Maybe one or two cards in all of my sets have cracks, and I think they arrived that way.

That was what held them until a few years ago. My friend Jimmy, as a thank you for another great Cooperstown Induction weekend, sent me a box of hard top loaders and inner sleeves (is that what they’re called? I may be confusing the term with records). It was a complete surprise and the perfect gift; I would never buy that kind of stuff myself. I was consumed for weeks with placing old 3-D cards in their new holders. I hadn’t looked at all of these cards in years. Thankfully, 1970’s me did a solid job on keeping the cards flat and it was an easy transition. Now, all my Kellogg’s sets (save 1973) are flat and stay flat in their new homes.

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I’ve been thinking of finishing off the run. I don’t have 1982 and 1983, easy enough to come by and cheap, but in looking at 1971, that damned 1971 set, I don’t have enough critical mass of single cards to pursue the full set. I don’t want to go cheap on that one and start down a cracked path. We all know the bad luck that surrounds cracks, whether in mirrors, concrete or 1971 Clarence Gaston cards.

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Finding the Right Woman (and the Right Card)

I think a lot of us went through a phase where we recognized that collecting cards wasn’t cool, that making it known at 18, 20, 22 years old that we were working on completing our 1967 Topps set was not the best pickup line. “Hey, how’s it going? I gotta tell you, finding a Near Mint Juan Pizarro high number is really tough. Can I buy you a drink?” It doesn’t work.

I gave up on cards during college, though I’d occasionally buy packs. Once graduated (and single), I made up for lost time and bought the sets I’d missed from 1981-1984 (though not the 1984 Fleer Update, dumb!). Then I got back on the trail of my 1967 set.

You know you’ve met “The One” when you can openly fess up to what you perceive as your most embarrassing traits. Karen was “The One,” and not only did she quickly know I collected cards, but she came with me to shows! That’s true love. It was at one show, I think in New Jersey (let’s just say New Jersey, it’s a good setting), that having Karen along made all the difference.

Down to my final few ‘67’s, I found a dealer with a nice supply in nice condition. I got what I could and now, with one card to go, but the one card I didn’t see, I asked – “Do you have a Red Sox team card?”

“I don’t,” I heard him say, or was it “no,” I can’t recall. Whatever it was, it was bad.

I bought the cards he did have and we walked away from the table.

“I can’t believe he didn’t have the last card I needed,” I said, moaning the words out, Eeyore style.

“No, he did have it,” Karen said. “He said ‘I have it someplace else.’”

Really? How did I miss that? We headed right back and Karen was dead right. He had the card, it was in another box behind his table. He got it and it was beautiful. Thanks to Karen, it was mine.

Sure, I would have gotten the Sox team card eventually, yet, in my mind, I never would have completed the set without Karen. It’s a better story that way and that moment is eternally connected to that set and this card:

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Organized Baseball (cards)

I had two eye surgeries last week. Two! The retina in my right eye got detached, seemingly around 3 months ago, but I only noticed it a few weeks ago when the damage entered my field of vision. The surgeries were successful, but it’s going to take a while before I have improved vision in the eye.

While eye issues kept me from my weekly baseball cards blog post, they didn’t keep me from the cards themselves. I had some stuff to put away and I went fishing for doubles, triples, quadruples I could list on EBay. Though my vision was problematic, it didn’t deter me from easily retrieving what I needed. Why? Because I’m so friggin’ organized!

I’ve always been pro-long box. They are the most effective, and efficient, way to store cards. They also are best because I can access the cards. If you haven’t read Mark Armour’s “Death of a Museum” post, do so. It hits me right where I live. I love to handle my cards and pulling them out of boxes is a real pleasure.

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The only downside to my system is that I have used and reused the same boxes. They’re all labelled, but some are labelled on both ends. I thought I had averted mass confusion, but it took my three weeks to find some old football doubles and I was driven to near madness. Turns out I had them filed under 1992 baseball. Still, I was organized enough to realize (eventually) how I could track them down.

Some sets are still in their original boxes, if need be. I have pulled some sets out when their initial resting place bugged me. 1980’s Donruss came in the worst boxes, flaps folded inside the box. That always struck me as corner dinging by design.

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I use albums and sleeves on occasion. Mostly it’s for oversized cards that won’t fit into regular size boxes. A few “normal” card sets are in sheets. I have no criteria for what makes it to an album enshrinement, but some do. It’s not nearly so satisfying to thumb through Ultra Pro sleeves as it is to have a handful of cards, but it does make it easier to show them to others who may not be as sensitive to handling other people’s stuff.

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I have a close friend who is also a collector and, to be kind, less organized. It leads him to worry that when he kicks the bucket, his cards will find their way to the dumpster. I’ve offered my services for when his demise comes. Still, it would behoove him, and all, to get their card houses in order. If you won’t do it for yourself, at least do it for your family!

 

Note: I am immensely curious how people keep their cards and how they enjoy them. Feel free to drop a comment on that.

 

Split Season sets (or, how writing a book invariably led to more cards)

The split season of 1981, the year of Fernandomania, the Bronx Zoo and the strike that saved baseball, was Year One in the explosion in card collecting that marked the next decade and more. All of a sudden, there were a lot of choices for collectors.

An important historical note recounted in my book, Split Season: 1981,Fernandomania, The Bronx Zoo and the Strike that Saved Baseball (see how I subtly introduced the title in the opening sentence?) is the lawsuit that ended the Topps monopoly. Here are the relevant paragraphs:

In spring, millions turned to a time honored system of information gathering – baseball cards. The turmoil in baseball, the interweaving of business and sport, of tradition and progress, was mirrored in the collectible world. Topps, the only card company that generations had grown up on, had competition for the first time in 25 years. Like free agency, the decision came from an outside arbiter.

Cards were big business, 500 million traded, collected and clothes-pinned on bicycle spokes every year, generating $10 million in revenue. It was no wonder others wanted in.  When Fleer first challenged Topps in 1959, Topps had nearly every player under an exclusive deal. In 1975, the same year the first free agent, “Catfish” Hunter, was pushed out into an open market, Fleer filed a $13.6 mil suit against the Topps monopoly.

It took almost six years to end. On June 30, 1980, it was ruled that Topps and the players’ association had violated the Sherman Antitrust Act, restraining trade in the card market violation of.  The players’ association, much to Miller’s shock, were sued as well because, they had only licensed Topps. Miller disagreed with Topps’ assertion of exclusivity, but by not granting other companies the same right, the union had helped Topps remain the only cardboard in town. The players’ association was thrilled, for once, to lose. They saw more licensing money on the horizon.

For all of Fleer’s work in the courts, it was a Memphis concern, Donruss, which jumped in first. Fleer, seeing the normal calendar compress, released its full set before the Super Bowl, rather than the customary mid-February date. Statistical errors were numerous, with Bobby Bonds credited with 936 career home runs. The cards came out too early to picture the recent crop of free agents in fresh garb. Winfield as a Padre, Fisk and Lynn as a Red Sox, made the new cards outdated on arrival. Each company had a hard time completely covering the expected top rookies. Topps featured Tim Raines in a triptych of future Expos stars. Fernando Valenzuela got the same treatment. Donruss offered a full, more in focus, solo card of an incredibly young looking Raines, his big Afro pushing his cap skywards, an empty Wrigley Field lower level in the background.  Fleer had the only Valenzuela card, though he was labeled “Fernand” Valenzuela.

The flood of new product, giving every purchaser a free choice, would lead to an explosion of the hobby. By year-end, three times the number of cards were collected. The union garnered an additional $600,000 in revenue. An open market was good for paper images of the players; why not for the real thing?

In those moments during research and writing, while my mind wandered, and needed to, I searched EBay for 1981 sets I didn’t have. Of course, I had the three big base sets, and the Topps Traded set, but there were plenty of new offerings.

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Topps produced 12 card sets, for 11 MLB teams. (They produced a Yankee set but that was never issued. Only three players are out there – Goose Gossage, Reggie Jackson and Rick Cerone.).

Rather than buy sets team by team, I held out for the full run of 132 cards. It was well worth it. They are very nice and, in some instances, have different pictures than the regular 1981 cards. The Sutton card is the missing link between his base card and his Traded card.

1981 Topps Giant Photo Cards 

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Perhaps in the Top 5 (at least Top 10) of most beautiful card sets, these 5” X 7” borderless glossies are a dream. Again, Topps issued team sets, or geographic sets, but the key for me was getting the whole set, all 102 oversized pics. I had a few of these when they came out but 1) only Yankees and Mets were sold in New York and, 2) who has the time to buy one card packs? This is the perfect set for Rob Neyer, who wrote recently for the blog about how much he likes borderless cards.

Tom Burgmeier never looked so good.

1981 Topps Scratchoffs

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Perhaps in the Bottom 5 (at least Bottom 10) of ugliest and pointless Topps sets. Three game cards to a card, perforated, the pictures small, players looking at, or averting their eyes from, the 24 black dots as if they were the plague. Not worth the time or money (small though it is at around $10.)

1981 Topps Stickers and Album

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Topps obviously decided that the best way to counter the Donruss and Fleer cards that now cluttered the market was to flood the market with more Topps sets. These are kinda nice, kinda silly, this big set of 262 flimsy little stickers features enough fine photography to make it interesting. Plus, it’s ridiculously cheap, less than a ten spot. I bought the album as well but there’s no sticking in my future.

1981 Fleer Star Stickers

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Maybe not as nice as the Topps sticker set, a bit more cluttered in design, a bit smaller set (128) but bigger cards. Plus, a loose-leaf binder is virtually naked without a Bake McBride sticker on the front.

1981 Drake’s

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The first Drake’s set since 1950 (the awesome “TV Baseball Series” cards), this 32 card gem was made in conjunction with Topps and is sweet, with great action shots of the “Big Hitters” of the day – and Joe Charboneau.

 

There were a few other sets I picked up – Kellogg’s 3-D (oddly, I had stopped buying those sets in 1980), the O-Pee-Chee Expos/Blue Jays poster set – and I had a few others – the Dodgers Police set and about 22% of all the minor league sets put out in 1981. I have no desire to pursue any more minor league sets, but I will make note of perhaps the best card of 1981. The TCMA Albuquerque Dukes set at first had a Sandy Koufax card, and then didn’t. Koufax was coaching in the Dodger chain that year.

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As for what’s left, there are some Police sets that don’t grab me (Braves, Royals, Mariners) and MSA/Peter Pan/Sunbeam discs that are bland beyond belief. When I bought the Towne Club disc set in 1976, discs of logo-less players seemed cool. Not by 1981, not now.

I may go after the Granny Goose A’s set, though searching for the short print Dave Revering card feels like an empty hunt. The only set remaining in my sights is the Squirt set. It’s not that big, not that expensive and I feel that not having anything in my collection labelled “Squirt” is a big void.

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A F*ck Face Story for the Holidays

Soon after the 1989 Fleer baseball cards were released, word spread that there was an obscenity on Billy Ripken’s bat. In those pre-Internet days, every article, whether in the hobby mags or regular newspapers, spoke of the “obscenity,” but what that obscenity was was a mystery to me. The mainstream press wouldn’t actually use the term, and there was no way to find out. At least I didn’t know how to find out, unless I got the card.

Getting the card seemed harder than you’d think. I couldn’t find packs anywhere and it was clear that when the set came in the mail (I’d order all the base sets back then), I’d end up with a corrected card. It was pretty frustrating.

Karen and I were already living in Buffalo Grove, Illinois in the spring of ’89. We’d moved to Chicago in early ’87 and headed to the suburbs the following year. It must’ve been a Saturday morning that I had to drive to the Jewel. On the way home I stopped for gas at the Amoco (I’m pretty sure it was an Amoco) at the corner of Buffalo Grove and 83 (McHenry Rd). I filled up and went inside to pay. No futuristic credit card readers at the pumps, kids, these were primitive times.

Before paying I scanned the candy racks and there, with the lid torn off, was a full box of 1989 Fleer! What the hell? Of all place to find some cards, let alone a full box. I grabbed it and brought it home.

Maybe I’d already told Karen about the Ripken card. Maybe I explained the whole story as I put the box on the dining room table. Either way, my idea was that we’d both open all the packs, the quickest route to finding out what the fuss was all about. We started.

Pack after pack was opened, wrappers placed in a pile between us. Early hopes led to sudden fears and, as the amount of unopened packs dwindled to the last few, I was getting nervous and angry.  I have no idea what a single pack of cards went for in 1989 but a whole box of them was a pretty big waste of money if the Ripken didn’t turn up. I was already getting the set. I didn’t need a pile of doubles.

I opened one of my final packs, head down, shuffling through the 15 cards (and sticker).

_3“F*ck face?” Karen said with equal bits of surprise and smile.

She’d gotten it! Yup, f*ck face. Of all the obscenities, f*ck face? What a ridiculous thing to write on the knob of a bat. It was hysterical to see – f*ck face. Karen did it!

By the time the set arrived in the mail, f*ck face had been obscured in a variety of ways – black box, black scribble, white scribble, white out. I think I have a black box variation. Who cares though, it was f*ck face that mattered.