Thinning out our collections

Perhaps this is a sequel (or prequel) to my prior post, which reflects the ultimate thinning out of a collection. Certainly it’s something that’s been on my mind as I’ve sorted through cards, old and new, and every now and then landed a card I couldn’t wait to display somewhere only to find no vacancy in the “man cave.”

This made a post from a fellow SABR member particularly apropos this morning.

I definitely have too much stuff. Some would even say way too much stuff. And yet, like most collectors, I am always looking to add more.

Back in 2015 or so I made a rule that strikes me today as quite healthy. I’d only buy cards I planned to display⁠. I recognized back then that almost none of my enjoyment of cards came from the dozens of boxes on my shelves, no matter what they contained: complete sets, near complete sets, assorted Dodgers, etc.

Since then I stretched the definition of display to include cards in binders, which I genuinely do enjoy, but I also managed to accumulate an awful lot more of what I don’t enjoy, at least not actively: cards in boxes, cards in piles, cards I forgot I had, etc.

PART ONE: BULK

The term “bulk” might not do justice to these cards since after all there are some nice complete sets among them, many of which I worked hard to build from packs and trades when I was younger. Still, truth is truth. I used to enjoy these cards a lot but today not so much.

Ultimately I think there are three reasons collectors hang on to their bulk.

  • They haven’t come to terms with how little they enjoy it.
  • They’re reluctant to take a loss, either compared to what they paid, what they think the cards are worth, or what they think the cards could be worth later.
  • Doing nothing generally takes far less effort than doing something.

While the best solution depends centrally on the collector, my recommendation, which I do plan to follow, is this.

  • Take the time to snap some pics and offer it all for local pickup using a service like Facebook Marketplace or Craigslist.
  • Price to sell, but don’t feel the need to take pennies on the dollar, at least not right away.
  • But do be prepared to lower the price a good 10% or so each week until everything is gone.

I’ll add that selling all the bulk as a single listing is far less work and hassle than selling piecemeal, though this approach will take some money out of your pocket.

PART TWO: THE GOOD STUFF

If my only goal we’re to have less, I could stop there and feel great. However, I am also confronting the reality that most of the cards I want right now are fairly pricey and beyond what I can spend in good conscience. (This term means different things to different people. In my case, it generally means $40 or so.) As such, I’m taking a hard look at selling some of the very best stuff in my collection to free up money I can spend on what I at least think I want more.

Two examples are my Cuban Mel Ott card from 1946-47 and my autographed 1952 Mother’s Cookies Mel Ott. I freaking LOVE Mel Ott, and I’ve spent several years building up my Mel Ott collection. On the other hand, at least lately, I’ve decided I love Carl Hubbell even more.

Plus, my two Mel Ott cards are slabbed, which I know is an added bonus for many collectors (if not de rigueur) but for me segregates them from my beloved “old cards” binder. (I do know there are sheets sized for slabs, but the point is I’d want my Mel Ott cards on the same page(s) as my other Mel Ott cards.)

So is it the plan to sell these Mel Ott cards (and others!) to buy more Hubbell? As I type this I’m still deciding. Similar decisions await me as the owner of three Brooklyn Dodger team sets, all missing the most expensive card: 1909-11 T206 minus Dahlen, 1911 T205 minus Wilhelm, and 1955 Topps minus Koufax. Could the Bird-Magic rookie I pulled as a kid help me complete any of those sets?

I’ve also very recently taken a liking to early Pacific Coast League cards of the Los Angeles area teams: the Angels of course but also the Vernon/Venice Tigers.

Would I give up the nicer of my two Albert Einstein “rookie cards” to go well beyond the four T212 Obak beaters I currently have?

At the moment, this INCREDIBLE card lives in a box and is downright neglected compared to its double that I enjoy each time I open that “old cards” binder.

This is not about blowing up my collection or getting rid of everything. I see it more as optimizing my collection. Where my current collection (mostly) reflects the cards that gave me the most joy at the time I acquired them, is there a chance to reshape it into a collection that gives me more joy now?

Unlike shedding bulk, the decisions here can’t be taken lightly. They’re a gamble. What if I’m wrong? What if a second page of vintage Hubbell cards isn’t all I imagine it to be? Yes, I’d love to complete my T205 Brooklyn set, but who trades a gorgeous Einstein rookie for a beat up Kaiser Freaking Wilhelm? Yes, I’d love to add the 1952 Bowman Brooklyn set to my binder but would I give up a Roy Campanella rookie card to make it happen? Jeez, this is scary territory, and I don’t really know the answers.

Still, I expect to follow some version of this in the coming months, if not as early as tonight’s vintage sales thread hosted by SABR member Dylan Brennan. I’m sure I’ll make some bad decisions along the way, but the good news is I don’t have to bat 1.000 here. I just need to get more right than wrong. And besides, it’s only cardboard. (Wait, did I really say that just now? Strike that remark from the record! Where’s the backspace? Where’s the undo? Somebody call a doctor!)

When our cards outlive us

Most of the baseball card collectors I knew as a kid eventually outgrew their collections in favor of girls, cars, college, drugs, or any number of other things more grown up. Not me though. And if you’re reading this article, my guess is not you either. We may just keep on collecting till the day we die.

But then what?

On days when my thoughts drift a bit dark I imagine myself in the past tense as my wife and son examine the mighty cardboard empire still occupying their basement. The thought of throwing it all away, as abhorrent as it may seem, might well be a frontrunner in their minds, particularly given the time and effort it would take to figure out what’s valuable and how to sell it.

Yes, I think they both know I have some valuable cards, but which ones? Are they the ones framed on the walls? Some, but I can only imagine the response they’d get if they hauled my framed (and glued!) collection of 1989 Topps Dodgers to the local card shop hoping for a life-changing offer.

What about the cards on the shelf? Good news for them if they grab my 1954 Topps Jackie Robinson. Not as good news if they grab my Gummy Arts Joe Kelly or Project 70 Cody Bellinger.

How about my binders? Let’s just hope they grab the one with my T206 and 1933 Goudey and not my 1981 Fleer Star Stickers set.

Way back when, I never imagined I’d ever need a plan for my cards beyond passing the collection on to my son. Little did I know he’d have no interest in cards at all. I asked him a few years ago what he would do if he ended up with my card collection. Only half jokingly he told me he’d burn the Dodgers and sell the rest, which is of course as heartbreaking as it is hilarious.

So is there plan? No, not yet, but I’m at least starting to think through some ideas.

My guess is that my collection, like most collections, follows some version of the 80-20 rule. That is, nearly the entire value of my collection resides in a rather small fraction of my cards. Simply making and sharing a Google Sheet of the 10 most valuable cards (or perhaps sets) in my collection, along with instructions on where to find them and how to sell them, allows my wife or son to spend minutes rather than months going through my cards and still end up with a pretty good payday.

What’s left after that would still be a shame to throw out but likely not worth my family’s time to figure out. My idea here is that there might be a small number of short lists that my wife or a friend could attempt to honor—kind of a “baseball card will.”

For example, my 1952 Dallas Eagles signed baseball would go to the family of Dave Hoskins, and my Diamond Stars Brooklyn set would go to Chad who runs the Dodger Cards twitter account. I’d also love it if my SABR Chicago friends came by and grabbed some cards too, whether a handful or a car full.

Beyond that, could it be that the simplest and most sensible thing to do would be to throw the rest away? The most important thing is that my cards don’t become a burden to my family, so I can’t discount the idea entirely. Still, I’d probably encourage one of two alternatives if easy enough to accomplish.

When the time comes, will I have any collector friends who would want everything left enough to come haul it away for free? And if not, even putting it all on Facebook Marketplace for some nominal amount spares my family some work and hopefully puts a ton of cards with someone who values them.

A final angle I’ll mention is museums or other venues where cards might be enjoyed by the masses. To have any of my cards go this route would be an incredible honor but ultimately an unlikely one. The reality here is that very few donations of cards or memorabilia ever end up on display, instead collecting dust in a warehouse or storage room. I’m also sober enough about my collection to recognize that nearly nothing of mine is of museum quality.

That said, let me know, Hank Aaron Museum, if you’d have room on your walls for Mr. Aaron’s career in cardboard…

…and let me know, Dodgers, if my favorite stadium could use some additional décor.

While I don’t dislike the planning I’ve just laid out, I know a much more courteous approach with my collection is to dispose of it before I die rather than kick the can down the road for loved ones to deal with. The challenge of course, since death is generally unplanned, is to know when to do this. I’d like to think it’s when I no longer enjoy my collection, but gosh, that could be never, and it’s most certainly not yet.

How about you? How are you tackling the topic? Let the rest of us know in the comments.

UPDATE: Inspired by this post, I just put together my “baseball card will.” It more or less turned out how I described it above, but I ended up listing more than just ten cards to sell. It may well be more like a few hundred now but many are kept together (e.g., 1959 Fleer Ted Williams set) so I still think my wife or son could find and gather everything in under an hour.

On the alluring promise of an unopened pack

I took the kids out the other day to hit some balls. It’s been a bit of a frustrating summer in terms of weather—stifling humidity, or thunderstorms with leveling winds and torrential downpours—but we hit a sweet stretch of sunny, high-skied days, so we grabbed one by the lapels and the four of us headed out shortly after breakfast. We had four gloves, nine balls, and four bats: two aluminum, my old ash Slugger with Junior’s signature burned into it, and a bamboo Mizuno I picked up this spring. We had one batting helmet to pass between us. We also found a half-finished pouch of Big League Chew in the bottom of the old gym bag we use to carry our stuff. All signs pointed to this being a good day.

We do this pretty often. In this house taking the kids to a diamond to play catch, field grounders, shag flies, and thwack balls on hot summer days is as non-negotiable an aspect of the season as eating fresh cherries, sleeping with the windows open, and canoeing across smooth water to take a cooling dip in the buggy, violet dusk.

On this particular day I was wearing a Pirates tee with the old grinning pirate logo—the one that looks like a lobby card for a swashbuckler starring Dean Martin—and my son’s cast off Peterborough Tigers house league cap, mesh and adjustable, which he abandoned the moment he made the rep team, whereupon I swooped in to claim it. I finished off the ensemble with cut-off Levi’s and a pair of shabby running shoes. The kids all pretty much follow my sartorial lead, though given that they’re fifteen (my daughter) and eleven (her twin brothers), it doesn’t read for them like the cry for help it probably is for me. Among the hard lessons of adulthood is that what plays when you’re a kid doesn’t necessarily retain its currency as you age. I still haven’t fully internalized that one, as evidenced by my eBay search history.

We drove to a nearby diamond hemmed by a pair of busy roads and a construction site. A crane towered over centerfield. But the outfield grass was a thick, brilliant green—all that rain—and the freshly-raked dirt of the infield promised true bounces. Taking the first step onto that groomed and untrodden earth felt a lot like tearing open a brand new pack of cards. Maybe that’s why I hesitated.

Unopened packs are some powerful stuff, psychically, spiritually, precisely because you just don’t know what’s inside. I mean, you know what’s inside in broad terms—the packaging tells you, if it’s doing its job. But the specifics elude you, and that’s when the imagination takes over, making room for hope and anticipation. The box of 2021 Topps Series 2 that sits on my shelf tantalizes by virtue of its newness and the possibilities it represents, and that’s why, though I love opening cards with my kids, taking turns drafting until all the cards are gone, I also relish holding off on even telling them that I’ve picked up a new box or pack. Part of that is the joy of surprise, but the bulk of it is that hope, ephemeral and addictive. Maybe Tatis, Jr. waits to be taken, or Soto. There might be an Ohtani. There might even be a Vlad, Jr. In our house, that’d be the first card chosen. We’re a little crazy about Vlad.

Less exciting for the kids, by virtue of simple math, is the hanger pack of 1990 Donruss that I’ve been holding on to for a couple of years. It’s funny that I should be so reverent of that set, which I collected, but did not love, in its year of issue, with its funky and immodest Memphis Milano design cues, and the fact that I was at the time primarily obsessed with Upper Deck’s offerings. But I found this cellophaned relic in a junk shop a few years ago, where it was underpriced, sitting next to NASCAR models and board games marked “MISSING PIECES,” so I brought it home, and it has rested within arm’s reach of my desk ever since, waiting for a day that seemed to beckon toward the finality of tearing open its brittle envelope and revealing its contents.

That those contents might underwhelm is both a statistical probability and a compelling argument for leaving the packaging untroubled, and the mystery it cradles intact. Already there are indications that the cache could disappoint; the three cards visible through the clear wrapper are Jose Uribe (SFG), Clint Zavaras (SEA), and Brian Holton (BAL). I mean no disrespect to any of those men, but short of family has anyone ever longed to see those names when they crack open a fresh pack? You’re looking for Griffey, Bo Jackson, Barry Bonds, a Larry Walker rookie card, not commons and filler.

Hope for one outcome and the suspicion that another is all that awaits; this is the fine tension that fuels the excitement of an unopened pack of baseball cards. The only thing preserving this delicate balance is the packaging, be it waxed paper sealed with glue, a foil pouch, rectilinear cardboard, or clear plastic. Once breached, the mystery—and the promise—evaporates. Maybe Vladdy’s in there, maybe he isn’t, but knowing he is, or knowing he isn’t, isn’t as interesting as not knowing that he is, or isn’t. Ignorance is bliss, while hope is divine.

The kids didn’t hesitate to step onto the dirt, of course. Theirs were the first footprints on the unspoiled infield. They charged ahead and I followed, and we lay all our stuff at the foot of the chain-link backstop. We put on our gloves and started tossing a ball around. When the ball hit the dirt it left round impact craters and, from rollers, long runnels like sandworm tracks. Before long we’d collaborated on an original work, an abstract in dirt, a study in forms.

Then the bats came out. I walked to the mound and lay down a cluster of balls, most of which were worn and scuffed—last year’s crop, from the box I ordered to give us something to replace all the balls we were losing over the backyard fence during early pandemic games of catch. Of that batch of a dozen there are now six left untouched, gleaming and beautiful in their box, other iterations of promise, threats of diminishment. On this day I brought two of those fresh pearls, smooth and white, because there’s nothing like hitting a new ball. My son stepped in, waggled his bat, and I began serving up fat cookies right over the heart of the plate, which he hacked and whacked all over the field, leaving more craters and lines. His siblings fielded the balls and tossed them back in.

The kids took turns at bat and sullied the new balls, and it was glorious. Dribblers, stingers, high pop flies. The orbs picked up grass, dirt, scratches in their soft hides. They’re still brighter than the other balls, but a little less clean, and in time they’ll show evidence of heavy use, which is as it should be. An unused baseball is, I think, a tiny crime against the universe.

The cards, too, will eventually be opened. Let’s face it, I lack the willpower to hold out forever. The balance will tilt until it overwhelms me, and I’ll succumb to a moment of high-grade hope, and maybe there will be a gem or two buried within. Vlad, or Larry Walker, or Andre Dawson. And if no superstar appears, no Hall of Famer, or member of the Hall of Very Good—or even the Annex of Guys Who You Know Aren’t Very Good, But You Root For Them Anyway—the disappointment will dissolve nearly as soon as it sets in. There are no real stakes in this, and that’s what’s so wonderful about it.

Little Stamps Everywhere

1969 Topps stamps

In 1969 a boy or girl could go to the store to buy baseball cards, discover that they did not yet have the new series, and instead spend his hard-earned nickels on baseball stamps. The stamps were not “inserts”, they were sold separately. For 5 cents, you could get a stick of gum, a 12 stamp panel (perforated for easy separation) and a team album in which you could place 10 stamps. If this makes you think of hot dogs, you are not alone.

If you bought a single pack, you might get this Cleveland Indians album, but no Cleveland Indians stamps. What good is that? It was a model that essentially required that you buy more packs if you wanted to collect them. Lots more packs. To complete the set (I know of no one who did this, or even really tried to do this) you would need to buy at least 24 packs to get the 24 albums. This would give you 288 stamps. Each of the team albums needed 10 stamps, so if you were incredibly lucky you’d fill up your albums and have 48 extra stamps.

Topps could have made this a lot easier by creating 20 unique panels, each with a non-overlapping group of 12 stamps. Collect these 20 panels, and you have your stamps. “Hey, I am missing the one with Tommy Davis in the upper-left, do you have that one?” Easy-peasy.

But, no.

First of all, the panels came in one of two different configurations: either 6 rows of 2, or 2 rows of 6.

Vertical alignment
Horizontal alignment

My memory is that in Southeastern Connecticut we got the vertical configuration. If either configuration is folded in thirds, the resulting 2×2 shape is the size of a standard baseball card, and fit nicely in the pack.

Second, the master sheets were not divided in a consistent way. There are many more than 20 possible sheets, so kids would have to trade individual stamps to complete their Indians booklet. In the below panel, the left-most four stamps are the same as the rightmost four above.

Horizontal panel

It was not completely random. If you get a horizontal panel with Larry Dierker in the upper left, you got this 12-stamp configuration. And apparently there are ways to put together a full set with 20 panels of 12 stamps, though I have not tried to figure out who the magic “upper left” players are that will allow you to do this. (If you have the answer, please let me know in the comments.) More likely, you will collect a bunch of panels with overlapping populations, so you will need a lot of stamps.

If you take a look at some of these hatless and black-hat photos, you will recognize that you are in 1969. As a reminder, that year Topps was beset with four new expansion teams, problems with the Astros, and a player boycott, and many of these photos were a few years old. You can tell that the stamps came out early in the spring, because all of the 1969 photo issues are in play.

We also know these were put together early by looking at how Topps handled Hoyt Wilhelm. Wilhelm was a great pitcher destined for the Hall of Fame, but he was 46 years old and beginning the nomadic phase of his career. He was pitching very well (1.73 ERA in 93 innings in 1968), but after the season the White Sox did not protect him in the expansion draft. Who’s going to draft a 46-year-old?

On October 15, the Kansas City Royals selected him in the draft. On December 12 he was traded to the Angels. Meaning that he was property of the Royals for 58 days.

During these 58 days, Topps put together the Royals album and the Wilhelm stamp.

Topps used Wilhelm’s likeness in a few other sets that year. In the 1969 flagship he was in the sixth series (late summer) and is on the Angels. He is in the decal set as an Angel. He in on the Angels team poster. The only other time he shows up as a Royal is in the deckle-edged set. Although his team name is not listed, we know he is a Royal because of how the checklist is laid out –he was the only Royal. In fact, his trade to the Angels (and Topps desire to have every team represented) caused Topps to replace him in the set with Joe Foy, one of two “variations” in that set. (The other, Rusty Staub giving way to Jim Wynn, was the result of Staub’s trade to the Expos and the need for an Astro deckle.)

1969 team poster

Of these five items, four use the same photo, but the stamp (Royals) was most likely designed first, then the deckle-edged (Royals, replaced), then the poster and flagship (Angels), and then the decal (different image, with Angel hat/uniform drawn on).

OK, so what’s the point? The point, as always, is whether (and how) I would want to collect all of this today. Over the years I have realized that I really like the look of the stamp panels and I have haphazardly been “collecting” them. By which I mean if I see one (horizontal) at a decent price that I don’t already have I will attempt to acquire it. I have 17 different, though the prices, like everything else, have risen sharply recently. On occasion I will see a large sheet of 240 stamps which I would hang in my house except that I’d have to sell my house to afford the sheet.

I have also collected a complete set of 24 team booklets, with all stamps affixed. This is actually pretty affordable, though not as attractive or as easy to display. In this area, at least, I might side with @vossbrink’s view on the desirability of collectibles that have been used for their intended purpose. Or maybe I am just playing both sides, wanting the panels in their original configuration, but wanting the albums “used”. By this method, I own all the stamps, and can collect the panels without much regard for the player details.

As I mentioned recently with respect to the 1970/71 scratch-offs, the Topps offerings in this period are quite messy. But the mess is mainly trying to get it right (getting players on the right team, or in the right hat), not trying to rip off kids with chase cards and parallels and pieces of uniform. It was a better mess, in my view.

Images as Currency

Before I joined SABR I had a post on my own blog which looked at baseball cards and the role they played in developing my visual literacy. Over the past year of watching various Zoom presentations with my kids about the history of cards I’ve found myself realizing that I need to write a similar post about the way baseball cards also track the way that we, as humans developed visual literacy.

Baseball and baseball cards sort of eerily parallel the development and evolution of photography with a number of rough steps starting around the Civil War before finally coalescing in the late 19th Century around something that’s not changed much over the last 125 years. The thing though is that baseball cards are but a thin sliver of this development.

The hobby has a tendency to talk about cards and collecting as if they evolved as part of baseball history. I get it; we collect cards and aren’t photo historians. But I think it’s important to understand how, if anything, cards basically came along for the ride and that their history is less a history of baseball but a lesson on how we learned to use photographs and changed our relationship with celebrity.

A couple years ago I read Darcy Grimaldo Grigsby’s Enduring Truths. It’s a great book about Sojourner Truth and how she supported herself in part by selling cartes de visite. I went into the book expecting history about photographs and what they depict, and how they interact with issues of race, power, and privilege. Instead I came out with an appreciation of how printed images function within our society.

For most of human history, portraits were only accessible to the wealthy. You had to pay an extremely skilled artist to paint you and you only got one piece out of it. With the advent of photography in the mid-19th century things got a lot more accessible. Tintypes and ambrotypes were affordable* to a much wider range of people. However they are still one-off pieces. The negative itself is treated in such a way that it becomes a positive** and there is no way to make prints.

*25¢ to $2.50 during the Civil War years. So not cheap but something many soldiers or freedmen were able to acquire.

**Watching one develop is as close to seeing real magic as anyone could ever hope to see.

Napoleon III & Empress Eugenie

The next step, making prints from negatives,* opened up the age of photography as we truly know it. Rather than an image being a singular piece, prints could be made and disseminated all over the world. These quickly became cartes de visite and, later, cabinet cards. Cartes de visite are literally visiting cards but took off as soon as they began to be used as celebrity—at first royal—portaits. the resulting phenomena became known as cartomania and became a serious thing both abroad and in the United States.

*In this case albumen prints from glass negatives.

Coming back to Sojourner Truth, not only were people collecting cards, notable people like Truth were producing them for sale as well, modifying them to not only be photographs but to include messages.* Card making and collecting is not only a hobby but a business that can support people whose images are in demand.

*In Truth’s case “I sell the shadow to support the substance”

Grigsby points out that in parallel with cartomania, autograph collecting also saw a massive surge in interest during the Victorian Era as the idea of collecting expanded to include all manner of people. She also makes an amazing connection to the rise of printed, national currency following the National Bank Act and how said currency is also heavily image based. The rise of postal systems and stamps starting from 1840 to the point where we had to create an international standard in 1874 is also worth mentioning here. Stamps were immediately collected and are another way that images became currency.

Cartes de visite, stamps, autographs, etc all ended up being stored in albums and shown to visitors in ways that are shockingly familiar to any of us card collectors today. We have pages that are frequently better for preservation but both the concept and practice of the card binder emerged hand in hand with the cards themselves.

It’s impossible for me to look at sets like Old Judge or Goodwin & Company outside the collecting world which existed in this era. When images are currency and the idea of celebrity culture and “set” collection has taken such a strong hold, it’s no surprise that companies started to create cards of their own.

These are photos—cabinet cards actually—which were printed for commercial instead of personal reasons. They depict all kinds of athletes as well as actors, actresses, and other famous people. Yes they’re promotional items. But they clearly were intended to be collected and traded in the same way as the individually-produced cards were.

Cards and photography usage only begins to diverge a bit in the late 19th century when cabinet cards began to die out due to the emergence of amateur photography. At this point other forms of printed images took up the torch since cards and card collecting were firmly entrenched. Manufacturers like Allen & Ginter in the US (and many others abroad) created sports sets including baseball players, billiards shooters, boxers, and pedestrians and non-sports sets depicting animals, flowers, flags, etc. There was plenty of stuff to choose from; if you could imagine a collection there’s a decent chance there’s a set of it out there.*

*Up until World War 2 the world of trading cards was massive and wonderfully varied. This represents over eight decades of card collecting. I’ve been grabbing “pre-war”sets which cover whatever subject matter strikes my interest—from Hollywood to science to travel because they represent how cards became an affordable way to create your own wunderkammer.

One of the things I love most in this hobby is how it remains a direct connection to the way we originally used photographs. Yes I love baseball. But I also love photography and being able to experience how the the world of cartomania still survives today is fantastic.

It’s why I love the non-sport elements of the modern Ginter sets. It’s why things like exhibit cards fascinate me. It’s why I enjoy Jay Publishing, team-issued postcards, and other card-related photopacks which are aren’t necessarily cards. I can see all these different directions that the hobby could have gone in. Different ways of designing sets and releasing cards. Different concepts of who is worth depicting.

It all reaches back to the 19th century when we realized how images are currency. Something people are willing to purchase and save and trade. The history of card collecting depicts baseball. But it embodies how we learned to see and how we learned to use images.

Art Market

We don’t talk a lot about value and sales prices on this blog. This is by design. Neither Jason nor I (nor Mark nor Chris) are interested in that stuff too much and we all agree that the primary interest of this committee is in card usage. Yes value maters when it comes to putting together a collection or knowing what to expect to pay. But none of us are in this committee to talk about how we’ve made (or lost) money on cards.

At the same time, when the market goes up and new money comes in, the results affect all of us. The past year in the hobby has been wild enough to result in numerous articles over the past year about the exploding market for sports cards. Most of these are nothing new to anyone who’s been collecting for more than a couple years. At their best they serve as decent primers to anyone who hasn’t thought about cards in decades. At their worst they end up being lazy analogies comparing card prices to index funds. Almost all of them mess up some key facts, such as calling the 1952 Topps Mantle his rookie card.

I read them because sometimes there’s something interesting. Usually I’m disappointed or frustrated but a recent article in the New York Times caught my eye because it made an explicit connection to the art market.

“This is the art of the future for sports enthusiasts who have money and don’t want to buy art,” Davis said. “Pretty much everything I collect now is because I think it is a good investment and because I like the player. The common thread is, I think it will be a good investment. It’s part of the fun.”

I’ve been making this point on Twitter for a while. While many people like to think of sports cards as analogous to stocks, it’s been clear to me that the better analogy is to the art market. From the way serial-numbered cards are basically art editioning to restoration issues and catalogue raisonné issues, the hobby has been moving in a direction which takes it out of the realm that most of us grew up in.

Becoming more like the art market means that extremely rich people are buying things as part of a portfolio. Some of them might be fans. Many of them though just like the idea. But the products they’re buying and selling are going to be products that the rest of us never see in person.

Most worrisome is the likelihood that the market will be manipulated as these investors seek to prop up the values of their cards. This kind of stuff is pretty common in the art world and, despite being a Potemkin Village, seems to skirt right by the press coverage which focuses just on the latest record-setting auction price.*

*It’s also worth watching the developing Non-Fungible Token art world here.

What the two dealers were apparently attempting to do was thread the needle on the two lesser Warhols. To bid high—as much as the consignor was hoping to get—might serve to prop up values for the Warhol market at large, but would be expensive and make the paintings that much more difficult to sell down the road.

Sure this might be fun for some people. But the fun is in the making money, not the medium which enables these flips.

The thing about the art market is that many museums have let the art investor/collectors drive the business. Some museums make a big deal showing one person’s collection. Often these feature a piece from all the prescribed big names and do nothing but allow for the owner to enhance the prestige of their collection. Other museums are basically showcases for a specific collection.

I don’t inherently dislike this but it’s important to realize that the immense platform we give the expensive stuff is only a sliver of the whole picture. As baseball cards move toward this territory it’s important for us all to remember that the art market side of things has pretty much nothing to do with the way we collect and that the focus on the expensive stuff tends to remove the hand of the curator.

In art, the museum curators are in charge of what museums display, illuminating why they’re on display, and considering how they interact with other items in the same gallery. There’s no similar position in trading card world. Instead, each of us is wears that hat and our collections are our personal curatorial projects.

The expensive 1:1 stuff is not only unattainable, it’s a distraction. It makes the focus just about value and turns a lot of heads. A collection of “these are expensive cards” is ultimately as boring as an art museum which only talks about how much the paintings are worth. There’s so much more interesting stuff to do with cards. There are so many more interesting ways to collect.

Pick themes. Tell stories. Run down a rabbit hole of weird stuff that interests only you.

Use your cards. Look at them. Share them. Display them. Talk about them.

Remember that this is a personal hobby.

Topps “Bunt 20” (E-Card) Year in Review

Now that 2020 is over, and with it my first full year using Topps Bunt digital cards on my smartphone, I wanted to share two things: (1) what I thought were Bunt 20’s most noteworthy developments regarding the cards themselves; and (2) some things I learned about managing one’s cards and account.

Card-Related Developments

One obvious thing that stood out to me was the large number of card versions that were created for some players (below, Vladimir Guerrero, Jr.). This trend may well have begun prior to 2020, but as I said, it really captured my attention in 2020. A larger theme within the sports-card community is the increasing prominence of graphic artists in designing ever-more creative products.* This seems to me a likely explanation for all the versions of player cards.

Something I’m pretty sure originated in 2020 was “Free Pack Friday, with a nice-looking card of a leading player marking the date. These are some of my favorites…

Another new feature was the extension of the “Topps Now” concept to Bunt. Shown below (left) is a Now card for the September 13, 2020 no-hitter pitched by the Cubs’ Alec Mills. Other current events depicted in Bunt cards (although not apparently under the “Topps Now” heading) were the Dodgers’ World Series championships and Adam Wainwright’s receipt of the Roberto Clemente award for service to one’s community.

One last feature I enjoyed — though not unique to 2020 — were the retro cards of all-time greats, including two of the Hall of Famers who died in 2020 (Gibson and Kaline).

Managing One’s Cards and Account

Next, I discuss some issues from the user’s point of view in managing one’s cards and account (for background on some of Bunt’s features, see this earlier posting of mine).

I remain content to use the free gold coins as my Bunt currency and, therefore, I have maintained my record of not spending a single penny of my own. However, I did have my first experience getting to spend diamonds (which normally must first be purchased with actual cash).

Over the summer, Topps held a “make your own baseball card” contest. Users could go to a website and use the camera on their computer to take their own photograph, which Topps inserted into a baseball-card template. (Topps announces these kind of Bunt activities on its Instagram page: https://www.instagram.com/officialtoppsbunt/ )

Users must supply their own jersey, as I did, if they want to be photographed in one. I chose number 62 for my year of birth and second-base as my position, as I once made a good defensive play at second in an intramural softball game in college.

For making my own card, I received a reward of diamonds, 150 of them, if I recall correctly. I don’t know if diamonds were given to everyone who participated in card-making, or just some people. As I learned, the packs of cards one can buy with diamonds contain more cards than the ones available for gold coins. Also, diamond packs are guaranteed to contain some minimum number of special cards, as opposed to gold-card packs, which carry only a small probability of containing a special card.

Two other things I learned more about were “Crafting” and “Missions.” Crafting might be better termed “Exchanging,” as one can give up two Tier 1 cards to receive a random Tier 2 card, give up two Tier 2 cards to receive a random Tier 3 card, and so forth, up to exchanging Tier 4 cards for a Tier 5 one. I lack a good understanding of what qualifies a card for a certain tier. In the comments to my earlier post, someone suggested crafting as a way to rid oneself of the voluminous unwanted duplicates one inevitably accumulates. In principle, yes, but once someone has accumulated thousands of cards, crafting to cull one’s collection would take too long.

Missions award supplemental gold coins for accomplishing small tasks, such as acquiring a certain number of cards, engaging in crafting, or initiating a trade. Rather than actively pursuing these goals, I take a totally passive approach to missions. Every few weeks, I check the missions area and see if I have inadvertently satisfied some of the tasks.

I still have not initiated any trades, nor I have I tried to learn the meaning of the point values on the back of some of the cards.

One final piece of trivia: Statistics show the Bunt app to be downloaded fewer than 5,000 times per month. Bunt may not be setting the nation afire, but I enjoy it.


*The SABR Baseball Cards Committee hosted a Zoom meeting on this topic (June 28, 2020). Here is the link to a YouTube video of the event.

Use vs Abuse

Last couple weeks ago Mark Armour and I had a brief conversation about markings on cards. In short, we disagree. Not a bad thing—we all collect differently and have distinct standards about what kind of condition we like—rather, like most good conversations, our discussion caused me to think more clearly about what my standards are.

The discussion Mark and I had was specifically about marked checklists. He avoids them while they don’t bother me in the least. Do I seek them out? No. But I’m also not going to pay a premium for an unmarked one.

Checklists were intended for kids to be able to keep track of their collections. Seeing one that’s marked up tells me about a kid who was keeping track of his collection and I enjoy seeing how his set progress was going, what good cards he had, and who he was missing.

They also remind me of my first year in the hobby when I dutifully marked all my checklists. As I remember it, I enjoyed the activity as a way to both gauge my progress and to see what cards I still needed. I don’t remember studying the checklist as much as looking through them and feeling like I just missed certain cards if they were near a card I was checking off.

What I realized when talking about the checklists is that I really just like seeing cards that have been used. For example, 1964 Topps has these cool rub-to-reveal backs. Some of mine have been rubbed, others have not. I can’t bring myself to rub the ones I get (same goes with marking checklists now) but the fact that some kid followed the instructions over 50 years ago is very cool. Heck I know I certainly would’ve if I were a kid.

Technically I guess this kind of thing is back damage. Practically though I treat it the same as a marked checklist where the subsequent handling qualifies as usage.

There’s a whole bunch of other cards in this kind of category where the intended usage results in wear and tear to the card. Pop-ups, whether it’s a 1937 O-Pee-Chee Batter Up or a junk wax Donruss All Star, are probably one of the best examples here. That the card has been punched out and folded and perhaps has even lost some of the pieces is immaterial.

The same thing goes with stamps and stickers that have been pasted into albums. I understand the desire for something to be nice and minty but there’s also something sad about it sitting in protective storage and never being used for its intended purpose.

My interest in usage though extends beyond the uses intended by card companies. I very much love annotations that reflect how fans have used cards to enjoy and enhance their baseball fandom. Things like the do-it-yourself traded cards which I’ve written about before demonstrate how people watch baseball through their cards.

For many people cards weren’t just something that you acquired and stored, they were references for when you had to look things up. Updating them each season with new teams and positions kept those references current and, when taken to extreme, results in something that documents a career better than a non-modified can ever hope to.

I also consider autographs to count as usage. They document experiences with players whether in-person or through the mail. Many times the choice of card is intentional whether it’s a favorite photo or a memorable season. And in all times the autograph is intended to complement the card as a way of enjoying the sport.

I love all of these things which indicate how a card was used by a previous owner. They tand in stark opposition to cards that have been abused or damaged though non-baseball-related activities. From drawn-on facial hair to flipping and bicycle spoke damage there’s a whole range of modifications that are deal breakers to me.

Yes I have some abused cards in my collection too but they’re the kind of cards I’ll always be wanting to upgrade. It’s the rare doodle that stands out as being clever to me, the rest I can’t help but see as mindless destruction.

When I look at a card that’s been damaged intentionally, the use or abuse question turns out to be the first thing I think of. I just hadn’t quite realized that that was actually the question I was asking.

Digital Marketplace

Last December I wrote a post about Topps Bunt, digital cards, and the ways that cards can exist in both digital and physical forms. It was very much from my point of view as a digital skeptic who distrusts the way that digital items are locked into proprietary software and rely on corporate maintenance to exist.

It’s one thing to sink a bunch of money into physical cards. If Topps dies, I still have the cards. Whereas with digital cards we have no idea what will happen in a decade. Will Topps be around? Will it be supporting the app still? Will it be maintaining a server where all that stuff exists on the web? None of us knows and that’s a leap of faith I’m unwilling to make.

At the same time, events in the hobby the past couple months have had reevaluating my thoughts on this. Yes this is related to Project 2020. No it’s not about the cards or even the values they had. Rather it’s about the way they were being bought and sold online.

It was wild to watch and I’ve never seen something where card prices were behaving like a stock ticker and people were buying and selling faster than the the shipping could keep up. While there’s been a market for digital only cards, I sort of ignored it until realized how many people are totally willing to flip cards without ever really having them in their possession.

In the same vein of things, I’ve been seeing discussions about flipping on COMC and can’t help but see that universe as also being digital cards. The same thing is going on there. There’s a big marketplace for buying and selling cards that you never physically own.

Yes, people point out that the cards on COMC are literally there and you can always request a shipment. But from where I sit this is remarkably close to how money used to work back when it was backed by a physical standard—something we abandoned almost a century ago.

I know I know. Cards aren’t money. But as we move into purely digital currencies and purely digital cards, I can’t help but wonder about if the upcoming generation will treat these things differently. I’m already seeing reports of blockchain-backed digital transactions of digital collectibles. I suspect such things will only increase in the upcoming years.

This is the kind of thing that likely freaks out a lot of us. Especially in this nostalgia-focused hobby. One of the only editorial points of view that Jason and I enforce is to focus on usage rather than value on here, this trend toward a digital-only marketplace for cards is one that has me asking myself what it means to actually use a digital card. I certainly hope that the usage is not only for flipping on a digital marketplace.

Some of those questions have already been answered in the Topps Bunt post where, refreshingly, the digital marketplace can serve as a pure version of card collecting where people can just have fun acquiring, trading, and set building. But those digital collections also feel incredibly ephemeral, focused on new items with no long tail or ability to deep dive into the past.

I don’t want digital cards to be emulating physical ones. I’d love to see them do things that physical cards can’t do. But I’d also like to see them be something that can be collected and shared across generations. At the end of the day what makes cards interesting to most of us here is the story they tell about baseball and our connection to the game, not the story about how much money we spent or the profits we made.

Take Comfort

These are strange times indeed. As we all withdraw from social interaction, at least in the near term, and find ourselves at home more often (though I’m home a lot!), there is some solace for those who have stuff – books, movies, and, for all of us present, cards.

 

For all we talk about cards in this space – what to collect, what we need, what we regret, what we envy – the true nature of this collecting business is the chords it strikes within us. There’s a nostalgia, for sure, a somewhat false recapturing of a youth that from today’s vantage point seems unblemished by trouble (though it really wasn’t at the time). There’s also the joy of having, and looking, at these totems that, at the very core, are created to make us happy.

I was once told that “things don’t love you back,” and, while that’s true, it also isn’t. The things we love reflect a kind of love back to us. There’s an emotion that is tangibly true when we look at cards. It’s real and not to be dismissed.

 

There’ll be times in the coming weeks that’ll result in many of us feeling lonesome. I saw a Doctor on TV last night warning that there’s a cost to isolation and we should all make sure to stay in touch, somehow.

Take some comfort in your cards. That’s what they’re there for.

Be safe, healthy and well.