Surviving the Great Baseball Card Bubble

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From the 1630s tulip mania to the Roaring 1920s to the Dot-com Bust to Real Estate, I thought I had read about all the bubbles. But it seems that I forgot that I was right in the middle another one – the baseball card craze of the late 1980s and early 1990s.

I was about 10-14 during these years, in which I had just the right combination of a little bit of spending money, a love of sports, and greed. All my friends collected cards, and we traded them daily. Baseball cards were our form of currency. You could buy homework answers, protection from bullies, or even temporary popularity. I would secretly only spend half of my lunch money and go hungry for a few hours before running home to buy another pack of cards.

In the new book Mint Condition: How Baseball Cards Became an American Obsession, James Davieson tells the story of how this bubble formed and subsequently popped. This Slate article The Great Baseball Card Bubble includes a few excerpts. This one hit especially close to home:

American boys growing up in the 1980s approached Beckett Baseball Card Monthly with something like religious reverence. For many of us, it was the first magazine we bought and the only one we leafed through regularly. The magazine’s circulation eventually reached about 1 million, with many of those issues no doubt destined for the book bags of young boys. We walked the school hallways in the ’80s with our Becketts sandwiched between our textbooks, and we followed the price fluctuations of our favorite players with slavish devotion. Beckett’s valuations served as the foundation for all card trades.

To this day, I have about 3 years of worn out Becketts stacked up in my parent’s house. Looking back it was basically the stock market for kids, except instead of real-time quotes we only had monthly updates. Quality downgrades, riding momentum, pure speculation, it was all there. And just like mortgage-backed securities, when the mass media starts calling something a legitimate investment, a crash is soon to follow.

By the ’80s, baseball card values were rising beyond the average hobbyist’s means. As prices continued to climb, baseball cards were touted as a legitimate investment alternative to stocks, with the Wall Street Journal referring to them as sound “inflation hedges” and “nostalgia futures.” Newspapers started running feature stories with headlines such as “Turning Cardboard Into Cash” (the Washington Post), “A Grand Slam Profit May Be in the Cards” (the New York Times), and “Cards Put Gold, Stocks to Shame as Investment” (the Orange County Register). A hobby bulletin called the Ball Street Journal, claiming entrée to a network of scouts and coaches, promised collectors “insider scouting information” that would help them invest in the cards of rising big-league prospects. Collectors bought bundles of rookie cards as a way to gamble legally on a player’s future.

Of course I had to idea what inflation hedges were back then, but I did view them as an investment. Baseball cards were a store of value, and were sure to only increase as time went on, right? Even now, I still have a few unopened packs of 1989 Upper Deck, the first “premium” baseball card. I used to fight the urge to open them, balancing the curiosity of whether I had a Ken Griffey, Jr. rookie card, or whether it was better to keep it an unopened mystery.

I suppose I did learn a few things about personal finance in those days. But after reading all this, I figure I can complete my Nolan Ryan 1968-1993 Topps collection on the cheap. 🙂

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  1. So the modern day equivalent for kids would be Pokemon cards then. 😛

  2. juggler314 says

    I’ve got a stack of around 40,000 cards still at my mom’s house, all from 1987-1990. 20 years later and still they sit around in the vague hope that *someday* they’ll be worth the effort of doing something with them. She’s moving next month and I’m going to be forced to take them!

  3. Jerry Harrison says

    I actually still collect baseball cards (I’m 38). I have gotten rid of the majority of my cards from 1987-1992 and am concentrating on Chicago Cubs baseball cards. I do occasionally buy a collection of cards at garage sales, auctions, etc, and keep what i want and get rid of the rest.

  4. We recently inherited some baseball cards that my FIL purchased as an investment. packs of 30 of the same card in perfect condition, safely stored in his safe. My husband and his brother each inherited a pack of these cards as their portion of an estate. So I thought, okay, now what to do with them. I went online to see what they were going for on ebay. 10 cents a piece with free shipping seemed to be average.

    I found the whole thing highly amusing.

  5. Its kind of sad actually. I also bought into the subsequent comic book fad. Probably spend over a thousand bucks on comic books, and a couple years ago I sold the whole lot on ebay for under $100. There is a lesson here. I think it is diversification? Not just within an asset class but between asset classes. The person who put 5% of their wealth into baseball cards back in the 80’s didn’t end up getting hurt too much, and maybe they even had some fun.

  6. Thanks for this one. It was a nice stroll down memory lane.

  7. David H. says

    I actually will NOT throw away my cards. I still have a box full and a binder with all of my favorites from Nolan Ryan to David Justice to Ken Griffey, Jr. Hoping to one day give them to my son or if I’m cursed with all girls then off to the selling auction they go.

  8. del griffith says

    good ol’ beckett mag. me-mo-ries.
    wow, how many of us have the same stories? mine is quire similar to yours, though i never really traded any with friends, and only really knew of one friend and my brother that collected.
    my mom forced me to take the cards after college, and to this day the thought of buying a house and needing to move, the first thing that pops into my head is the boxes (at least 100k cards) that i dont want to move and that my wife wants me to sell (donate?).

    i’m proud to say i recognized the housing and stock bubbles, but my younger self and current self dont want to admit to this one…i think you’ve inspired me to at least get rid of the wrapped box sets!

  9. Wow, thanks for bringing back the memories. I completely forgot about the piles of cards that still sit at top of my Mom’s closet. I remember buying every Ken Griffey, Jr. card I could get my hands on back when I was a kid. I think my favorite card is a family one that had all three Griffey’s on it.

  10. juggler314 says

    Ha, I’ve got one of those 5000 card boxes *full* of 1988 score cards, 1/2 in unopened packs…first new baseball card company…figured they’d be worth something someday…sad…and all the sorting through the “unopened” packs that you could see through to find the ones with the star players in them…wasted time!

  11. … And there’s your demographic, Jonathan!

  12. My step-dad passed away at the end of last year. back in the early 90s he owned a card shop for about a year, when i was big into collecting. After he passed we started going through things and there are a ton of cards. I mean like literally a ton (in weight) of cards. It is easily hundreds of thousands. I started to go through some while i was home, but the task is overwhelming, and then what to do with the ones that may even be worth anything.

    I called a few local card shops and none wanted anything to do with buying cards. They all said they mostly just try to sell packs and memorabilia. As i think they all got burned on trying to sell single cards.

    Oh well, guess i will just keep my sets and the people i liked. And find a way to get rid of the rest.

  13. I used to buy boxes of cards. Somewhere I have a Dion Sanders autographed rookie card. I used to put my cards in notebooks with pages made for holding baseball cards. My cards are mainly 89-91 with some cards from the 1950’s that were given away by my 6th grade teacher (they were her husband’s cards and I guess he didn’t want them anymore). The only card I ever sold was a Will Clark card. I sold that card in 6th grade to my P.E. coach. He was a big Will Clark fan.

  14. You left out Beanie Babies.

    People were paying over $1000 for some.

  15. Ive got about 3 binders full of baseball cards. Ive got rookie cards, rare cards, a mickey mantle. I dont think the prices will ever go back up. When they were worth something, it was because the good cards were rare.
    But when we were buying them it was because it was kind of an investment. The prices wont come back until everyone starts throwing them away again.

  16. Growing up, Beckett magazine was God. I would revalue my “portfolio” very few months. It is funny how much like stock trading it is… for kids. I still have a fair amount of cards and it is just one of those things that is hard to get rid of. Best thing I ever did was start buying minor league cards/boxes. Those urned out a few players that are sure hall of famers… and some no one has ever heard of.

  17. El Cheapo says

    Don’t forget ‘Tuff Stuff’ magazine. It had all four major sports (Baseball, Basketball, Hockey, Football)…. then again, every kid would only trade off of Becket values. Good memories!!!

  18. Altereggo says

    There was a similar bubble with trading card games when I was in middle-school (in the late-90s). That was even better, because every new edition of the card games had better cards, which all the rich kids bought so they could win. Some ended up with thousands of cards. Very embarrassing.

    I just sat back and laughed–I’d already snagged myself a boyfriend. He didn’t turn out to be a great investment either, but at least he hasn’t been taking up closet-space for years.

  19. It’s funny — I was going to write that the last regular issue baseball cards with any real value were the Topps ’82 Ripken and ’80 Henderson rookie cards. Then I double-checked on EBAY and realized that even those guys have lost a majority of their recent values.

    Maybe I can finally get that Gem Mint ’84 Donruss Mattingly rookie card that eluded me for so long…..

  20. Love the story. I was planning on selling my cards to pay for college. The value dropped so much that it wasn’t worth it. I always wondered why the unknown Todd Van Poppel’s rookie card was worth so much. I guess we can blame it on the “speculators”.

  21. One of our neighbors sold his sports cards to start a casino party business…..unfortunately the cards from my generation are worthless. i just donated them somewhere.

  22. Good Post! I collected from 1980-1990. Had my first table at a card show at 14 in 1985 and made over $700. Did 10 more shows with similar results. Sold everything I had left when I went to college in 1990. Good timing? No just luck. I Had a blast though.
    I just began researching the hobby again recently to see if I would want to collect again, but boy has it changed. They cut up players uniforms and laminate them in cards then insert them in packs like lottery tickets. Graded cards unfortunately rule, graded meaning you mail your card away and pay graders to judge the condition and label and seal card in plastic forever. Crazy collectors compete to try to one up each other to get the best graded cards to build sets, causing a perfect mint common card to sell for hundreds of dollars. Lastly new unproven rookies still sell for $100 or more, but why when you can buy an older 1970’s Rookie of a Hall of Famer for alot less. Duh!
    In a nutshell – The hobby stinks and I would not encourage my 4 year old son to collect.

  23. Blair MacGregor says

    Oh this hits home for me as well; for me it was baseball AND hockey cards. My dad and I had boatloads of them and still do to this day. I distinctly remember him going out and buying boxes and boxes of 1990 NHL Pro Set(s) because of the perceived value. We used to do the same with Starting Lineups; the little figurines that were popular before McFarlane came out with his series.

    The book sounds interesting and I don’t know what the author’s thesis is but I know that after the early 90’s, the sheer AMOUNT of cards that were produced every year just exploded to the point where today, there are so many sets and subsets of different player cards that it’s impossible for them to have any significant value. I know they did different things with them to try and create value like putting pieces of the jersey inside the card and stuff like that but I don’t think it worked to the degree they were hoping (I haven’t looked at a Beckett in years though!)

    Great piece.

  24. Hah, I found a bunch of cards in my old stuff, held securely in their decorative plaques. I proudly displayed them around my room when I was a kid. I just checked the going rate on eBay for a few of them – a whopping 10cents! Nice.

  25. In all seriousness, this is the best blog post I’ve read anywhere in a while. Man, the memories of the craziness!

  26. My only hope is that all you suckers dump your cards in the recycle bin, offsetting the massive over-production and leaving *my* 1988-1992 era cards extremely valuable.

  27. over the cubicle wall says

    Right there with you. I also remember the Cabbage Patch Kid craze.

  28. Wow. This is rather funny to read about, but crazy when you look at all the parallels between the fads or the bubbles as they are now called. Too bad my Michael Jordan and ‘tippy toe’ Bo Jackson cards will never be as cool as the day I traded for them.

  29. Ted Valentine says

    I collected early 80s to early 90s. Still have my cards, and that is the only thing I have from childhood.

    I was once offered $200 for a good chunk of cards at a show. I was insulted because I knew the price guide said they were worth twice that — circa 1984. Today I’d be lucky to get $5 for the lot.

    Still, I had a lot of fun collecting, sorting, trading, seeking. It was worth it.

    PS – I suspect I am not alone in hoping for a “revival” among my peers that will cause prices to go back through the roof.

  30. Yea, I agree. The modern day equivalent will be Pokeman cards and they are sold at a very high price!

  31. christine says

    OMG, anyone in the market to buy 100 beanie babies??? I hate the fact that I paid 5-10 bucks a piece for pellet stuffed animals.

  32. shawn hill says

    With the new consolidation of the hobby, prices will most likely increase. Look for big investment opportunities in 2010.

  33. If you think these cards will ever be worth anything you are deluding yourself.

    These cards will never be hard to find. There are simply too many, even with people throwing them away to save shelf space.

    Even if they were rare (which, again, will never ever happen), rarity does not in itself make something valuable. Someone has to actually want it and be willing to pay you cash for it.

    Kids don’t collect sports cards anymore. On top of that, less kids follow sports than before. If a kid doesn’t care now about cards, why would they suddenly want them when they are 30 years old? Why would they want little pieces of cardboard with players they don’t care about and never saw in a game? That makes no sense.

    Your cards are worthless and always will be. You can’t even use them as good toilet paper, and using them as note cards doesn’t work because of all of the ink on them. Burning them for heat might not be advisable; there might be some fumes coming out that aren’t good to breathe in.

    With rare exceptions (Honus Wagner), sports cards will always decrease in value as people get older and everyone stops caring about the players on the cards. You think kids in 10-20 years are going to give a shit about A-rod or Kobe? If they don’t care about the players then why would they want cardboard icons of them? I mean right now they don’t even care about Michael Jordan. If you pay big money for an MJ rookie, you’d better be doing it because you want it, not because you are investing, because if you are, you are a moron.

    Your cards have literally have no use other than taking up space and making your house burn longer in case of fire.

  34. TheSRider says

    With the market so low, it’s a perfect buying opportunity. This guy who said nobody wants cards.. just look at the people above you. They’re waiting for the market to rebound, it’ll come. Its just normal. Maybe kids play with pokeman but baseball cards will make a big comeback. Only a fool would get rid of their cards now. markets go up and down, and back up again, i have some real nuggets in those boxes in the basement. after a few years youll be getting top dollar for those kobe rookie cards. MJ is a basketball god, his cards can only go up.

    BTW, somebody once said those cards can never increase in value because back in the day there was no china to worry about, and today somebody in china can just mass produce fake copies of any card and sell them all on Ebay or just carry em over to the US. Well, WRONG… yeah maybe the chinese were too busy running away from tanks when the big boom was happening, but i still say you cant just copy cards that are gold! those cards are not just pictures, theyre priceless no matter how hard some chinese conman tries to fake them.

  35. I’m reading this and cant help but giving my oppinion from personal experience. I sell sports cards for a living and have been a collector my entire life. There are many, many sports cards that are worth hundreds and even thousands of dollars. Ebay is not a price guide and sure is not a good way to check how much cards are worth. Sports cards are and always will be worth money as long as people continue to love sports.

  36. comicmantom says

    ok ! we now know don`t collect crap , as most people don`t really know ,what to buy, who to buy ,or when to buy, as more and more cards come out with unrealistic value`s.. most are value less ,but that don`t mean throw them out… it means put them away .. it just so happens you never know when some-one will hit the big one in baseball, or the big touchdown in football ,or just like the new pitcher that strikes out the whole team for a no-hitter boy i wish i had the rookie of that guy whats his name ..Halladay its only going to go sky high but i don`t have one.. dam only $15,000 it`s hard to pay that kind of money and then say wow what a fool i was to pay 15,000 and never be able to sell it for the same amount any one want to sell theirs I have .50 cents

  37. Jon Dray Lee says

    I recently returned to the hobby after 20 years. Yes I got burned like most kids in the late 80’s and early 90s. However the limited edition auto cards along with the grading craze I think can only help bring the hobby back on top again. Everybody puts down the 1980s but I still wouldn’t mine having a Pristine or GEM slab of some of my heros in the 80s like Will Clark, Greg Maddux, Cal Ripken, Barry Bonds, and Ryne Sandberg. I personally like to collect high grades which does bring back the supply and demand back to where it was at the hobbies peak. There is still a market here and its something I enjoy none the less.

  38. I too had the same story. Now I’m setting here looking at thousands of cards and wondering how much I actually spent on memorabilia. I think the greed set in. When I got out of collecting, I could of bought a pack of cards for $100 PER PACK! Now this took all the fun out of collecting. Inserts in standard cards were king! Kind of like getting a winning $5 scratch off ticket that you paid a buck for. I wish trading cards would come back. Unfortunately for kids, if they buy a .99 cent pack of trading cards today, they wont get the excitement of opening a pack of topps and seeing sweet Pete Rose, or a Reggie Jackson. Those were the days. I clinged to my Barry Bonds Rookies like they were worth something. Now, I see the card I fought so desperately to keep safe selling for a mere 1-5 dollars on Ebay. Pathetic… Thank you to all the card manufacturers for ruining one of the most exciting hobbies in my child hood. Anybody want to buy my cards? I’ll sell em cheap!!!

  39. Hahaha wow… I came across a box of cards I had since 1990 and was wondering values had gone up. Woops… they’re worth crap now. I had no idea the bottom had fallen out of the market.

    The sad thing is as a kid I knew Magic the Gathering cards were gonna be hot and only bought a few packs cause I liked the art. If only I had converted then.

  40. The market for trading cards will not come back if billions of them were created. There is just too much supply.
    If you print too many, the value of the existing stock goes down.

    BTW folks, the current bubble is US Treasury Bonds. If you have any, sell them. They will be worthless once the dollar collapses. You heard it hear first.

  41. CardMaster says

    Buy Tim Raines cards!!!!! He is going to the HOF THIS YEAR!!!!

  42. Same thing happened with comics and that is the companies that produce comics and cards got too greedy. I mean seriously refactor and gold refractors and what have you variants kind of killed both the industries and I like so many other kept buying, luckily I about broke even buying and selling both cards and comics but honestly with today’s youth its all virtual.

    I think the market will rebound for the older cards and comics, anything from the early 70’s and below has a chance but when you see a Strasburg card sell higher than a Nolan Ryan rookie people must be smoking crack because it shouldn’t happen

  43. steve squiers says

    I still collect cards and I’m 44 years old. But I only buy PSA 10 cards of about $100 or less. Just to put away for my kids in the future. I try to look at guys who will be in the Hall of FAme like Willie Roaf and Michael Strahan in football, or Lindstrom in hockey. You quickly double your money but you’ll never get the killing like you did years ago. Today, we pay for the “grade” and not the card. Sad, but true

  44. didn’t holiday barbies once go for like $500 or something for ONE in the box.
    I see sets since inception (like 20 or so) pristine for a deal less than that.

    the internet seems to have killed such things -once word got round about how many people actually hoarded it (availability kills collector value huh)

    know what didn’t burst/was too tempting not to leave in the box and is now hugely profitable?

    GI freaking joes from the 80’s. Not so impressive loose and player with but if you bought it and never opened it and the box managed to stay away from water and crap running into it – you have a fortune. Especially big vehicles/bases.

    Video games too. Not popular ones but old niche ones like in the jrpg category. Opened copies of old games like chrono trigger,earthbound,lufia do good….sealed ones offer one heck of a roi.

    In my opinion- you should never collect for profit-only satisfaction. At least with anything made for such a purpose. You always lose. Just like buying a shirt at the store, or a video game at release – in short time it will be worth half as much 9 times out of 10. the moment you leave the store for the shirt – 3 months or some bad word of mouth for the game.

    I enjoy collecting arrow heads for example. All except an odd few are worthless but hey I like them – I find them myself – and if I see someone on ebay with decent picks moving them for a dime or two each I buy.

  45. Mack Seaton says

    Wow are there ever some deluded folks on here. The only guy with a brain in his head was the one who said there things will never have value again. Never. They are literally not worth the paper they are printed on. You might as well collect Bre-X stock certificates, except those would have a higher novelty value than sports cards.

    Give it up, chumps. Your cards are worth zilch and will always, always be worth zilch. I got suckered too back in 1990 (I was 15) but at least I can admit it.

  46. I sold most of my cards in the ’80s but now I am buying back some rookies. In this down market Rookies still have some demand, Those who say cards won’t be worth anything are uneducated about cycles, that’s why they got stuck with these older cards. The cycle will go back up. These cards won’t be worth thousands but could be worth 10x what they are now. When I was a kid I bought packs not for value but for fun and look for certain players, why can’t kids do that again? They will, and collecting is in our blood, we still get excited when someone hits 500 homeruns, or does great and we want a part of that by buying their card, that won’t change.

  47. I been buying all my dream cards now that I am in my 30’s and can’t believe I am buying Mickey Mantles’ and Jackie Robinsons’ for a hundred bucks. lol I even just picked up a nice 1926 TY Cobb for 150 wow! Hopefully when economy gets better the cards will inflate with value.

  48. Wow…I’m 44 and I was right in the middle of all this too. But I have a unique spin on my experience. Back in early 1987 I rode my bike all the way across town to spend my $15 allowance money to obtain the Holy Grail of baseball cards when I was in 7th grade amd that was a 1986 Donruss Jose Canseco rookie! None of my trading buddies at school had one yet (Donruss and Fleer were usually only dealer direct) and I bought that card for $12 and it booked for $8-10 depending on which guide you went by. That card went as high as $75 as I remember and now its nearly worthless. BUT-when I bought it, I also bought a single basketball card because my dad didnt believe me when I told him I saw basketball card packs for sale at a 7-11 recently. I asked the card shop owner if he has a good basketball card I could buy and he scooped up a STACK of hard case copies (at least 50 or more!) and handed me one of them-he then told me “this guy here was a pretty hot rookie last year then he broke his foot but he may come back this year and be really good. His name is Michael Jordan and I can sell you this card for $3. I’ll even give ya a free sticker card of him too.”

    Yep-my first ever basketball card purchase was a 1986-87 Fleer Michael Jordan rookie card. So my baseball card boom then bust was full circle with the Canseco Donruss rookie card craze which led me to obtaining an all time iconic basketball card! I loved this hobby and especially basketball. Today I collect only high grade vintage basketball cards…I stay 1988 and older.

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