Baseball Cards and Economics

When I was a kid, I was an avid baseball card collector. The hobby started for me when my dad pulled out an old paper bag of cards from the attic. Just as we started to build a card-house with them, dad knelt down and said, "Whoa, wait. Wait a minute. Wait just a minute before you..." and started calling his brother. They decided (correctly) that a 1956 Topps Mickey Mantle could find better uses than being turned into an external wall on a card house.

True to my over-do it nature, I learned everything there was to learn about baseball cards by the time I was about 12-years old. I learned for example that this card was the holy grail of baseball cards:

When I was a kid, I think this card topped out in value at around $100,000. Now, don't misunderstand: Honus Wagner was a good player. A really good one. But that couldn't explain this card being priced at about ten times its next closest competitor of the T206 variety (which were printed between 1909-1911). What does explain it is supply and demand economics: there are only 57 known copies in circulation as of 2009.

Maybe a better example is this card of Billy Ripken (1988):

[Here's a link for closer inspection] If you look really closely, the nob on the bottom of Billy's baseball bat says "Fuck Face." Needless to say, Fleer stopped printing the card almost as soon as it left the presses. There are far more "clean" reprints than there are of the first printing. The clean version of the card is almost worthless. Last I checked, the "Fuck Face" version was going for about $35.00.

However, very interestingly, scarcity alone did not seem to determine value. For example, there were as many Norm Cash cards printed by Topps in 1968 as there were Nolan Ryan rookie cards printed by Topps in the same year. Nevertheless, the Nolan Ryan card is valued at more than $1000.00, whereas the Norm Cash card probably goes for under $10.00 in most card shops.

It's this last part that I didn't understand as a 6th grader. I still can't say I entirely understand it, though I suspect it has something to do with "sentimental" value. Understanding all of this as I do now, I wonder if there might've been a way to "beat the system" when baseball card trading was at its hottest in the early 1990s -- and I wonder why my dad (and I) couldn't figure it out and seize the opportunity. All it would take is finding a way to sucker old people into handing over their children's leftover baseball cards from the 1960s "by the pound." And I'm sure some traders did this, gambling (probably correctly) that the law of averages would create a situation where they got one or two Nolan Ryan rookie cards for every haphazardly packed-away bag of old cards in the attic.

My question is: is that kind of move unethical? I loved collecting cards because I loved the players and their statistics, I loved the game, I loved spending time with my dad. But I imagine there must've been traders in it for the dollars only, and I feel like I can see now that they were trading on my sentiment -- at least, indirectly.

Follow-up quandry: some day when my dad achieves enlightenment, I'll inherit all of the "even" years of cards (my brother gets the odd years). This means I stand to inherit a 1956 Topps Mickey Mantle, a 1968 Nolan Ryan, and about 200 other cards valued at more than a couple-hundred dollars. Like everything else but gold, these cards are turning to dust. How long should I keep them? I'd estimate their total value to be... well, more than you'd believe. But only if I sell them. Hmmm.


Insignificant Wrangler said...

My grandfather knew a stockbroker in the 90s who did invest in trading cards. This broker rented a room from him. He eventually had a nervous breakdown, went bat-shit crazy, and ended up leaving his rented office to never return. In the office were boxes and boxes of baseball and football cards, in addition to an incredible collection of autographed baseballs and images. So, while he did owe a few months of back rent, my family stumbled upon quite a collection (this is where my autographed Ted Williams baseball comes from).

It was interesting, as I went through the booty, to watch how an investor approached "collecting." For instance, he had piles of Alonzo Mourning rookie cards and autographs. He also must have thought that Gary Sheffield was going to explode, as there were 15 of those. He also must have thought of Jeff George and Ki-Jana Carter as "can't miss." Oops.

To be honest, I forgot all about this stuff until I read your post today. I have my own baseball collection--and I remember the Billy Ripken fiasco (I have the Fleer Set for that season, but assembled it after the correction came out). My dad had an obsessive collector friend who put his son through college by selling baseball cards from his youth (including some crazy price for a mint Mickey Mantle rookie). Assuming we have an economy in 15 years, perhaps I can eBay some stuff and buy Rowan a car.

Casey said...

Three points:

1) A Ted Williams signed baseball! Holy crap.

2) I once bought 100 Mike Greenwell rookie cards, thinking that he was going to be the next Ted Williams. I forgot about that until your comment, or I certainly would've included it as evidence that I did try doing it cold-heartedly for cash. Greenwell's career tells you how I fared in that transaction.

3) Do you have any idea how we account for the fact that a Ken Griffey Jr. rookie card is worth way more than a "common" card from the same year that was printed in the same numbers? Seems weird to me.

Wishydig said...

what part of 'demand' don't you get?

but i'm not following the "is this ethical" part. are you asking if it's ethical not to care about the sentiments of others, or are you asking if it's ethical to not disclose the potential financial value of something that grandma is willing to hand over?

i had a rookie daryl strawberry and a rookie dwight gooden. i know. sweeeeet.

Casey said...

Wishydig: No, yeah, I guess... although, apparently I don't get it. I never wanted more than one of any given card (until the Mike Greenwell fiasco). So you're saying the values of the cards probably got thrown out of whack when some kid traded all the "stupid" cards he had for as many '56 Mickey Mantles he could get? Interesting. Weird, though.

I guess I'm asking if I should sell the cards my dad gives me when he transcends to get some thousands of dollars to give to my own children... maybe to help them pay for their first houses or something?

Or would it be better to give them the cards and let them make the decision? I'm trying to figure out if we can quantify sentimental value. Guess we can? That's sad, though.

I'm not so concerned about grandma handing the goods over -- subjective value, y'know?