If you have a Darryl Strawberry rookie baseball card buried somewhere in your basement and wonder what it is worth, you’re probably going to be disappointed.
Same goes for the once-popular rookie cards of Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens, Don Mattingly or any other player who came of age in the 1980s.
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Even Ken Griffey Jr.’s 1989 Upper Deck rookie card, one of the most popular and sought- after cards of that era, is not immune to the downtrodden market.
These players all emerged during the height of the baseball card frenzy, when scores of people viewed obtaining a player’s first card as an investment toward their own future, like, say, underwriting their retirement or a house purchase.
It didn’t work out that way.
At a recent card show at Hof stra, dealer Evan Marx, 64, of Roslyn Heights, pointed to the rookie cards of 1980 stars Strawberry and Jose Canseco that he had on display. The 30-year-old images and designs screamed of relics from a different era. But as card dealers know all too well, vintage doesn’t always mean valuable. Not when there are hundreds of thousands of them still in circulation.
“These cards were both going for more than $100 at one time,” Marx said. But on this day he was asking only $12.95 for the Strawberry card, $4 for Canseco. No one who came by his table bit on either.
“There were some good times,” Marx said before reminiscing about the 28 years that he owned a brick-and-mortar store a few card flips away from Roslyn High School. That location was great for business, he said, until about a decade or so ago, when teenagers stopped coming in.
At the heyday of the industry. Marx said, there were 15 card stores within a few miles of his shop. In 2011, his was the last store to close.
So what happened to the once-booming baseball card industry and what’s it like today? Marx smiled wistfully.
“It ain’t what it used to be,” he said.
WHAT ABOUT MICKEY — AND HONUS?
The market for classic vintage baseball cards such as The Honus Wagner has yet to lose its luster. As recently as last April, a circa 1910 T206 Wagner cigarette card, the holy grail of cardboard, in extraordinary condition, sold at auction for $1,320,000. Last August, a hard-to-come-by 1952 Topps Mickey Mantle rookie card sold at auction for $330,000. And this past week, a lot of seven recently discovered T206 Ty Cobb cards made news after the find was verified and valued at about $1 million.
Topps, long viewed as the company most synonymous with baseball cards, has been producing them since 1951. That continues to this day.
Topps, then a chewing gum company, became real competition for more-established Bowman Gum in 1952, when it released its first major baseball set in series at intervals. The final series of the year, home of the Mantle rookie card, did not sell well and many cases were destroyed.
By 1956, Topps was the exclusive producer of licensed MLB gum cards. Challengers came and went until 1982, when the Frank H. Fleer Co. won a ruling in U.S. District Court for the District of Delaware that broke Topps’ monopoly. By 1990, Fleer, Donruss, Upper Deck and Score became licensed competition.
TOPPS IS BACK ON TOP
A glut of production coupled with too many choices for buyers caused the boom to go bust around the time of the 1994 strike that left baseball without a World Series.
In an effort to reinvigorate the baseball card industry and specifically target kids, Major League Baseball in 2009 gave Topps the exclusive license to produce cards with MLB logos. And it’s certainly making the most of it.
Last year Topps produced more than two dozen different baseball card products specific to the 2015 season.
“Money,” said Tom Bartsch, editor of Sports Collectors Digest, a publication serving the hobby. “That’s really the only reason.”
In this Twitter age of short attention spans, experts say a single baseball card set won’t keep the interest of buyers the way it did in the past. So Topps releases a newly branded card product every few weeks, each at a different price point intended to reach as many consumers as possible.
“No one is going to love one product,” Topps spokeswoman Susan Lulgjuraj said. “We make 25ish products a year. The thing is, we make products for everybody.”
Suggested retail price of the cheapest pack of Topps baseball cards last season — a series called Topps’ “Opening Day” — was 99 cents, which Lulgjuraj said is priced low enough to entice kids to start collecting cards again.
The most expensive pack from last year — a series called Topps’ “Dynasty” — retails for about $400. There’s one card in each pack. One.
Lulgjuraj declined to say how Topps’ card revenue compares with 30 years ago, when a pack of cards cost 30 cents.
CHASING THE GOLDEN GOOSE
Topps said its Dynasty cards are priced so high because of the quality, exclusivity and uniqueness to each one.
Topps said they are printed on specially coated stock, are embossed and arrive already in a case. There also are no more than 10 copies of each Dynasty card, a direct assault on the reputation of overproduction that plagued the industry in the ’80s and killed the long-term value of those cards. And every Dynasty card includes various upscale add-ons.
All of the cards, for example, have an autograph that Topps certifies as authentic. Some are signed by current players (such as Angels star Mike Trout) or former players (such as Mariano Rivera) through deals they’ve made with Topps.
Other Dynasty cards, which are thicker than typical baseball cards, include cutouts of autographed memorabilia of deceased Hall of Famers, such as a personal check signed by Warren Spahn or papers signed by Babe Ruth and Ty Cobb.
The cards also feature small patches of players’ uniforms or slivers of their bats. Lulgjuraj said Topps purchases all of the memorabilia either directly from teams or from the secondary market such as dealers or auction houses.
Collectors buy these $400 packs in hopes of landing one of the big-ticket cards — typically the old-time Hall of Famers such as Ruth or a hotshot rookie such as the Cubs’ Kris Bryant — and then flip it for even more on eBay, according to Brian Fleischer, senior market analyst for Beckett Media, which publishes price guides along with other collecting services.
Fleischer said this is an example of how the industry, once dominated by kids and fans who viewed collecting as a hobby, now caters to “the gambler’s mentality” of collectors. “These cards are sort of like scratch-off lottery tickets,” he said.
In the ’80s and ’90s, it was fashionable for people to buy cards and hoard them, thinking that the payoff would come far down the line. Nowadays, Fleischer said the common thinking among collectors is to waste no time selling a big-ticket card.
“If you want the most money for it, sell it in the first few days the product went line, because in a week or month, everybody will have moved on to the next big thing,” Fleischer said. “And the chances are, it’s not going to appreciate over time.’’
A search of recently sold listings on eBay shows that a Topps Dynasty card with an embedded autograph of Hall of Famer Jimmie Foxx sold for $1,836 and a hand-signed Dynasty card of Mets rookie Noah Syndergaard was purchased for $1,277.
But by focusing on specialty cards with valuable autographs, experts say companies such as Topps have created a system in which they have to keep upping the ante series after series. And in the process, they’re further devaluing what once was seen 30 years ago as oh so valuable: the common baseball card.
”The common card is kind of a throwaway item now,” Bartsch said. “People seek the specialty card . . . Yes, those cards can certainly bring big money. But for 99 percent of the people searching for those particular cards, they’re not going to find them.”
MOM DIDN”T THROW OUT MY BASEBALL CARDS
If there’s any doubt that the baseball card hobby/industry is nowhere near where it was during the heyday of 30 years ago, look no further than the name of Topps’ current advertising campaign. It is called “Rediscover Topps.”
“The goal is to bring in kids,” Lulgjuraj said. “But it’s also to bring in those people who when they were kids, they collected cards and maybe they’ve forgotten about them.”
At a recent card show at Hof stra, dealers enjoyed reminiscing about the days when shows were so packed that cards were selling faster than shovels the day before a snowstorm. No one has any illusions that those days will return to what once was.
“People viewed cards back then like they were penny stock,” said Ron Lombardi, 68, of Massapequa Park, who sells cards at shows as a hobby. “They would buy 100 or 200 cards of somebody on the spot thinking they would take off and become famous and successful. It’s a different animal now.”
And what if that was you? What if you still have thousands of those cards now and are wondering what to do with them?
First, know you’re not the only one. Which, in a classic case of supply and demand, is part of the problem.
“We hear that from people all the time,” said Fleischer, of Beckett. “I don’t have an answer for you. A lot of people donate them.”
There’s even a list or organizations to donate to on Topps’ website. And there’s this message, too: “Topps does not, in any manner, make any representations as to whether its cards will attain any future value.”
Owners of those Strawberry rookie cards can attest to that.