MLB

Sports card collecting is booming, but it looks a lot different than you might remember

Why the boom? “People were home, cleaning out their attics, or messing around on eBay out of boredom,” one collector said.

Spotted at the weekly Woburn Sportscard Show: A number of Tom Brady cards, including a rookie card with a price tag of $1,500. JOSH REYNOLDS FOR THE BOSTON GLOBE

The last sports card show I attended until recently happened in Augusta, Maine, around 30 years ago. I don’t remember the exact year. I do remember that former Red Sox pitcher Bob Stanley was friendly enough as he sat in a folding chair and signed autographs for a buck or two.

I remember this more vividly: The most coveted cards were those featuring slugging Red Sox prospect Phil Plantier, who would go on to play fewer than 200 games for the franchise before becoming Padres outfielder Phil Plantier. His cards, I can report, will not be helping pay for my kids’ college education, or even a cup of coffee at Dunkin’, for that matter.

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So I’d been away from the scene for a while when I bought a $5 ticket — passing on the $30 VIP option, which got one in the building earlier — and popped in on the Causeway Card Show July 10 at the Big Night Live venue at TD Garden. That a glitzy new concert venue that touts its “red crystal chandeliers” and “beautiful wood-finished walls” on its website was hosting this two-day show should have been a clue that this was not going to be like the card shows of my relative youth. Thirty years ago, the Augusta Civic Center did not have a single chandelier. Bob Stanley probably can back me up on that.

The Causeway Card Show saw thousands of people come through in July.
The Causeway Card Show saw thousands of people come through in July.BRANDI BISHOP

As an occasionally lapsed lifelong collector (almost all purchases the last 15 or so years have come via eBay), I was curious, even eager, to check out a show again. The hobby became massively popular during the COVID-19 pandemic. In February 2021, eBay reported that sports card sales in 2020 increased on the site by 142 percent over 2019, with more than 4 million cards sold.

The market was driven in part by the wholly relatable tug of nostalgia, and the quest to feel joy about something during months of isolation.

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“People were home, cleaning out their attics, or messing around on eBay out of boredom,” said Scott Edwards, who was working at a table for Empire sports cards at the Causeway show, “or maybe they just were thinking about a better time.”

‘“People were home, cleaning out their attics, or messing around on eBay out of boredom, or maybe they just were thinking about a better time.”’

Scott Edwards, card show vendor

The other reason for the boom? The chance to make a buck … or perhaps a few thousand bucks by finding a rare card with an autograph, rare color pattern, or other variation — of a superstar or coveted rookie in a pack. If you’re the luckiest of the lucky, you might just open a package of cards that can change your life.

An intrusion of irrationality

In February, a 2018-19 Panini National Treasures Basketball rookie card of Dallas Mavericks superstar Luka Doncic — the only one of its kind — sold for $4.6 million, or more money than some of his teammates make in salary. The card, which includes Doncic’s autograph and an NBA logo patch, had been unearthed in a live “break” — the opening of packs on video or at a show in the hopes of discovering a valuable scarcity — by Layton Sports Cards in Florida.

In April, a 2003 LeBron James Exquisite Collection patch card sold for $5.2 million. Together, these two James cards, owned by California collector Aaron Davis, are worth more than $7 million.
In April, a 2003 LeBron James Exquisite Collection patch card sold for $5.2 million. Together, these two James cards, owned by California collector Aaron Davis, are worth more than $7 million.JOHN FRANCIS PETERS/NYT

It did not remain the most expensive basketball card of all time for long. In April, a 2003 LeBron James Exquisite Collection patch card sold for $5.2 million. Classic cards long desired in the hobby also sold for prices in the millions: A 1952 Topps Mickey Mantle went for $5.2 million in January, and an extremely rare tobacco card of early 20th century great Honus Wagner brought $3.75 million in May.

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General merchandise stores such as Target couldn’t keep cards on the shelves, with customers racing to buy $20 boxes and either open them in search of a rare hit or resell the unopened bounty on eBay for a large profit. Eventually, Target couldn’t put them on the shelves at all after customers began fighting over them. In May, Target made cards available only online.

“There’s always an irrationality in collecting,” said Jeff Katz, a collector, author, and former mayor of Cooperstown, N.Y., home of the Baseball Hall of Fame. “But the irrationality in the last year and a half is a money chase, not a card chase. People lining up at 4 a.m. at Target are not card collectors. They’re idiots.”

‘“There’s always an irrationality in collecting. But the irrationality in the last year and a half is a money chase, not a card chase. People lining up at 4 a.m. at Target are not card collectors. They’re idiots.”’

Jeff Katz, a collector, author, and former mayor of Cooperstown, N.Y.

For investors, high-end card collecting became an enticing way to try to make a lot of money fast, much like non-fungible tokens and cryptocurrencies.

“The biggest thing even beyond people getting nostalgic during the pandemic was rich people and foreign investors,” said Bill Simmons, whose The Ringer podcast network now features one focused on sports-card investing and who himself opens — or “rips,” per the parlance — packs with his son on Instagram.

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“That was what changed. You had rich people being like, ‘I want every card of every baseball Hall of Famer from the ’50s,’ and they’re buying that, whatever their quest was.

“And then the other thing that was happening was that these groups were getting together and investing in stuff, almost like a card hedge fund. ‘Let’s go get a ’52 Mantle, there’s an auction coming up,’ and boom, they’d go get it. They were treating it almost like the way you’d buy art.”

Anyone who has seen the Mantle card, a colorful portrait of the young Yankee in the first Topps set, recognizes that it is art. But what fun is art if it can’t be admired?

The 1952 Topps Mickey Mantle card is known as a Holy Grail of sports cards. It's shown here during a memorabilia exhibit ahead of the MLB All-Star Game in July in Denver.
The 1952 Topps Mickey Mantle card is known as a Holy Grail of sports cards. It’s shown here during a memorabilia exhibit ahead of the MLB All-Star Game in July in Denver.DAVID ZALUBOWSKI/ASSOCIATED PRESS

Protecting cards in plastic casing, as grading companies such as PSA and Beckett do after a card is sent to them to determine its condition and thus value, makes sense. (PSA received such an overwhelming number of cards to grade during the pandemic that it had to halt submissions and only recently began accepting cards again; per Sports Collectors Daily, the backlog exceeded 1 million cards in May 2020.) The $5.2 million Mantle, for example, had a desirable grade of PSA 9.

But some of the high-end group investors never even see the card they have purchased; it stays in safe keeping somewhere until the time comes to sell.

Television personality Keith Olbermann, a lifelong collector of legendary renown, is bewildered by that approach.

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“That allows you for a significant expense to pretend that you own a very valuable card,” he said. “But you don’t. And if it’s sold, you will get that percentage of the profit, and you will not be able to pretend you own any of the card. I’m not sure what the appeal is.”

At the Causeway show, an upstart service called Starstock touted a system in which you send the company your cards, and for a nominal seller’s fee (5 percent, less than eBay’s 6-10 percent), they will help you buy, sell, and trade them like stocks. It sounded efficient and soullessly unappealing to me, but Starstock employee Blaise Eshghi, who was enthusiastically working the table at the Causeway show, said customers appreciate the instantaneous aspect of it.

“It’s like day trading,” he said, noting they’ve surpassed a million submissions. “People love that.”

Collectors peruse the selection at the Causeway Card Show.
Collectors peruse the selection at the Causeway Card Show.BRANDI BISHOP

Some still do it for love

There have been previous explosions in sports card popularity, particularly in the late ’80s and early ’90s, when Ken Griffey Jr.’s 1989 Upper Deck rookie card was so coveted that it became and remains iconic within the hobby. Most of the other cards from that period — and those who invested in them — did not fare so well. It’s now known as the “junk wax” era, the cards having been so overproduced that their value became next to nil.

“There are probably some sad stories about people that opened up sports card shops in the ’90s,” said Mark Armour, president of the Society of American Baseball Research’s board of directors and founder of its baseball card committee. “There seemed to be a couple of stores in every town. And then the market collapsed.”

There are still collectors who purchase cards because they jibe with their love of the sport. Fred C. Harris, author with Brendan Boyd of the warm and hilarious 1973 classic “The Great American Baseball Card Flipping, Trading and Bubble Gum Book,” attended a show in Chantilly, Va., the same weekend of the Causeway show. He didn’t find much there to add to his collection, but he does elsewhere.

“I love Dennis Eckersley. I watch the Sox games and I love his commentary,” said Harris. “So I went on eBay and for maybe 25 dollars I got 50 different Eck cards, in different uniforms in different years, just for the fun of it. They don’t mean anything to the people that are selling them.”

A display at the weekly Woburn Sportscard Show displays some vintage cards, including one of Boston Patriots linebacker Tom Addison.
A display at the weekly Woburn Sportscard Show displays some vintage cards, including one of Boston Patriots linebacker Tom Addison.JOSH REYNOLDS FOR THE BOSTON GLOBE

Ryan Fagan, a baseball writer for The Sporting News, resides in the nostalgic corner of collecting. Nearly every day on his Twitter feed, he posts a photo of a recently opened pack of baseball cards, usually from the junk-wax era, and makes one engaging request of his followers: “Tell me your favorite story about one of these players or these cards.”

It’s a wonderful prism through which to view baseball and card-collecting, a reminder of why a fan might have fallen for the hobby in unison with the sport itself in the first place. But even an unabashed nostalgist like Fagan recognizes the tough-to-resist appeal of hitting a jackpot.

“You’ll pay $10 a pack for some of the scarcer current products because there might be a chance that you can get a $300 card,” he said. “And you can turn around the same card ungraded for $300 immediately, if you want to get into, like, the exponential prices, where you’re talking thousands and thousands of dollars for a card, you’re going to have to get the card graded.”

While a company like PSA might put dollar signs in a collector’s eyes by giving a coveted card a perfect 10 grade, its system is not perfect. The cards are graded by people, and the influx of submissions during the pandemic required companies to hire more employees. Aligned objectivity among the graders simply is not possible. A 10 to one grader’s eye might be a 9 to another’s. The difference on a rare card can mean thousands of dollars.

A modern reckoning

Watch Chad Finn ‘rip’ a brand-new box of sports cards

11:34Chad Finn walks us through a box of sports cards purchased at the Causeway Card Show in July. (Video by Chad Finn/Globe Staff)

With my last card show experience being 30 or so years ago and all, I’ll admit that I had some trepidation about whether the Causeway card-show-in-a-nightclub approach would be enjoyable or the kind of do-not-mix-these-things disaster last seen on the Island of Dr. Moreau.

I can report, with an exhale, that the show, which included an appearance by the Celtics’ Tacko Fall to rip packs, was a good time, something dealer Ed Pacheco seconded.

“They do a really good job with this,” he said of event producers Chris Costa and Timmy Tens. “This is going to become a show New England collectors can’t miss.”

Celtics fan favorite Tacko Fall "ripped" packs at the Causeway Card Show with Chris Costa, one of the organizers.
Celtics fan favorite Tacko Fall “ripped” packs at the Causeway Card Show with Chris Costa, one of the organizers.BRANDI BISHOP

Attendees seemed to enjoy the bar and the photo booth sponsored by Maker’s Mark. I’ll admit to taking a little bit of time to get used to the live DJ, mostly because I never in my life thought I’d hear “I Want Your Sex” by George Michael blasting while I asked a card dealer about his Bobby Orr selection.

The last time I was at a show, the faces in the crowd tended to look like … well, mine, including Bob Stanley’s: white, male, probably wearing a baseball cap, vowing to start that exercise regimen next week. The Causeway Card Show was a pleasant surprise of diversity, including quite a few women.

One of the few kids I saw was working a table with his mom and dad. He handled the transaction when I bought a $37 box of 2020-21 Panini Contenders Basketball to rip as part of this project. I found myself hoping his childhood experience in the hobby was as satisfying as my own more than 40 years ago. I couldn’t envision how it could be.

The show was not an assault on the senses, but it was on the sensibilities. On one table, a Tom Brady rookie card was priced at $35,000. (A bargain compared with the scarcer autographed 2000 Playoff Contenders Championship Rookie Ticket edition Brady rookie that sold for $3.107 million in the Lelands Mid-Spring Classic Auction in June.)

On another table, a 2011 Mike Trout Cognac Diamond Anniversary card carried a $7,000 price tag. (I did not ask, but I imagine the cognac refers to the color, and not the cardboard’s flavor.) On another table: a 2017 Panini Donruss Optic Patrick Mahomes bronze rookie for $12,500.

It soon dawned on me that most of the dealers had the same idea: Sell rare cards of popular current players for as high a price as possible. There was a desperation to some of it, with the market having recently taken a slight but alarming downturn.

I resisted buying a lonesome signed N’Keal Harry for $8, added a sharp recent Bobby Orr Canada Cup card ($1) and a second-year card of Cam Neely in that ugly ’80s Canucks sweater ($3) to the previously bought basketball box, and headed on my way. It was fun, but not fulfilling.

In the days after, the contrast of the Causeway show to the ones Olbermann told me from the hobby’s nascent days in the early ’70s kept coming to mind, making me wish I could hijack Doc Brown’s DeLorean and go back to that moment in the hobby, when it was about the cards and collecting and not the cash. Especially a show from 1973 in the basement of a union hall at Astor Place in Manhattan, the second show in the hobby’s history, per Olbermann’s recollection.

“There were something like 125 tables in the union hall,” recalled Olbermann, “and it was so packed with people coming in, jaws agape that this stuff was available. People had seen it before when they were kids, but they hadn’t seen it since they were kids, and they were like, ‘There are baseball cards from 1910 and I can buy one?’

“It was people discovering that the cherished memories from their childhood that they either had forgotten or had believed were destroyed — ‘my mom threw them out,’ as the cliche goes, and ‘all moms threw them away, there are no more’ — and then they walked in and realized, ‘Wait, there’s a room of 125 dealers selling them. I get them all back now, mom!’ ”

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