Baseball Card Collecting: Make it Matter to You

1971 Topps - A Collector Favorite

Collecting Should be Fun

 I've been a baseball card collector for 31 years.  I've been a baseball card seller for 25 years.  I've seen all of the changes, I've owned every important RC since 1970 except Mike Schmidt's 1973 Topps RC (when I was younger it was too expensive, and now that I'm older, I don't need it).  I currently work as a baseball card dealer at many flea markets in my area and I constantly get asked the same question:

"What should I buy?"

My answer, "Buy what you like, if it goes up in value, that's just a bonus."

People HATE this answer becaue it really isn't an answer.  Giving me the power to decide your purchase, even though I'm the "expert", really is kind of foolish.  I honestly don't want the responsibility because I am an "old school" collector and many people don't agree with that way of thinking.  Here's what I'm talking about...

If you were to go into a baseball card store today, most of the people would be talking about the first cards of Steven Strassberg, Washington Nationals phenom who ISN'T IN THE MAJORS YET.  His cards are astronomically priced because of the hype.  He had a great collecge career and has been fast-tracked through the minors where he is also doing well.  His 1/1 Superfractor is actually in an online story about an online auction that currently sits at over $10,000 for this card.  You read that right, $10,000. 

Now, assuming I had that kind of money to spend (boy I wish I had that kind of money to spend!!) I could come up with many other cards to buy with that money.  Here's a short list:

1951 Bowman Mickey Mantle RC for $8,000 and
1954 Topps Hank Aaron RC for $1,800

So I could get one card of a guy who hasn't played an inning in the major leagues or 2 of the top 3 most important rookie cards of the modern era (1951 Bowman Willie Mays is the other). 

Many of you would argue that the example above is an extreme case - and I would agree.  However, collector's make choices like this all of the time, and prospective collectors also want to make these same types of choices but I warn people against doing that.  Don't buy to invest, buy what you would like to own and don't think about re-selling it.

If I knew exactly what to buy, well I'd have done it, and not have to spend any time selling cards at flea markets.  In relation to Strassberg, how many of you out there remember another young phenom who everyone put lots of money into, Brien Taylor.  All of you Yankee fans out there are already cringing.  Taylor was given the largest signing bonus (at the time) and was also faast-tracked in the minors.  By all accounts he had electric stuff and a great arm.  Until he broke his hand in a bar fight.

He never pitched in the majors and his cards and all that promise was lost by collectors.  Whoever wins that Strassberg Superfractor better hope he doesn't blow out his arm or beat up a cooler or something.  All I'm saying is that, IN MY OPINION, there are better ways to spend your collector dollars.

I Can't Tell You What to Buy... But....

I can offer advice about the industry and the history of cards that will make some choices sound much better than others.  For better or worse almost every set printed from 1988 through 1994 is completely overprinted and worth very little.  In addition Topps sets starting in 1984 are also completely over produced and worth very little on the market today.  Exceptions to these rules are 1989 Upper Deck and 1990 Leaf which are not overproduced and they are beautiful sets with many key cards in them.  Many people have sets from those years in their attics and constantly are looking to sell them.  The problem is that every store and dealer already have them as well.  While there are a few key cards during these years, they aren't all that expensive because there are SO MANY OF THEM!!  Apply the basic laws of Supply and demand - in this case way too much supply and way too little demand.

Card sets before 1984 Topps and before 1988 Fleer and Donruss are solid sets and not very expensive right now.  In the 80's the basic set with the smallest print run is 1984 Donruss which is also one of the most beautiful sets ever created.  Absolutely worth putting in a collection for about $100 - less if you really shop around for it.

The keys here are supply and demand if you are collecting simply to resell for profit.  Buy cards in less supply and that are in high demand.  The best item that fits this description are vintage cards.  The grading companies use the rule that anything older than 30 years is considered vintage meaning anything before 1980 (which is about when I started collecting).  Most collector's don't think like that and really think that 1970 and back is truly vintage.  I use 1973 as the marker in time since this is the last year Topps offers cards by series making assembling these sets more difficult but extremely interesting. 

I mentioned cards in Series because it's important to note that vintage commons from any of the high # series of ANY Topps set are in high demand and short supply.  This makes them highly collectible.  The picture at the top of this hub shows cards from the 1971 Topps set which is one of the most highly collected sets in the hobby.  The cards I've shown aren't even in great shape and I can tell you now that when I offer these to my regular buyers, these cards don't ever come home with me.  Obvoiusly, if you can find high # series cards in great condition (which are in even shorter supply), you're sitting on a goldmine.

Here is my list of baseball cards that I would tell people to buy if they were simply going to re-sell them one day:

  • Vintage cards are key - collect as many as you can - start in the early 70's and move backward in time.  Key RCs and stars are obviously where to start if your budget allows but commons work well too.
  • Vintage cards in great condition are worth many times the price guide value.  Remember that cards, through the 1970's generally were not taken care of.  Cards were flipped, scaled off walls, put in bicycle spokes, rubber-banded, you name it.  All of this love damaged the cards so finding vintage cards in great shape is very rare and collectible.
  • Graded cards - Only buy graded cards from BGS, BVG, PSA and SGC (GAI isn't bad but doesn't carry the same weight as the others).  I generally stay away from modern cards in high grade - card production is much better than years ago and modern cards are already priced in Mint condition - having a high grade really doesn't add much value (though it does offer great protection from the elements).  IF it's a modern card, it should be a rookie card of a star player and it should be a card that's generally condition sensitive.  Some chrome rookie cards make sense, the 1993 SP Derek Jeter rookie is notorious for scratches in the foil so a high grade version brings a large premium over an ungraded card.  There aren't many that make sense to me for modern era cards.
  • Inserts and Parallels -  These card don't get the respect they deserve.  For now, don't put too much money in modern inserts and parallels.  On the flip side, absolutely put money into vintage inserts from Topps as these cards are not nearly as expensive as the base cards though they are definitely rarer in most cases.  For example, a 1964 Topps Mickey Mantle card is valued at $500.  The 1964 Topps coin of Mantle is $100, the 1964 Topps Giant is $50, the 1964 Topps Tattoo Insert is $300.  All very collectible and worth the trouble to look for.
  • Memorabilia Cards - This is a tough one.  This was an exceptionally cool idea that the card companies really beat to death.  There are so many memorabilia cards out there it's crazy.  I personally try to find very limited pieces of material of the top superstars and legends.  An Albert Pujols bat barrel or logo patch card are worthy but a basic Albert Pujols white jersey swatch is pretty ordinary at this point.  Cards featuring pieces of glove (fielding or batting), hat and shoe are pretty rare.  Completely overlooked are cards with pieces of Stadiums in them.  They are very inexpensive but collectors in the appropriate regional market love them.  I live in NY and can sell any card featuring pieces of Yankee or Shea Stadium pretty easily.  Also any pre-war player with a jersey card is rare, even common players.  Players didn't own their jerseys back then, only their bats.  The jerseys went back to the team for use the next year.  There aren't too many players featured from this era but if you can find them, pick them up (2000 UD LEgends of NY has several Yankee and Brooklyn Dodger memorabilia cards from players in the 1930's and 40's).
  • Speculating on Rookies - If you must do this, do your homework and be very, very choosy.  Pitchers get a lot of hype but are enormously risky (which is why I pointed out Strassberg before).  Stay with blue-chip prospects with power.  Speedsters rarely make you money, light-hitting shortstops also don't move up in value.  High Schoolers who go high in the draft usually take years to develop.  Choose players from teams who have a chance to win.  This isn't easy to say but great rookies on crappy teams, no matter how well they do individually, don't generate lots of interest (yes, that's another warning for Strass collector's).

When I buy cards, I buy what I like for me, and buy what I KNOW I can resell for others.  Certain players have huge fan bases: Ken Griffey Jr, Cal Ripken Jr , Frank Thomas, Derek Jeter and Nolan Ryan are just a few players whose cards always sell so if I can find some cool inserts or Rookie Cards of these players I jump on them.

You may ask then, what do I collect?  The only thing I've ever kept for myself is my complete Keith Hernandez collection (well, nearly complete anyway).  The collection includes every regular issue Topps, Donruss, Fleer, Upper Deck and Score card as well as food issues, test issues, weird Topps iinserts, all of the Donruss large cards from the middle 80's and lots of newer cards like refractors, game used jersey and autograph cards.  I buy any Hernandez card I know I don't have and I have a blast putting them into the binder.  He was my favorite player on my favorite team the 1986 Mets.  I get more pleaseure out of that tiny part of my collection then all of the game-used cards I own combined...

Well that's it.  I've given my opinion on what to buy and I've kept it as general as possible but you can modify it any way you want.  If you are buying for your own collection, congratulations as you have entered an incredibly fun hobby.  If you are buying to re-sell, congratulations, as you have also entered an incredibly fun hobby that CAN be lucrative if you buy the cards that other people want....  just keep the simple rule in mind - pick up cards that are in high demand and short supply

Have fun collecting!!!!     

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