How Sportscards have changed from 'when you were a kid'
That was then....
If you are older than say 35, you probably remember collecting baseball cards as a kid and only having one choice, Topps. Topps made one set, offered it in various types of packs, and you could buy cards from Spring until Fall. Pack prices were inexpensive enough to buy a few at a time given your allowance and you absolutely loved the gum.
You loved flipping them, scaling them off walls, trading them, putting them in your bicycle spokes and generally had a great time with your cards before rubber-banding them together and stuffing them in a shoebox in your closet. Then you grabbed your glove and went out to play. If you were lucky, your mother didn't throw them out on you when you weren't looking...
My father tells me of how he would trade Mikey Mantle cards away for anyone from his beloved Brooklyn Dodgers. I know that as a kid, I traded away Reggie Jackson for John Stearns. Every generation has their version of the story, but they are all pretty similar. We all ripped open packs of Topps because that's all we had to work with - and we loved it.
The 80's Explosion
In 1981, Fleer and Donruss won a court case against Topps and broke the monopoly Topps had on the industry. Each brand offered a set in 1981, though Topps remained the most popular and collected of the three (Topps also offered the year-end Traded set through hobby shops). In 1984 both Fleer and Donruss cut production and improved their card design and player selection. This led to several years of Donruss and Fleer being more popular than Topps and each of the 1984-87 sets contain a better selection of rookie cards than Topps offered. This time period is considered the height of the Boom years for baseball cards.
Many people joined the hobby as it gained in popularity and national attention. Baseball card shows sprung up everywhere as well as new hobby shops. People speculated on rookie cards by the 100 lot. Vintage cards became a huge part of the industry as we all began to realize just how much of those cards were simply thrown away or damaged. It was fun to be a collector or a dealer at this time.
In 1988 a new brand was licensed and 1988 Score was born. As more people entered the industry Topps, Fleer, Donruss and Score raised production numbers of the sets from 1988-1994. Due to the popularity of the industry and the wealth of money exchanging hands, counterfeit cards were created and found at many shows. In 1989 another new brand was licensed that promised to eliminate the counterfeit cards by adding an expensive hologram to the cards and 1989 Upper Deck was born. This landmark set contained one of the most hyped rookie cards of the decade and the product was a huge hit based on it's high quality and the fact that that hyped rookie panned out. That rookie was Ken Griffey Jr. Packs of 1989 Upper Deck retailed at a whopping (for the time) 89 cents.
The 1990's and Beyond
As I've said, overproduction of the sets from 1988-1994 occurred. Even Upper Deck joined in this overproduction after their initial set. This overproduction only stopped when the baseball strike hit in 1994. When the players came back for 1995, the card companies wisely did not try to overproduce as many collectors, speculators, dealers and fans left baseball cards behind. A few more brands were introduced during the 1990's: Pinnacle, Pacific and Action Packed but the major innovation incorporated into the industry was branding. Fleer introduced Ultra as a high end brand. Topps introduced Stadium Club, a high-end brand with full-bleed photos to compete with Upper Deck. Upper Deck countered with a high-end brand called SP in 1993. These card sets met with great success as each incorporated innovations with card design and construction.
Over the years, every comapny came to produce card sets in a variety of price points starting from retail (usually $1.00 a pack), base brand (regular Topps, Fleer, Donruss, Upper Deck, Pinnacle, Pacific usually from $1-$3 a pack), premium brand, super premium brand, ultra premium brand and so on. This led to an enormous amount of sets and not an enormous amount of buyers. The companies had to do different things to get buyers to choose their product which led to the creation of several different types of cards which are defined below:
Example of an Insert card
These cards are inserted into packs at different ratios and are not considered part of the regular set. Often you will find the best players in these small insert sets and depending on the ratio, the prices could be significant. These days, insert cards come serial-numbered to show just how limited the production is for these cards.
Example of a Parallel Card
These cards are inserted into packs and they mirror the base set but contain certain design differences to identify them as parallels. This could range from the borders being a different color, to gold foil stamping but in each case, the basic card design - picture on front and stats or bios on the back remain the same. Parallel cards can be inserted in any ratio making them either very easy or difficult to find. Again, these cards today are often serial numbered.
It should be noted that the sheer number of brands and insert and parallel sets has made collecting your favorite player (especially superstars) a very interesting job. Anyone collecting Derek Jeter today couldn't possibly collect every one of his cards.
Example of a Game-used Card
These cards, introduced in 1997 Upper Deck Football, contain pieces of equipment that has been used in a game by a specific player. These started out being very rare but became so popular, you can now find them very inexpensively. Game-used cards with odd pieces of equipment (cap, batting gloves, shoes, helmets) bring a premium as do pieces of bat or jersey that aren't plain. Jersey pieces that have more than one color or stripes are definitely more valuable than a card with a plain white piece of jersey.
A Short-printed Rookie Card
Short-printed Rookie cards
This innovation nearly killed the set builders. The idea was to limit the production of all of the rookie cards in the set by serial numbering them and inserting them just like inserts to the set. Often you would get one rookie card after busting a box of packs and you would be missing the other 29 in the set. This made putting these sets together very difficult. Thankfully, this practice is not used much anymore though rookie cards are still short-printed in many sets, the ratios usually are 1 in 4 packs instead of 1 in 24 packs (which is usually a box). When you see a set listed with card numbers beware of only getting the regular printed cards.
So what now, what should I do?
Now is a great time to get back into the hobby if you were disenchanted with it for the last decade. Only Topps and Upper Deck remain as licensees in baseball and Panini joins them for football. All three make unbelievable looking cards in a variety of price points. Choose the one that suits your budget. Have an idea of what you want to do. As a collector, focus on a theme or set so that you can be happy with your purchases.
Buy What You Like!!
I'll give you my personal experience. I personally am a huge 1986 Mets fan and my favorite player is Keith Hernandez. Growing up, I tried to collect every Keith Hernandez card and I have a fairly wide array of cards that range from his regular Topps, Fleer and Donruss issues to all of the food issues (Hostess cards, the disc cards of the 1970's) and oddball cards I can find. I still look for anything Keith Hernandez that I don't already have, and he has been in a lot of sets recently that feature retired players so now I have refractors and inserts and game-used Hernandez cards for my collection. This is how I keep collecting fun. Just the other day, a dealer friend of mine, pulled out the 1981 Topps Scratch-off Hernandez that I have been looking for - I was thrilled. The cost? About a buck...
So have fun with your hobby, pass it along to your children and never miss an opportunity to rip open a pack of baseball cards!!