Join Date: Mar 2002
Re: Baseball Cards In A Slump: Sales down 80 percent since 1991 (Fleer out of busine
Macro and Caveat, I feel your pain.
I began collecting in 1979 when packs of Topps cards could be had on sale at your local variety store for $.25 each. A box of cards could be purchased from our local candy distributor for about 12-15 bucks well into the 1980's. Even so, I must have spent double that just trying to pull the 1983 Topps Robin Yount I needed to complete my set.
While I was trying to pull that card, I didn't notice that things were a'changin'. In 1981 Fleer re-entered the mix and Donruss jumped into the baseball card scene. The companies did so with horrid photos but quality card stock. I barely paid attention.
But then, in 1984 something happened. Donruss, the new new kid on the block created what really should go down in history as a legendary card set bolstered by stunning design and a complete 180-degree turnaround in photo quality. The 1984 Donruss set was, IMHO, the true precursor to the market flood that would hit us less than half a decade later. The set, including Don Mattingly and Darryl Strawberry rookies, was beyond hot. I was lucky enough to get a box at MSRP at a local dime store, but before you knew it packs were selling at card shows for $3.00 and up. That was a Big Deal. Brook Jacoby rookies were selling for seven bucks and commons routinely ran a buck each or more. IMHO, that was the first test of what the market would bear and I truly believe that the manufacturers started to listen (and understand) the secondary market.
Year two (1985) produced another exceptionally-designed product- the 1985 black bordered Donruss set (Eric Davis, Kirby Puckett, Roger Clemens, etc.). Just as hot as 1984 and #1 with a bullet. The emergence of Jose Canseco (can you believe his rookie was once a $100 card??) did nothing to diminish the luster of Donruss' offerings in 1986. Quality was key, but the perception of scarcity was still intact. You simply couldn't find 1986 Donruss cards anywhere after they first appeared.
Fleer- lagging behind in card design- struck back in 1987. Wow were those nice cards. The Fleer glossy set even more so. But there we go- a premium offering, even if it was only as factory sets. The market would obviously bear that weight (as it had borne the Topps Tiffany sets) and now it had shown the market would bear multiple premium product offerings. Upper Deck simply capitalized on it in 1989. I truly don't blame Upper Deck for anything. They simply identified a market niche and exploited it.
The 1987 Donruss set was well-designed (as we'd come to expect), but something happened...we began to find those cards more often and they were available for a longer period of time it seemed. Unfortunately, this perception wasn't a lie.
The primary problem, in my eyes, is that the market- beginning with the mid '80's- became too saturated and involved too much heavy speculation on rookie cards. Not that I minded, because I was the guy who'd grab 50 Barry Bonds rookies for a dime each and trade them for 20 bucks when the time came. People who understood the ebb and flow of the market built their collections for almost nothing during that period. I was one of them. Dealers weren't smart. If you had the basic skills to project performance at that time, you could make a killing in the market. Folks call that speculation. Ok. I was a speculator in high school. But I didn't have the money to build my collection any other way.
And then 1988 happened. That was the year that killed the baseball card industry as we knew it. The specific card I point to is the 1988 Fleer Billy Ripken in it's multiple "error" iterations. That card was a case study in how people would gobble up "limited" and "variant" print cards in the secondary market. "Error-gate" had begun and Donruss had responded with what seemed like a million "mistakes" of its own. If the card manufacturers needed a reason to issue gobs of insert cards, they now had it.
Unfortunately, the hobby of collecting took a further turn away from kids and began to focus solely on the adult speculation which was, at the time, churning tons of money into the hobby. But, for years, smart collectors and dealers (like Al Rosen) were unshaken because they were focusing on the past- buying up high-grade truly scarce cards from the 1950's, 60's, and early-to-mid 70's. Other collectors turned to other products- like the re-introduction of basketball cards into the sports collectors market in 1986 by Fleer. Those collectors were rewarded with boxes of 1986-1987 Fleer Basketball product that had the potential to yield three Michael Jordan rookies to a box.
Oh, there were some significant baseball offerings after that. Some update sets did well. 1992 Bowman (after three years of rank product offerings) was the bomb. Topps Stadium Club and Fleer Ultra burst on the scene to rave reviews and moved the Topps Tiffany and Fleer Glossy quality line into the mainstream. But the time of base cards holding value was long gone. Some folks didn't know it, but the time was done.
<Editor's note: Don't even get me started on the 1990 Score set. I would like to forget that mistake was ever made.>
The "scarcity" period was nearly a decade past. The time of quality being able to significantly bolster base card value was coming to an end. And that 1992 Bowman set created a massive problem for other issuers. Where Donruss "Rated Rookie" cards had previously been the accepted "Rookie" cards for young stars when applicable, now Bowman was printing cards of guys who'd never touched the Show and the industry accepted them (almost without exception) as true "Rookie" cards.
This effect meant that the industry had to make choices. Without the ability to produce accepted "Rookie" cards in the base set, non-Topps companies turned to scarcity as an option. Oh, Topps Finest was on the scene. And Fleer attempted to keep pace with an incredibly well done premium set- Fleer Flair.
But with each company attempting to trump each company, something had to give. It did. The "Insert Age" began.
Inserts had been seen before in baseball card history. In the 1960's they took the form of stamps (and I made a hefty profit from those recently) and mini-posters. Just try to put together a set of 1975 Topps Minis. Good luck. Fleer had actually produced a very nice insert set including All-Stars in the 1980's. But none of it represented the flood to come.
At first, inserts were scarce. Then less so. Then, every pack seemed to have an insert of some type in it as we saw multiple insert sets and multi-tiered rarity among insert sets. The "Memorabilia Age" was right around the corner.
Want a piece of a game-used jersey? Hey, buy a $2.00 baseball card pack lottery ticket and you might just get one. Want an autograph of a real-live baseball player? Step right up and try your luck!
What happened to the cards? I dunno. You mean that if I didn't get a swatch of someone's jersey in that pack there were still actually CARDS of players in it???
That, IMHO, is the current problem. No one has cared about the cards for some time. Heck, even finding a jersey card or an autograph isn't enough anymore if it's not limited enough. No, now we need to find the George Washington autograph card inserted at a one-in-a-billion rate in a pack of Topps baseball cards (it was actually pulled at the card store I frequent, BTW).
Now just being "limited" isn't limited enough. I've actually seen a card shop customer spend $550.00 on a pack of basketball cards. Now cards need to be truly unique rather than just limited. If it's not the highest quality "true" rookie possible, it's pretty much worthless to a speculator. And considering that player popularity is more transient today than at any point in baseball history, even the "true" rookie is a bad investment.
Considering that the speculator was the only real grasp card manufacturers held on the market for a decade plus, that's a bad thing for the manufacturers because speculators are now almost completely echewing the current market in order to focus on the past- which is where their attention should have been all the time.
But that current problem is also the current opportunity. Because of the expense of packs and the competition for market share, companies began inserting memorabilia and autographs at a higher (and subsequently higher) rate. The result was an aftermarket flooded with what were previously rare offerings that simply weren't very rare anymore. Prices on memorabilia cards dropped- and dropped significantly.
That's actually a good thing for the collector who wants to get back into the market. Why? Because you can get things that are priceless to you and you can get them cheap. Right now, I'm looking at George Foster's signature on a Topps Archive card. I spent $4.00 for it. It's worth, oh, somewhat more to me than that. It's worth the $4.00 I paid for it and the gas that I used to drive to get it and the angst I caused my wife crowing about it. It's worth multiples upon multiples of that investment because the 10-year-old baseball fan in me knows that I could have never had anything as cool as that on my allowance in 1979. No way. No how.
IMHO, we're entering another "Collectors" age where the young buyer can grab things touched by his heros for a fraction of a fraction of what they're acutally worth to him.
That is, no doubt about it, a truly Good Thing to see the smile on that kid's face when you give him something his hero has touched.
"The problem with strikeouts isn't that they hurt your team, it's that they hurt your feelings..." --Rob Neyer
"The single most important thing for a hitter is to get a good pitch to hit. A good hitter can hit a pitch that’s over the plate three times better than a great hitter with a ball in a tough spot.”