save the balls! drown the cards!

[NOTE: This is a reprint of an article I wrote in 2006. I’m recovering some articles from my old ProgressaurusRex blog.]

For those of you that either followed baseball or collected baseball cards at any time in your life, there’s an interesting article over in slate about the death of baseball card collecting. I’m glad this article confirms the suspicion that i had all along — that the glut of cards thrown on the market in the 90’s made collecting them confusing and, frankly, no longer any fun.

But it stops waaaay short of addressing the further issue of the decline of baseball itself. I have to wonder if any others that read this article quit collecting — or following baseball at all, as i did — in 1994, the year of the last baseball strike. It was that year that I decided that in no way could I support those overpaid crybabies anymore (and to that end, I give you Exhibit A: Barry Bonds). And I can honestly say I don’t miss it one bit. Thank you, NFL!

I’m glad I got out when I did. Now, true to the “little investor” premise, I held on to what cards I had by putting them in storage, expecting they’d continue to appreciate in value and that I’d eventually sell them for much more than I had paid.

Four years later, 1998, I found myself in a bit of a financial crisis, so I decided to liquidate the cards. Now, I thought I was making a great compromise in my original plan, which was to ferret the cards away for decades and then, at last, reap the rewards. To my surprise, I found that already the market was falling. The truth was that aside from some notables (McGwire, for instance, who was in the process of hitting 70+ home runs that year), many of the other previously valuable cards were now next to worthless. It seemed that the whole market, which before had been roughly broken into major star/minor star/common value categories, had devolved to merely major or common (yes, the disappearing middle class). ALL of those $1-$5 blue chips now garnered no interest whatsoever.

“What gives?” I thought. Then I went to a baseball card shop for the first time in years. It only took a moment to figure it out: there were so many special edition, collector’s series, new brands, special sets, subsets, 3-d, jumbo, all-star, and other cards that I can’t imagine how anyone could’ve even started to collect them all; you wouldn’t have known where to begin. Closer inspection revealed that many of these cards were just too expensive right out of the box. sure enough, the card companies had gone upscale — five cards in one pack for $1? Just because they’ve got shiny gold-colored foil on them? Whatever. Even a kid knows that’s a ripoff.

Ultimately this was the death of baseball cards as we knew them. The card companies had succumbed to greed, just as the players that adorned those cards had. They had diluted the market by juicing the cards, just as baseball had diluted the game by juicing the balls [and the players – Ed.].

It reminded me, however, of an interesting card collecting anecdote from the 50s, though: the Topps company, faced with too much leftover stock in 1952, dumped thousands of cards into the Atlantic Ocean. This actually increased the value of the remaining cards; indeed, the Topps cards from the 50s are some of the rarest and most valuable of the mass-produced, post-WW2 baseball cards, and will always have a higher value-to-age ratio than any of the cards made since (by this I mean that when the cards made in the 80s are fifty years old, they won’t be as valuable as the cards made in the 50s are now).

Therefore, I propose that we dump half of all the cards produced since the 1980’s — and also half of all baseball players currently playing — into the Atlantic Ocean. This will add value to both the remaining cards, and the game of baseball. Because the game, and collecting baseball cards, will never be what it once was.