Murphy: Baseball cards' value not all about the money

June 23, 2013 

I had passed the store thousands of times in the past eight years. Its mere presence offering a reminder of my youth and the thousands of hours I'd spent collecting, trading, sorting and memorizing baseball cards.

It has been years - probably 23 or so - since I'd even looked at my collection. But I've never forgotten about them. I'd lugged the 75,000 or so pieces of cardboard across the country, still in protective plastic sleeves or boxes designed specifically for them.

Haunted by stories of older collectors having their Mickey Mantle and Willie Mays cards tossed when they left the house for college or married life, I vowed to safeguard my cards forever.

Someday, they'd be worth thousands of dollars. Maybe more, right? As everyone else threw their cards away, mine would only become more valuable - just like the cards from the 1950s and '60s.

Except it never happened.

The cards actually declined in value.

The late '80s, the era when I was consumed with baseball cards, just so happened to be the peak time for collecting (and, importantly, printing) them. It was all about volume then.

Sell 1 million cards today.

Print 1 million tomorrow.

It's how I could afford to purchase packs - complete with a stick of teeth-rotting, pink gum - for 50 cents. It's also why millions of those cards remain in circulation. Rarity is what drives card prices. Rarity did not exist in the late '80s.

Though the cards have not increased in monetary worth, their value to me has grown. As a link to a childhood that can't help but get further away each day.

One Friday afternoon last month, feeling particularly nostalgic, I finally made my initial foray into Jerry's Rookie Shop, the small sports and entertainment card shop on State Street that I've passed all those times.

For years, I've wanted to clean up a 1978 Topps set, my birth-year set, a Christmas present from my mom when I was 10 and at the height of my collecting. All the cards are there, but the checklists were marked up.

Other than those cards, I wasn't looking for anything in particular, save perhaps a peek at the past.

What I discovered was an entirely different hobby.

"It's gotten very expensive," said Jerry McClusky, the shop's owner. "It's driven out casual fans. It's driven kids out completely."

It's also allowed McClusky to keep a store open.

I used to purchase my packs at convenience stores, gas stations and even delis. A dedicated card business can't operate solely on 50-cent packs. Today packs cost more than $4 each as companies have produced more and more specialty sets and special cards.

The 792-card sets I grew up on are no more. The hierarchal numbering system is gone. Topps used to save its "00" cards for the absolute best players with other good players getting a "0" or "5," such as 460 or 325. There are subsets upon subsets.

Now people are hunting for cards with swatches of uniform in them or authenticated autographs or special inserts.

Collectors are more like investors - or gamblers, depending on your perspective.

Bruce McAllister, 58, has secured a valuable collection. He collected as a kid, got back into the hobby when his children were little and now seeks autograph cards almost exclusively. He had "eight to 12" Tiger Woods autograph cards, valued at between $2,300 and $4,100.

He bought by the box at the card shop. Some boxes cost more than $80.

I watched a regular named Ron (he asked me not to use his last name) open pack after pack after pack, hoping to "pull" a valuable card: an autograph card, an exclusive card, something worth hundreds of dollars.

"You're watching the most unlucky person in the history of this hobby," he said as nothing good materialized.

It was painful to watch. His bill rising. His luck not changing.

McClusky kept tabs, almost like a blackjack dealer who keeps flipping 21s against an increasingly desperate player. Rooting, but powerless to help.

"You deal with a lot of different personalities," he said.

I was missing the joy that came from opening a wax pack and hoping not only for good cards, but for cards I needed to complete the set.

Just then, 8-year-old Sam Pepe entered the store with his dad, Mike. Major League Baseball has worked with shops like McClusky's to help kids stay engaged, providing cards through a Boy Scout pack in Sam's case.

Sam went straight to the bargain bin, loose cards selling for less than a dollar. He sifted through them until he found what he was looking for - San Francisco Giants catcher Buster Posey.

He showed it to his dad and snagged a dollar.

Maybe 20 years from now he'll still have it, just like the dozens of Will Clark cards I still have. Maybe he'll still smile when he passes another small card shop.

Last weekend, I attended a card show at the Boise Hotel. McClusky organized it. I connected with one of the dealers, who said he had the 1978 cards, along with a few cards from 1989 and '90 that I needed to complete sets. I e-mailed him my list during the week and he shipped the cards along with a small bill.

I placed the cards in their proper spots Thursday night. More than 20 years later, the sets are finally complete.

They may not be worth much, but it's tough to place a value on feeling 10 again.

Brian Murphy: 377-6444,Twitter: @MurphsTurph

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