The Lunacy of the Numbered Cards
By Brendan White aka SteakNchop
The unmitigated reason vintage cards have value is their rarity. If there were ten thousand Honus Wagner T-206’s then it would be a normal and inexpensive card. The whole market for this runs on this mantra and without it would fail miserably. 1950s Topps, 1960s Topps, 1970s Topps all have the same thing as the rest; cards get thrown out, not many more left. People want cards of those old players; scramble to find what is available. The vintage market is just as fascinating as the modern market.
Back before cards were worth anything there were only one or two brands and sets you could buy. For most of us, that was Topps. Topps was the one that made baseball cards, they were the one with the gum in the pack. There wasn’t a Topps Triple Threads or Upper Deck X or Bowman Draft Picks & Prospects; there was just Topps card number one to let’s say seven hundred. That was it.
If you haven’t been in a coma for the past thirty years I am sure that you know that this has since changed rather dramatically. There is Topps Chrome, Topps Heritage, Topps T-206, Topps Sterling, Bowman, Bowman Chrome, Bowman Draft Picks & Prospects, Bowman Sterling and more and more and more. That’s just Topps. Then there is Donruss, Upper Deck, Tristar as well as several other companies. The excess of sports card manufactures creates no scarcity whatsoever. Base cards were worth nothing and people believed there were millions more of the exact same card. Then the card companies had their big idea.
At the headquarters of _______ Card Company there was quite a discussion going on. “Our sales are going down because people don’t think their cards are rare any more,” said one card company executive “I wonder what can be done.” “There must be a way to create an illusion of paucity among the cards we sell.” “How about printing less?” “That’s stupid, since there won’t be enough cards for all the demand.” “Okay, then how about lying?” “That’s even worse, since people are bound to find out.” “I know!” “What?” “We’ll put little numbers on the back of the cards that say how many of them were printed!” “You’re a genius!”So all the big card companies started numbering their cards. We believed that there were fewer now and that the cards we bought would be sparse throughout the market. We were accurate, though not exactly.
Our numbered blue refractor might be numbered to three hundred ninety-nine, but when it comes down to it, card companies did not make fewer cards but actually more. There are red refractors, orange refractors, green refractors, blue refractors and even normal refractors that seem rarer than a base card but are produced at a very high quantity. Then there are all the variations, all the different designs, and more so until it gets to the point where you start to wonder if your plan old base card is rarer than them all! Because when you really think about, if you open a pack, there are only a certain number of normal old base cards. There are all these chrome ones, refractor and colored border cards, autographs and jersey and patch cards and shoelace cards and button cards and laundry tag cards and enough items in those things to clothe all the freezing people in this world.
For example, just the other day I traded a numbered Joe Mauer jersey card for a Mariano Rivera jersey card. Obviously, they are both world-class baseball players but Mariano Rivera is also clearly much better, especially considering his career is near its end. (That solid 1.80 ERA last year does make you wonder how much longer he will be playing, though) Why did I get such a good trade in my opinion? No, it was not that I was trading with a Mauer collector but that the Mauer was numbered and the Rivera wasn’t. There may very well have been the same number of each, just one of them Upper Deck did not bother to number.
How can we become so tangled up in this mess of ideas that would make us think that these cards that are numbered are worth any more? Maybe it is the shininess, maybe it is the thought in our heads that there are only two hundred forty-nine other people who have our card and maybe we just try to show it as a positive to other collectors so they will give more for our card.
When you think about it, some cards are naturally numbered no matter how you look at it. You can’t get a player to sign twenty-five thousand autographs nor can you get him to wear a new jersey every innings of a game. There can only be so many printing plates, unless the company makes printing plates for the sole purpose of putting them in the packs. Many of the cards you spend all your money on our not self-limited sadly. It is pretty easy to print a bunch of refractors, fairly straightforward to make red bordered cards, orange bordered cards as well as reddish-orange bordered cards. There is nearly an unlimited supply of ink, so nearly unlimited quantities can be made. Infinite possibilities of variations exist as well, so every card can be low numbered. Who knew!
What should we as collectors do about this deceitful phenomenon? For one, do not pay or trade extra for numbered cards. As I said earlier, a numbered card is no more sporadic than your run of the mill non-numbered card. Another thing you can do is just act differently about them. You list your autos and jerseys cards from a box you opened as well as the numbered refractors. Why list these? Well, people do currently pay more for them so it is pretty logical to. But in the name of the hobby, why not take a little loss for some big time improvement later on?
My hope is that we can all come to realize the true value of numbered cards; the same as an unnumbered card. Maybe then when people aren’t paying big money for superfractors and more for normal numbered cards the companies will rethink their tactics and bring to us a nice clean set of normal, unsuperfractored cards. But for now, that is as scarce as what a 1/1 should be.
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