By Brandon York aka UofLnMU

 

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: collecting sports cards is one of the few multi generational hobbies America has. Right now, we risk severing that tie. When I think about the glory days of sports card collecting, like most of you folks, I think back to the dusty box of cards from my grandfather’s attic (I pulled a 1974 Mike Schmidt and a 1975 Johnny Bench from that “box break”). I heard stories from my older relatives about fabled (and likely fictional) 1951 Mickey Mantles placed inside bicycle spokes and tales of Ted Kluszewski’s biceps that read more like a Cincinnati-area Paul Bunyan than a sports page. This was my baptism into the church of sports cards. To be honest, I didn’t know much about the sport other than hearing the names intoned reverently by my father and his brother during long days pulling tobacco plants on the farm in Kentucky. (A farm, coincidentally not terribly far from a farm owned by Don Gullett—that subsequently went under, and forced Gullett to return to coaching…or at least so my uncle said).

 

One of my first religious experiences was one I shared with my father. The Reds had traded for Tom Seaver, whose name I only knew from the hushed reverent tones that it was spoken in. I was opening packs of cards that I’d carried home from the store. I was still at the age that team affiliation trumped all things—I was interested in the Reds, and specifically the uniform. I knew little more than it was my team, an inheritance that I had received from my father and uncle. At any rate, that fateful afternoon was the first occasion that one of the cards pulled from the pack came with it a name I recognized. It never went down in the annals of sports lore as one of those iconic pieces of cardboard, but nevertheless, it was one that found its way into my jeans back pocket—and subsequently turned to cloth.

 

I collected cards, and specifically baseball, because I enjoyed baseball. I enjoyed baseball mainly due to the fact that I received the cues that I should enjoy baseball. It was a connection that I shared with a previous generation of my family, and an arena that I could share with my father, even during my petulant early teen years when I sat on the couch watching Mike Scott square off against the New York Mets (who soon became my “other” team). This ultimately is what attracted me to sports cards—it was meaningful to me. It offered me definition and location for my identity. I enjoyed baseball because…well, it’s just because it’s who I was as a member of my family.

 

I’ve heard that same story intoned by countless other men and women at conventions and in lines to acquire autographs. I have yet to hear anyone talk about the magical moment that they pulled their first chase card or the first time they pulled a redemption card. The thing that we want to see return to the hobby is the sort of beauty and innocence that we fancy existed in that bygone era. An era in which kids strolled up to the counter and were able to buy a pack or two with their own money, and were excited to get cards of their favorite team or player—and no one ever used the phrase “base card” (or at least not in a derogatory sense). An era when kids would talk about cards and everyone chased after the same set. The marketplace is cluttered with so many different products. Pete Rose had one rookie card. How many does Joey Votto have? If it’s that confusing for a 36 year old to navigate the card market, what do we expect a youngster to do?

 

To return collecting to the “glory days,” we have to replicate those conditions. I can’t support myself as a hobbyist today, even with a decent job. How can we expect kids to? The hobby historically was founded on the backs (or bicycle spokes) of working class kids. Not only is the market glutted with product, but it’s glutted with product that is priced at an insane sticker price. The problem is the same as the one plaguing professional sports. Sports have priced themselves out of the range of the diehard fan. I certainly didn’t grow up in the era where a Coke was a nickel, but in about 15 years, I’ve seen ticket prices increase beyond 100%. When I go to a baseball game, the trip has been budgeted for quite some time. The experience of sport is qualitatively different now. If we’re serious about a return to the “good old days”, we have to return to those values.

 

Enough gimmicks. I don’t need to pay six bucks for a pack of cards because I have a slight chance of landing an autograph from a player who won’t see a major league stadium for another 3 years.

 

Enough subsets. I want to piece together a set—a meaningful set, not hunt for a handful of radioactive, reflecting, refracting pieces of plastic. If there are more cards in existence for Aroldis Chapman than Bob Gibson, we have a problem.

 

Enough with the high-end product. I didn’t fall in love with my significant other after some sort of lengthy cost-benefits analysis (happily, she didn’t look into my earning potential, either.) Sure, cards will always have value based on desirability, but we shouldn’t be sending the message to kids up-front that the only reason we should value cards is because of the insane money that they bring.

 

The next generation of collectors needs to find the joy and love to collect through similar channels that we did. Get the speculators out of the hobby, and return it to where it was when it was done for love of the game and the thrill of chasing your favorite stars.