The Rise and Fall of Baseball Cards

Dave Jamieson, author of “Mint Condition,” on the 1994 crash of the baseball card industry—and the outlook for a once-cherished hobby.

Upper Deck1989 Ken Griffey Jr
The 1989 Upper Deck Ken Griffey Jr. rookie card, #1 in UD’s debut set and a symbol of the greed-fueled baseball card boom.

At the height of their popularity in the early 1990s, card manufacturers produced an estimated 81 billion baseball cards a year. “That’s about 325 cards for every man, woman, and child in the United States,” notes Dave Jamieson in his recent book, “Mint Condition: How Baseball Cards Became an American Obsession” (Atlantic Monthly Press). For manufacturers, the Major League Baseball Players Association, and card shop owners alike, it probably seemed as if the good times would last forever. But as was the case with tech stocks and the housing bubble, the decline was precipitous and painful.

The beginning of the end can be traced to early 1989, when a bold new company named Upper Deck released its debut set, which featured the rookie card of once-in-a-decade prospect Ken Griffey Jr. Upper Deck positioned its products as more than mere collectibles, convincing its audience that the cards were worthwhile investments, setting off a brief but intense period of wild speculation that initially buffeted the industry, but ultimately helped bring on the Crash of ’94.

Reminded of that era by the hype surrounding Washington Nationals rookie pitcher Stephen Strasburg (not to mention the artificially-created market for his “Refractor” cards), I asked Jamieson to discuss the boom and bust years of the baseball card industry. Don’t bother e-mailing either of us about that “gold swirl-enhanced SuperFractor” Strasburg card you may have heard about, however. “I wrote the book on baseball cards, and I don’t even know what that is,” quipped Jamieson at the conclusion of our conversation.

What inspired you to write about the history of baseball cards?
When my parents were selling the house I grew up in they called and told me I had to clean out the stuff in my closet, which included a huge box of baseball cards. Primarily I had commons, but I had also squirreled away what I thought were the important cards of that era—a Don Mattingly rookie, Kirby Puckett rookie, Cal Ripken Jr. rookie, etc. When I was twelve years old, I put them all in plastic cases because I thought they were going to be valuable someday. And when I [re]discovered them my intention was to unload them for what I thought would be pretty good money. But when I started calling card shops, I started to understand how the industry had plummeted. In fact, most of the shops I called were out of business. Then I went on Craigslist and eBay and saw what cards were fetching—nothing. The cards were basically worthless cardboard. That’s when I got interested in looking into the world of baseball cards and writing about it. The idea was to find out where the cards came from, and where they went. The industry is not what it was when I was a kid. Baseball cards are not a hallmark of childhood anymore.

What was the impetus for baseball card collecting becoming wildly popular in the first place?
Everything started happening in the early 1980s. At that point baseball cards had already been around a hundred years. But in the late seventies and early eighties a group of prescient collectors started traveling the country buying up collections and doing shows. This was at a time when most cards were still believed to be worthless, and mothers threw a lot of them in the garbage. These guys snatched them up and a market developed. The cards soon became valuable—not like the prices we’d see later—but you’d see a Mickey Mantle rookie card sell for a thousand dollars, which in the seventies was a huge amount of money. That’s when price guides like Beckett’s began to appear, and things started to steamroll. People started to see that the cards from the 1950s and ’60s had become valuable (because most of them had been thrown out and they were rare). But people began applying that mentality to new cards, and started stowing cards away as investments.

Then in the 1980s, the mainstream financial press—like the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times—started hyping baseball cards, comparing them to stocks and bonds. There was a time where it looked like you couldn’t go wrong, but it was a bubble forming. Finally, in the early nineties everyone started to recognize that the cards were just collectibles—that they were not investments and not as scarce as we were led to believe. The card companies weren’t disclosing how many cards they were manufacturing, but they were making billions.

What role did Upper Deck play in changing the market?
Upper Deck harnessed the cards-as-investments concept. [In 1989] they began rolling out flashy, sleek-looking cards that were meant to be seen as investments. Before they even produced any cards they were calling what they had in the works “cardboard gold,” and they went gung-ho on selling a more expensive product and selling as much as possible. It went well for four years or so, but they soon suffered along with everybody else.

Why did the baseball card bubble burst?
I talked to an executive at Fleer who said that the downfall of the hobby was greed. It was greed on the part of card makers because they rolled out so much product that it diluted the power of the cards and killed the golden goose. It was greed on the part of the baseball union, because they sold a lot of rights—and made a lot of royalties on those rights—until they had too many card makers. Then you had greed on the part of dealers, surly guys who didn’t care to talk to the nine year olds who came into their shops, and were there just to sell cards. Finally, collectors were swallowing up everything thinking it was going to turn to gold. Everyone got their just dessert in the end when the whole industry crashed. The nail in the coffin was the [1994] baseball strike. Collectors soured on the sport and fan resentment was off the charts. A lot of people got out at that point.

Are all the big-name manufacturers of the boom era—Topps, Upper Deck, Fleer, and Donruss—still producing baseball cards?
At this point it’s just Topps. Last year Major League Baseball (MLB) decided they were only going to renew their contract with Topps. Part of the reason the industry failed is because so many different companies rolled out so many different sets that the hobby became sprawling and hard to wrap your hands around. Part of what MLB wants to do is to streamline everything.

What else might be done to resurrect the industry?
They have to figure out how to get kids to collect baseball cards again, and it’s really hard now because you have incredible video games and the Internet. But Topps has made a little headway. They have simplified their card line and slashed prices. And they have added an online element to some of their sets. One that has sold pretty well has a fantasy baseball component where you can compete with your friends based on the cards you’ve got. But it’s a very difficult road ahead. There is so much competing for a kid’s attention that it’s hard to give them a stack of cardboard and expect them to spend a day on that stuff.

Dave Jamieson's Web site

See also: Why scoring baseball is becoming a lost art