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.

The Rise and Fall of Baseball Cards

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.

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