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.
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.