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.

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.

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