By Andrew Kahn
It’s easy to paint a dire portrait of baseball card collecting. Stop in any card store—if you can find one—and you’ll encounter a similar story to Stadium Cards and Comics. The Ypsilanti, Michigan, store has been owned by Mark Fenwick for 26 years. When he started, there were five or six similar shops within a five-mile radius. Now, the nearest card store is 20 miles away. Fenwick estimates the average age of the baseball card collector goes up every year because there aren’t many kids acquiring the hobby. Kids still come through the door, but they’re more likely to buy Pokemon, Yu-Gi-Oh, or Magic: The Gathering cards. “Sports have become secondary,” he says.
But the lack of hobby shops hasn’t spelled doom for the baseball card industry. You can find packs in any Walmart or Target. Convention centers still fill up for shows, and the online business is thriving. Says Susan Lulgjuraj, marketing communications manager at The Topps Company, “There’s still a rabid, passionate group of collectors.”
In the past, card companies would release a few sets of cards during the baseball season. That wouldn’t fly with today’s on-demand culture. Enter Topps Now, which produces a new cards every day depicting highlights from around Major League Baseball. A card from earlier this week shows Oakland’s Jed Lowrie approaching home plate after hitting a game-ending homer, the A’s third straight walk-off win. Each card is available for purchase for 24 hours and costs $9.99 (unless it’s signed, in which case the price can climb into the thousands). Within two weeks, the physical card arrives in your mailbox.
Topps Now started last season. The highest-selling individual card was one that depicted Ichiro Suzuki tipping his cap to the crowd after collecting his 3,000th hit. It sold 11,550 copies in 24 hours. The second-best seller, at close to 9,000, showed then-Mets pitcher Bartolo Colon following through on his first career home run. In total, Lulgjuraj says half a million Topps Now cards have been sold and the company expects to reach the one million mark this summer.
Since 2009, Topps has been the only company to hold licenses from both MLB and the Players’ Association, meaning no other company can produce cards with team logos. In the past, collectors had far more options (Upper Deck, Bowman, Fleer, and Donruss were among the biggest). “When there’s a monopoly, nobody wins,” says Fenwick. “If there were at least two (companies), you could choose which one had the better autographs, the better photography, whatever. Instead you’re at (Topps’) mercy.”
There are also digital baseball cards—accessible through an app where users can trade through the online marketplace—a method of “collecting” I can’t wrap my head around. I’m fine with my life savings existing as figures on a computer screen, but I want my baseball cards in the physical form, thank you.
That’s why I bought a pack for $1.99 at Fenwick’s store. It was last season’s Topps Update Series and included 10 cards. The first thing I noticed was how small the pack seemed. I quickly realized my hands were a lot bigger than the last time I handled baseball cards. Unlike so many packages these days, a pack of baseball cards is easy to open; you can tear right down the seam and return the cards inside the foil. Sifting through the cards one by one was a nostalgic thrill. I got a few unfamiliar players, a couple of rookie cards, and two stars: Bryce Harper and, to my surprise, actress Aubrey Plaza, who was pictured throwing out the first pitch at a Dodgers game. Looking up the cards on Beckett.com, it appears the minimum value per card is 35 cents. Some were closer to $1 and the highest in my pack, a Seung-Hwan Oh rookie, was valued at $2.50.
I’m not sure I’m ready to dive back in to card collecting—I get my memorabilia fix with bigger, framed items these days—but if you are, Topps has a “Rediscover” section on its website. Lulgjuraj says the Topps Now cards are a fun way to connect your actual (or fantasy) fandom to collecting. Regardless, it’s good to have a focus, whether it be player- or team-specific, or something more obscure like collecting cards from player who went to your college or grew up in your home state.
Today’s cards will likely never be worth as much as that box you found in your grandparents’ basement, but that’s not the point. We collect baseball cards for the fun of it, and to eventually become the grandparents with the box in our basement.
Andrew Kahn is a regular contributor to CBS Local. He writes about baseball and other sports at andrewjkahn.com and you can find his Scoop and Score podcast on iTunes. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter at @AndrewKahn