Dust off those boxes of baseball cards in the attic and take a look inside; there could be gold lurking among those old cardboard rectangles.
Local baseball card shop owners use words such as speculation, investment and stock market to describe the hobby today.
Don’t call a financial adviser just yet, however. If the cards are mostly from the 1980s or early 1990s, the collection is likely worthless — from a financial standpoint, anyway. Like many commodities, baseball cards are valued based on their scarcity. The rarer the card, the more value it holds.
“For the most part, the ’80s and ’90s stuff is dead. The market collapsed because (card manufacturers) made millions and millions of cards. They completely flooded the market,” said Sean O’Rourke, a Brookfield resident who owns Dugout Dreams on Padanaram Road in Danbury. “People come in and I tell them to donate the cards to a children’s hospital or to Goodwill. They ask: ‘What if I wait 10 years?’ I tell them you could wait 100 years and (that era) will never take off.”
Anthony Balash, who owns Remember When Baseball Cards in Brookfield with his father Thomas, estimates that he has upwards of 500,000 sports cards in his shop on Federal Road. Of those half-million cards, however, only a small fraction hold financial value.
“It’s about quality, not quantity,” he said. “It’s an intricate business now.”
Return to value
By the late 1990s, a number of new developments returned sports card collecting to its former financial glory. Grading cards based on their condition, the rise of eBay and the release of special cards printed in limited numbers changed the hobby dramatically.
O’Rourke said in many ways the hobby became a form of gambling with “people looking for that big hit.”
“Vintage is always booming,” he said. “Modern high-end rookie cards are big, too, but that’s speculation. You never know who is going to be big and one injury can end their career.”
Manufacturers now insert into packs special cards with either a certified autograph or a small piece of game-worn jersey embedded onto the card. The special cards are limited and numbered. The packs purchased at card stores are classified as “hobby” and include more special cards. The packs purchased at big-box retailers are classified as “retail” and are not as valuable.
“People who are getting back into the hobby can’t believe what it’s like now,” Anthony Balash said. “Kids can still buy a $3 pack and pick out the Yankees or Mets, but most packs are more expensive because the product is more valuable.”
Because there is the chance to score a limited card that holds high value, the cost for a pack of baseball cards has risen over the years. Many collectors buy cards by the box, which contains a certain number of packs. Manufacturers often guarantee an autographed or jersey card in each box.
The eBay factor
It used to be that collectors had to visit a local card shop, canvas area flea markets or attend one of the numerous card shows throughout the country to seek their treasures. Now, as O’Rouke puts it, “people can buy stuff in their underwear.”
The meteoric rise of eBay revolutionized the industry as it became the go-to venue for buying and selling sports cards. Instead of crumbling under the weight of the internet giant and closing up shop like so many other sports card shops, Remember When and Dugout Dreams embraced the technology. Selling on eBay is a now a major source of revenue for the Balashes and O’Rourke.
“EBay is the stock market. It’s the factory that fuels the industry,” Anthony Balash said. “Now I have customers all over the world.”
Thomas Balash said eBay is largely responsible for the demise of the neighborhood baseball card shop. He opened Remember When in 1987 and has seen many shops close. Dugout Dreams has been open since 1996.
“At one point there were about eight shops in this area,” Thomas Balash said. “We’ve lasted and I’m proud of that.”
O’Rourke said eBay had a similar impact on baseball card shows. He used to attend between 30 and 40 shows across the country. Now he goes to three or four.
“I used to have lots of walk-in traffic in the late ’90s and early 2000s. Once eBay took over that all changed,” O’Rourke said. “It made the market stronger, though. Now people can buy from all over the world.”
Not all about baseball
Baseball remains the king of sports for card collecting, but other sports offer value, as well.
Football is second in popularity and certain rookie cards can fetch hundreds or thousands of dollars. Dugout Dreams has a 1965 Topps Joe Namath rookie card for $60,000.
Soccer cards are relatively new to the scene and attracting more females to the hobby, Balash said.
Basketball cards are in a lull, O’Rourke and Balash said, but anything with Michael Jordan’s name on it still sells. “I walked into a store years ago and laughed at the owner for trying to sell a 1986 Fleer NBA complete set box for $20,” O’Rourke said. “That can be worth $60,000 or more now. You really never know.”
In the buy-low, sell-high world of sports trading cards, or any commodity for that matter, one adage always holds true: “It’s only worth what someone is willing to pay for it at the moment,” Anthony Balash said.