Baseball card collecting: A pastime with suicidal tendencies

Derek Jeter takes his final bow at the All Star Game at Target Field July 15, 2014 in Minneapolis, MN. ] Jerry Holt (Photo By Jerry Holt/Star Tribune via Getty Images)
Derek Jeter takes his final bow at the All Star Game at Target Field July 15, 2014 in Minneapolis, MN. ] Jerry Holt (Photo By Jerry Holt/Star Tribune via Getty Images) /
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(Photo by Focus on Sport/Getty Images)
(Photo by Focus on Sport/Getty Images) /

Baseball card collecting, a pastime that seriously tried to kill itself about 25 years ago, has found new life in engineered scarcity, but will that last?

Baseball card collecting is an MLB adjunct activity that simply refuses to die despite what basically amounts to multiple suicide attempts. Periodically, this results in what might be called think pieces, articles popping up maybe once a decade in “serious” or important sports publications.

One of these was Luke Winn’s article in Sports Illustrated called “The Last Iconic Baseball Card,” published in 2009, a piece asserting that Ken Griffey Jr’s 1989 Upper Deck rookie card is the last trading card worth owning.  The subhead for this article referred to “the beginning of the end of a once-thriving industry.”

And yet, baseball card collecting – as well as gathering football, hockey, and even soccer cards – persists, and even garners a little attention here and there if a high-profile card is sold, or, say, a major league player confesses enthusiastically to collecting.

The latest think piece on baseball card collecting is Eric Moskowitz’s “How Baseball Cards Got Weird” from the November issue of The Atlantic, and ten years after SI basically declared card collecting to be on its deathbed, Moskowitz’ subhead refers to an analog hobby that has found a way “to thrive” in our digital age.

The writer runs somewhat quickly over the decline of card collecting in the mid-’90s resulting from the glut of cards produced in what could be called a Renaissance of card collecting that hit in the mid-80s. This rebirth of the activity was basically fueled by adults, as opposed to the kids who actually collected cards in the 1950s and ’60s.

As the 1990s dawned, the several competing card companies simply produced too many cards in total, and specifically, too many rookie cards, the real prizes for collectors at one time. Derek Jeter had eight, for example, but that was a manageable number – sort of. As the century ended, however, there seemed no real reason to collect rookie cards if there were, in fact, 43 different items that could claim the title for a given player – the actual number of Albert Pujols rookie cards, by the way.

Moskowitz’ updates things for the 21st century, accurately reporting on new developments, such as podcast case breaks, for which people pay fees to claim all the cards for a given team as 4000 cards are tediously exposed to the light of day for the first time, and other developments in collecting that amount to engineered scarcity, such as “relic cards,” and the growth of professional, third-party card grading services. (For non-collectors, relics include small pieces of game-used bats and uniforms.)

The case breaks are, as Moskowitz suggests, particularly weird developments – partly borderline “entertainment” and partly borderline gambling. Relic items are also arguably strange, involving the goofy initial activity of reducing a bat or uniform to tiny pieces of itself – the destruction of something of value to create a number of items that, in the aggregate, are worth more, or so it is hoped.