Collecting baseball cards not the same these days

Jul 7 2012 - 11:03pm

KANSAS CITY, Mo. - Collecting baseball cards was once a mandatory part of boyhood.

Neighborhood swap meets with kids making deals for a favorite player's card or the final card needed to complete a set were commonplace on porches or in bedrooms coast to coast.

But the baseball-card hobby has lost ground during the last two decades. It seems static photos of ballplayers with lifetime statistics on the flip side - information readily available on most cell phones these days - seem blasi in the Call of Duty era.

"Only one or two of my friends collect cards," said Jacob Hales, 14.

Hales, who is from the Atlanta suburbs, is in town with his father, Scott, and 11-year-old brother Nathan for All-Star Game weekend.

They spent Thursday afternoon poring over the stock at The Baseball Card Store, 7431 Quivira in Shawnee, Kan., looking for the cards of players who would be at FanFest.

But young baseball card collectors have become the exception rather than the rule.

"When I opened my store in 1988, every kid collected cards, and now, as you see, a lot of it is 40-plus-year-old men who make up the bulk of my customers," said Scott Neal, who owns The Baseball Card Store. "Over a 10-year period, the manufacturers made the product so expensive that it priced kids out of the market."

In the internet age, with kids more likely to spend an afternoon playing video games than emulating hometown baseball heroes in pickup games around the neighborhood, the baseball-card industry has lost a generation of kids.

Perhaps that will change, however, for at least a few young baseball fans in Kansas City amid the All-Star Game hoopla.

"The whole industry went through this rocky time right as kids were getting all these other great diversions - video games and the internet," said Dave Jamieson, the author of Mint Condition, which chronicles the history of baseball cards. "That market hasn't returned since the 1980s when I was a kid. That is the fundamental problem. There is no future if they don't have kids interested."

There is no shortage of blame for the demise of the baseball-card industry, which peaked with $1.2 billion in sales in 1991 but has been in precipitous decline ever since.

Current estimates put annual baseball-card sales at $200 million.

When baseball cards, which have been around in one form or fashion since the 1880s, surged in value during the 1980s, the rush to cash in led the industry to lose touch with its roots.

The days when kids could scrounge a nickel here and a dime there for a pack ended as baseball cards became a trendy investment option during the Reagan administration.

A Wall Street stockbroker named Ric Apter even started the Apter Card Average in 1990, which was something akin to the Dow Jones Industrial Average but instead tracked baseball-card values.

As more manufacturers flooded the market, the market veered away from kids to adults with greater expendable income.

"Long term, the skyrocketing value of cards definitely hurt more than it helped," Jamieson said. "Everybody was raking in a lot of money, but that probably ended up being a little short-sighted."

And there isn't any one group to blame, Jamieson said.

Card companies saturated the market with products, dealers inflated prices, and collectors hoarded the collectibles like cardboard gold.

"All of it led to the bubble bursting," Jamieson said. "Stuff was worth very little or nothing in the end, which is probably the way it should have been treated all along. Looking at them as investments warped the whole industry and with the strike of '94, people fled en masse from the hobby."

Mostly only the diehards remain.

"I would collect baseball cards if they weren't worth a penny, so it doesn't matter to me what the prices are," said Kevin Thomas from Lexington, Ky., who came to Kansas City for All-Star weekend. "But that drives a lot of people."

The once-innocent hobby is forever changed.

"It's all about the money now," Scott Hales said. "The kids look for the value of cards. I used to look for my favorite players. I was born in Cleveland and was an Indians fan. I used to go to the gas station, and I would search through the box for Cleveland Indians guys. I didn't care if Reggie Jackson was on top, but now, my kids are looking for the Bryce Harpers and Stephen Strasburgs. The high-dollar guys and guys who will bring some value."

Still, some of the old joy - and hope for the industry - remains.

Jacob Hales' eyes light up as he flips through a stack of cards and discovers an Ichiro Suzuki card he didn't have.

"I have about 220 Ichiro cards," Jacob boasted.

Each one, no doubt, invaluable in his eyes.

"Baseball cards have been around for 120 or 130 years now and have always survived," Jamieson said. "As long as there's baseball, there will probably be baseball cards around."

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