Amusing Avocations: Baseball Cards

Photograph+by+the+National+Baseball+Hall+of+Fame+and+Museum.

Photograph by the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum.

Dean Robbins, Allegheny Campus Staff

There is one baseball card worth more than the rest: the 1909-11 T206 White Border Honus Wagner. Wagner was born just outside Pittsburgh near the Meadowlands Casino. He played 17 seasons for the Pittsburgh Pirates, 21 in total. He coached for several years for the Pirates. He died in December in 1955 in Carnegie—only five days after Rosa Parks refused to give up her bus seat. He was an incredible baseball player and an incredible Pittsburgher. While he left an indelible mark on baseball and Pittsburgh history, he is often overlooked these days. We talk of the stars in the 60s and 70s like Roberto Clemente and Willie Stargell. Now, if Wagner is remembered for one thing, it is a small picture of his face on a small piece of cardboard that once sold for 3.12 million dollars. This is the story of baseball cards.

Baseball cards were first produced in the mid to late 1800s. Cards were produced on all kinds of topics. They were kind of like mini postcards and people loved to collect them. Humans love to collect things. It may be some sort of obsessive-compulsive tendency or pure love for a sport, character, celebrity, or medium. Monarchs filled their palaces with paintings and sculptures. It may be to fill a hole in ourselves. But when baseball cards as a separate hobby really came to fruition was when some schmuck in the 1880s had the brilliant idea to package them with cigarettes. It was a hit. And as baseball grew into “America’s pastime”, the popularity of baseball cards skyrocketed along with it. Throughout the years, baseball cards had their ups and downs. But a major change would come in the 1950s that still holds today: Topps.

Their very first cards were made in 1949. It was perfectly timed. The many men that fought in the planet’s second Great War returned home to make babies—and make babies they did. The product of this time period was the Baby Boomers. These Baby Boomers would become baseball-loving kids who would absolutely eat up (occasionally literally) every kind of baseball card available. And Topps was there to capitalize on it. In 1952, Topps put out their first “annual set”. An annual set includes hundreds of cards and has a card for every single current player and team. Then, there would be multiple annual sets—each with its own style. These sets could be parsed into smaller “packs”. These packs would include bubble gum as an extra treat. It was a win-win for kids. Free candy and pictures of your favorite baseball cards!

From an early age, kids began to collect these. Many older folks still have their collections—which often turn out to be worth quite a bit. A lot of people stopped collecting but some didn’t. These would become hobbyists or official baseball card collectors. Like a connoisseur of fine wines or vintage book editions, baseball card collectors can tell the value difference between a 1993 Base Set Card (worth about nothing) and a 1967 Vintage Insert (can be worth quite a bit). Today, the baseball card collecting business is well-respected and worth hundreds of millions. Topps is still putting out annual sets and still putting out packs of cards. One of their annual series is called “Allen and Ginter”—named after one of the first cigarette companies to include baseball cards in their packs. Every pack comes with very specific odds for the thousands of cards you could get. A “relic” is a card with a piece of a jersey or another small piece of memorabilia from a player. They are very hard to “pull” from a pack. An “autograph” is a card with a signature from a player. They are also very hard to pull. You would be extremely lucky to pull one of those from a single pack. But a serious collector does not buy just single packs. They pack “hobby packs” and “hobby boxes”. Most hobby boxes, usually costing around $70-$100, tend to guarantee at least one autograph and/or relic. There are even ultra-premium hobby boxes (or even just single packs), selling for hundreds or even thousands of dollars, that come with just relics and autographs. It can get quite costly.

Kids still collect baseball cards. However, nowadays most baseball cards are bought by serious collectors. And a lot of those collectors’ hobbies are rooted in nostalgia. One YouTuber, a Pittsburgh local who goes under the name “Jabs Family” has collected baseball cards with his brother since they were little kids. Erik Jabs, a teacher at a local high school, is a very serious collector. Sometimes he will do “pack openings” of hundreds of packs at a time. He and many other channels subsidize the cost of their openings by selling some of the packs to loyal viewers. You can “buy in” to the opening. For example, Jabs has a system where viewers can pick a team and then get every card from that team pulled sent to them. Teams are first come first serve. Jabs’ brother also has a YouTube channel aptly named “The Past is Alive”. For many, collecting baseball cards is a way of returning to the peaceful innocence of childhood. Unfortunately, like the past, baseball seems to be slowly fading away.

The games are long, slow, and without a lot of action. “America’s Pastime” is increasingly seeming to be football or even hockey over baseball. Even if one day we stop playing baseball and forget about it, and even if we stop collecting baseball cards, the mark that baseball has left on the soul of America and the world cannot be erased. Acclaimed baseball writer Roger Kahn once said: “You may glory in a team triumphant, but you fall in love with a team in defeat. Losing after great striving is the story of a man, who was born to sorrow, whose sweetest songs tell of saddest thought, and who, if he is a hero, does nothing in life as becomingly as leaving it.” Honus Wagner left us on December 6th in 1955. But we all carry a very small piece of him with us. And sometimes that piece is a baseball card.

 

See you next month.