Beginning with the intention of liquidating my collection, I turned to local card shops and the online fantasy land that is eBay. And I quickly found that it is easier to spend money than make money when it comes to sports cards. There was the nostalgic, impulsive purchase of the entire 1972-73 set of Topps brand hockey cards; and the decision to collect the 1965 set of baseball cards; and the hours and hours spent online to find cards that can be flipped for a profit, thanks to my, um, er, savvy mind for business.
The unintended — but entirely predictable — outcome: I have purchased far more cards than I have sold since beginning this all-consuming adventure. “Yeah, a lot of people tell me that,” one card shop proprietor told me.
So, I guess I am not alone. As ESPN.com wrote in late 2020, when the pandemic fueled a wave of newly invigorated collectors: “The rise of eBay, Amazon and newer marketplaces like StockX gave birth to huge secondary markets and fierce global competition for sports’ most coveted stars, which in turn sent prices skyrocketing.”
Indeed, collecting has changed since the innocent days of purchasing a pack for 10 cents and storing cards in stacks held together by rubber bands. By the mid-1990s it had become big business, not childhood folly.
As author John Bloom wrote in the 1997 book “A House of Cards”: “Collectors often decried how money had ruined their hobby, making it hard for them to form meaningful friendships through their cards. Money, however, made the hobby not only profitable but also more serious, more instrumental and therefore more manly. The same collectors who complained about greed often bragged in the same interview about the value of their cards. Yet money, in turn, made the hobby less akin to child’s play and more like work; lonely, competitive, unfulfilling, and alienating.”
We’ll leave that to the sociologists to decipher. But an amateurish foray into this childhood-hobby-turned-adult-business has been fulfilling and whatever is the opposite of alienating. Who wouldn’t want to spend 30 minutes internally debating whether to bid $230 on a Mickey Mantle card? It eventually sold for $405.
Yes, it is silly to pay more than $200 for an 8¾-square-inch piece of cardboard. But it also is a respite that combines childhood, memories of collecting with my dad and my friends, and grown-up profit-seeking.
So, if you have $350 or so lying around, I have a Nolan Ryan rookie card for you. Just don’t ask for Cleon Jones; I’m keeping that one.