You can, if you want, collect baseball cards just the way you did as a kid, going to the store (it’s probably a Target today) and buying a pack, hoping your favorite player’s card is inside.
There are wealthy individuals today who started out that way, but they no longer drop by the five-and-dime to get their cards. Instead, they watch the baseball card market, hoping to find a card that they can hold for a few years and resell at a higher price.
Investing in baseball cards is a market that is similar to many other collectibles’ markets; you need to have what someone else wants, and hope he is willing to pay for your item in an amount that makes the transaction profitable.
“We have a saying: ‘Every card has a home’,’’ said Steve Wilson, owner of Jim and Steve’s Baseball Cards Shop in Waukegan, Ill.
A quick update, for those who have not thought about baseball cards for a while: Today there are still many companies making baseball cards, but there are three primary card producers, Topps, Upper Deck and Panini, a European company that bought up Donruss in 2001. They do produce cards like card makers have done since the 1980s.
But there are also cards that are much different than the ones that came with a pink stick of bubble gum in the pack.
“You’ve got the high-tech cards, like see-through cards, or cards that are as thick as an inch with pieces of bats or jerseys embedded in the card,’’ said Tom Bartsch, the editor of Sports Collectors Digest. “They are trying to meet both ends of the spectrum.”
The ends of the spectrum are the kids who are starting their collections one pack at a time, and the serious collectors who have already spent thousands of dollars and are ready to spend more if the right card comes along.
As an investment, baseball cards are like other collectibles, in that rare cards and well-maintained old cards are the most valuable.
“I deal with a lot of guys who invest in the pre-World war II stuff,’’ Wilson said. “Any time I have something really nice, I have a dozen guys I can call and somebody is going to take it. When I buy something, I usually have someone in mind.”
Baseball card collecting as an investment option had its unofficial start in the 1970s. Up to that point, cards were collected by baseball fans who would read the statistics on the back, flip them in card games, attach them to bike spokes to make that cool “thwpp’ sound, and trade them with each other the same way they might trade a sandwich at lunch.
But eventually more serious collectors began paying large sums for cards from the early days of baseball, and more people recognized the potential income that could come from wise collecting and trading. In the 1980s, with the growth of media coverage of sports, card collecting began to add a new dimension.
“You had more people hanging out in the lobby of a hotel to get autographs on cards,’’ Bartsch said.
In the 1990s, “inserts’’ were big. That was when a card company would insert a special card into a regular pack and let the baseball card lottery game begin among collectors.
Baseball card collecting became such a big deal that more and more companies produced more and more cards. In the 1990s, it was estimated that card companies made enough cards every year to give every person on earth 300 cards apiece.
That glut drove down the price of cards to nearly nothing, at least among the cards that were produced in the 1990s. But old cards maintained their value.
Today, the old, well-maintained cards and special issue cards are highest in value as an investment property. And it can still work as a way to make money.
“What you are finding is people looking for cards for Hall of Fame players in top condition,’’ Bartsch said. “If you get the rookie card for a big name in a 9 or 10 condition, those cards sell for ungodly sums, six figures.”
“I’ve known people who have cashed out their 401Ks and invested it all in cards,’’ Wilson said.
Kent McDill is a staff writer for Millionaire Corner. McDill spent 30 years as a sports writer, working for United Press International and the Daily Herald of Arlington Heights, Ill. From 1988-1999, he covered the Chicago Bulls for the Daily Herald, traveling with them every day through the nine-month season. He also covered the Bulls for UPI from 1985-88, and currently covers the team for www.nba.com. He has written two books on the Bulls, including the new title “100 Things Bulls Fans Should Know And Do Before They Die’, published by Triumph Books. In August 2013, his new book “100 Things Bears Fans Should Know And Do Before They Die” gets published.
In 2008, he resigned from the Herald and became a freelance writer. The Herald hired him to write business features and speeches for the Daily Herald Business Conferences and Awards presentations.
McDill also writes a monthly parenting column for the Herald’s Suburban Parent magazine.
McDill is the father of four children, and an active fan of soccer, Jimmy Buffett and all things Disney.