The Evolution of Sports Trading Cards

I think I’ve mentioned on here before that for baseball cards the era of the late 1980s and early 1990s was a boom era.  The major card manufacturers, Topps, Leaf/Donruss, Score, and Upper Deck mass produced their cards flooding the market with millions of baseball cards for kids like me to buy up every time we went to the grocery store or sports card shop.  The sports card industry thrived during this period because adults and kids alike thought that if they hoarded all these rookie cards of Mark McGwire, Barry Bonds, Jose Canseco, and Ken Griffey Jr., they would someday pay for our retirement, just like those Mickey Mantles would have for our parents if Grandma hadn’t thrown them out.

But, that was the problem.  With the card companies flooding the markets and with millions of collectors buying them up and putting them in 5000 count boxes, the cards from that era are not rare, and therefore they have become, in many cases, worthless.  Every guy my age has a box somewhere with a bunch of baseball and football cards from around 1987-1993.  I’m sorry to tell you this, but you might as well just donate those cards to the Boys and Girls Club, because they are not worth the boxes that you have them stored in.

Because of this the trading card market began a slow collapse during the late 90s and the card manufacturers had to come up with some new and innovative ideas in order to still move product.  Millions of investors got burned during the boom of the early 90s and had decided that sports cards were no longer a valid option.  So, the companies started doing three new things.  The goal here was to make cards more valuable.  It was hard to do that with what was essentially a picture on a piece of cardboard.  To counter this, the first thing they did was to try and make the cards more rare.  The initial step was to put “insert” cards into packs with particular odds.  These were special sets issued with the regular sets of cards but were not part of the regular set.  Each one of these was seeded into packs at a less frequent rate than the regular cards from the set.  Eventually, these became “chase” cards as dealers and collectors opened packs and boxes, not hoping to get their favorite players, but hoping to get one of these rare insert cards that they could sell for more than they paid for the packs.  Yes, thus began a period where sports cards merged into the gambling world.

With the success of insert cards, the card companies took it a step further and started stamping insert cards with serial-numbers.  When you found an insert card in your pack, you could look at the front or the back and see a serial-number stamped that would indicate just how many copies of that particular card were made.  The less copies, the more rare, and thus more valuable.  As a collector, if your card was stamped with 345/1000, you knew that you had the 345th copy of a card and there were only 1000 copies of that card made.  This started the 1/1 craze.  There were some very special cards of which only 1 copy was made.  These were stamped “1/1” and if you got one of those in your pack you had the only one in existence.  These became the “white whales” for collectors trying to collect all the cards of a particular player.  Player collectors were willing to pay lots of money for 1/1s of their players, often creating bidding wars on eBay when several collectors of the same player were all trying to get their hands on that single illusive copy of one card.  If you won the auction, you were the only Nolan Ryan collector who had that card in your collection.

The third thing the card companies did paralleled the insert craze, but also added a new dimension to trading cards that no one had ever seen before.  They began buying uniforms that players had worn in official league games.  The manufacturer would cut these uniforms into little pieces and then put them into the trading card itself.  The cards were thicker and had little windows in them allowing the collector to see and feel the piece of jersey, pants, or even bats that the players had worn or used.  The Upper Deck company started this in 1997, and “jersey” cards have been a staple in the sports card industry since.

This was rather controversial in the beginning because not only did the companies cut up jerseys of current players, which there were plenty of, but they also began buying jerseys of older retired, or even deceased players.  So, they would purchase an original, game-worn, Babe Ruth jersey, cut it into little pieces and then place those pieces into cards.  Many people couldn’t believe a company would cut up what essentially was an incredibly valuable piece of baseball history.  The argument that came from the manufacturers was that not every one could own a Babe Ruth jersey and this gave the average collector an opportunity to have a “piece of history” (even if it was a small one) that they might not have otherwise.

Jersey cards were also considered insert cards, and at first they were extremely rare.  And, the manufacturers also started adding serial-numbers to jersey cards (and autographed cards) just like they did with the regular inserts.   Now, you can buy sports card products that guarantee one, or even multiple, jersey cards in every pack.  These packs aren’t particularly cheap.  In fact, some of them may cost you as much as $300 per pack of cards, but in those packs you are guaranteed a certain number of jersey cards and even autographed cards.  For a cheaper option, you can usually find products that guarantee a jersey or autographed card in every 12 packs, or sometimes more, and these will usually only run you about $3-$5 a pack.  If you don’t want to take the gamble with packs, you can always just go on eBay or your local sports card shop and usually find a jersey card of your favorite player for less than $10.

In my next post, I’ll show you some examples of my Texas Ranger jersey and autographed cards.

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One Response to The Evolution of Sports Trading Cards

  1. Pingback: A Few of My Texas Ranger Baseball Cards | Atop Greene's Hill

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