Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Wither Herb Washington? A look at card collecting, and some questions.

OK, soapbox time and question time. Two weeks ago, I asked some questions only partially related to the subject at hand in the comments on this post at Cardboard Gods about Topps' "Greatest Cards Of All Time" vote. If you're not familiar, the cards Topps gave everyone to choose from are here. To make a long story short, the list is extremely heavy on Mickey Mantle and rookie cards (many of them in that multiple player "future stars" format that almost never made for a great looking card), and not heavy on cards with amazing photography or paintings, interesting/hilarious quirks, or any of the things that most of the folks who write about cards these days and I look for in a great card. Josh Wilker and most of us, myself included, echoed this sentiment on the post and ensuing comments (two weeks later, the comment thread is still lively, and is a laundry list of great cards to boot). I did put forth the theory there that, despite our very strong opinions on the subject, those of us who write about cards could have the market figured out wrong, and Mantles and rookies could be what most people want. It's really hard to say without any serious data, though. I also put forth some of my thoughts on the subject and asked some questions that I still don't have answers to, so I'll see if they can get answered here. If you're fairly new to this discussion (and I know that a bunch of you who've followed me over from other parts of my world probably are), my apologies for speaking a foreign language, but hopefully you'll find enough in this article to serve as a gateway to the things that those of us who are familiar get excited about, and find some joy that way. Billy may be giving you the finger in the card below, but I'm certainly not, so hopefully this doesn't get too arcane and meta for y'all.

In the past few years, since card blogs* have become a regular part of a bunch of our lives, have you folks noticed parts of our little subculture seeping into the rest of the card hobby? Are some of the cards that have been championed by us, like ol' Herb up top, Oscar Gamble's magnificent 'fro, any of Don Mossi's epic portraits or The Compleat Sixto Lezcano becoming harder to track down or more expensive, in your experience? Has there been a run on Bip Roberts cards in your area? Is anyone out there (besides Josh, who has 'em already) working on a collection of every card featured in the Cardboard Gods book? (It'd be a pretty cool collection to build, admittedly, though Josh may argue that people would have more fun collecting their own cardboard gods instead of just a pile of his.) Have your collecting habits been changed by the things you've read, learned and discussed on card blogs? And finally, on a broader scale, do you think that the things talked about on The Baseball Card Blog, Cardboard Gods, Cardboard Junkie and a host of other sites (I could literally name great sites all day; sorry for not naming everyone!) have caused any shift in the mainstream trading card hobby, or are we all in our own admittedly fun little world where ball players wear really cool hats?

What I've witnessed online is a group of people (maybe smaller than I think, maybe much, much larger) who have really returned to their roots and collect for sheer FUN after having the concept of "investment" shoved down their collective throats for the past two and a half decades. These folks don't shy away from cards of players who will never make the Hall Of Fame in their respective sports (some of them collect cards of pretty bad athletes, and I'm sure that in some cases, they do it exclusively). They don't wince if a particular card has a bad corner on it (in fact, for some, the more beaten up a card is, the better; check out Things Done To Cards and Poor Old Baseball Cards for just a few examples of these types). Some collectors shoot for cards of people with great names, statistics be damned! Some collect cards without any people on them at all. The one area of the trading card hobby that I haven't found a lot of exclusive discussion about yet is non-sport cards, though plenty of the sports card collectors I know have stashes of stuff they like, and I'm sure that discussion's taking place somewhere. (Feel free to mention it in the comments, if you know where it is!) Bottom line, though: people, at least the weirdos I've found online and I, are having real fun collecting cards again, and we've got folks to talk about it with, too! Call it a support group if you must, but the important thing is that we're sharing. Well, maybe not all of us...

(I know, I'm sorry, I've posted it before, but it's just SO AWESOME.)

Now, don't get me wrong here. I'm not saying that you can't have fun investing in cards by any means, but for a long time, the trading card hobby made people feel (and I think there are still plenty of forces working in this direction) like investment was the alpha and the omega of collecting, like everything had to be 100% mint, locked in a vault and never looked at or touched, and I'm of the mind that this approach (coupled with a huge glut of products on the market for most of the past 2 decades, and the still-lingering effects of the 1994 baseball strike) has been really destructive (or self-destructive, in the case of the folks doing the pushing there). It kinda sapped the fun out of card collecting for most of the people who were doing it and drove them out completely in a lot of cases. On a personal level, I can sum up what drove me away during the peak years in one name: Billy Ripken. As a 14 year old kid who'd watched too much cable growing up, I really, REALLY wanted the card with the dirty words on it, but as soon as '89 Fleer came out and word got out about the hilt of Billy's bat, it seemed like dealers pre-emptively marked the card, and all their '89 Fleer packs up to ridiculous levels. From then on, it really wasn't any fun, and I was out before I even got a whiff of Upper Deck. They'd priced their core audience out of the market.

(One of the most awesome things ever to happen, not just in cards. Scan ganked from Beardy, so I didn't have to take my copy, which I did finally get about 2 years ago, out of its glass display case on my wall.)

While there are still plenty of folks collecting with the "pure investment" mindset that drove things from the mid-'80s to the mid-'90s (and some, again, are having a ton of fun doing it, more power to 'em), compared to what card collecting could have been in terms of popularity (I was about to type "mainstream popularity", but hobbies are never truly "mainstream", are they?), the hobby as it was thought of in the boom years is something of a shell of itself, or at the very least, a shell of what it thought of itself as being. It did try to resuscitate itself recently when Stephen Strasburg's baseball debut happened, but his injury torpedoed that as quickly as it started (but yeah, damn it, it got me to the tune of 40 bucks just because I'm nuts and didn't want my Heritage set to feel incomplete; way to build up goodwill toward your business, Topps!).

(This one, I won't apologize for reposting. I'm gettin' my money's worth out of it, damn it! Ouch.)

While the overexposure and decline of the card business may not have been such a good thing for folks who based their business models or collections on something totally unsustainable, I'm really not sure if it's such a bad thing, on the whole, for people who love to collect cards. Again, I go back to that one word: fun. With a lot of the pressure of big money and big competition off the card hobby (more talking about my fellow collectors and the dealers than the manufacturers, though there are fewer of them, too), it's a lot easier to enjoy yourself buying cards, and I'm also starting to find a bunch of people who are interested in trading cards without worrying too much about fair market value for them. (If anything, I'm still a little too guilty of referring to Beckett and eBay prices when trading, mostly just to make sure that the people I'm making trades with are getting a fair shake, though.) Things are relaxed in card collecting for the most part, and as a result, they're a lot more fun.

(Gorman's trying to think of what to trade Thorzul next. For those of you who weren't around a month ago, this beauty of a card came from a Thorzul trade. I actually got two, count 'em, two Strasburg cards in the mail today, from another deal I did with him! He didn't even ask me for a kidney!)

I'm especially sure that folks who reside in this little Internet card collecting community of ours, even in our cranky moments (and they definitely do happen), seem to be having a blast collecting. I am still very curious, however, as to how many of us collect the way we do and collect the kinds of things we do, how much of it is as a direct result of sites like this one and the ones I named above, and ultimately, if we're changing the card business or the more mainstream (Again, not mainstream, because let's face it, nothing about hobbies is mainstream. We're loners, Dottie. Rebels.) parts of the hobby at all. I live in the New York metro area, which can be a tough place to get a read on because everything is so focused and fixated on the local sports teams here, but perhaps those of you who are spread out further, or even some of you who are local to me but have more exposure to the day-to-day card hobby might be able to shed some light on things. If you feel like you have any insights into what I'm talking about, either as a collector, a card dealer or even an employee at a card manufacturer, I would love to hear them, and I'm sure my readers (I have 'em now, apparently; thanks, if you're one of 'em) would like to hear them too. While there's a chance that what I'm asking about may sound suspiciously like market research, I assure you all that it's just for fun.

(*Note for folks who don't know me too well just yet: I hate the word "blog", as I feel like it trivializes the act of writing, and it pains me to type it, so please, try not to make me do it too often, OK?)


  1. I blogged (there's that word) about this very topic tonight.


    Pretty much all that Josh said 2 weeks earlier, but I didn't see that until now. (no crime in getting beat out by Josh).

  2. Welcome to the party, Night Owl, and thanks for the comment. Loving your '75 Topps stuff, and I really should poke my head into your main site more often, too. Adding it to Google Reader now.

    I've actually thought some about posting my choices here along with my thoughts like you're doing (I listed 50 on the Cardboard Gods thread, basically off the top of my head with no explanations), and may still do it, even though we all are. I had finished my initial list for about a half hour before I realized I was missing El Duque, so 2 weeks of hindsight could produce a very different list than what I posted over at Josh's.

    I swear though, with the amount of love we all have for Herb Washington (and I'm actually pretty new to the Herb party; I'd heard about him here and there over the years without really thinking about how awesome he and his baseball card, which I just got recently at a mall card show in PA, were), we're going to create a bum rush for that card. If the guy does card shows, it's gonna be like The Beatles on Ed Sullivan before too long.


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