Sunday, June 1, 2008

Baseball Card Bust aka You Don't Know What You Got Till Thirty Years Later

Buddhism speaks of the difficulty, in meditation, of controlling one's own thought processes. If I were to say to myself, for example, "Don't think of an elephant," what am I doing at that moment but thinking of an elephant? And so it is with the folly-filled world of sports memorabilia, as this article in Slate (regarding the coveted 1989 Ken Griffey, Jr. Upper Deck rookie card) so vividly reminded me.

Many were the nights my father beguiled my brother and I with the (possibly apocryphal) tale of how his mother threw out all his baseball cards in a pique of the housecleaning spirit. "God, can you imagine how much those cards would be worth today?" my father griped. "I can't believe she just...threw them away." But of course, who at the time could have anticipated that those cards would ever be worth more than the gum with which they came? And who at MGM in 1939 would have even bothered saving any outtakes from that lousy Wizard of Oz movie? Now we're treated to deleted scenes from What Happens In Vegas and You Don't Mess With The Zohan on needless "special edition" DVDs, and all those cards my brother and I saved are hardly worth anything at all because every other early '90s baseball card collector was thinking the same exact thing we were. As Darren Rovell writes, "Collectors' hands would shake when they saw Griffey's face in their pack, confident that this card would be the key to financing a college education." Now the card is only worth about $275 max. Hey, community college can be a very rewarding educational experience.

Back before the days of fantasy baseball, card collecting was the ultimate marriage of athletic achievement and naked capitalism. Oh what fools we were, fondling our Topps Jose Cansecos and Donruss Nolan Ryans like they were stocks and bonds. "When Griffey welcomed collectors to the very first Upper Deck set, investment was just about to trump fun in the card world. Kids had started putting their collections in plastic sheets and hard cases rather than bicycle spokes and shoe boxes, and investors would cross-check every card picked from a pack against the latest issue of Beckett's price guide." Ah yes, Beckett's price guide. I'll never forget the day I touched a tender nerve in Jack - owner of Jack's Cards in Strawflower Center. Jack was like a stoner Dennis Eckersley: long black hair, '70s 'stache, thin and wiry. On the whole he knew his stuff, but after a couple of months I couldn't help but notice that, say, a Darryl Strawberry listed in Beckett's at 50 cents was being sold at Jack's for $1. With the wisdom of age I have learned to keep such observations to myself. However, at the age of ten I was known to speak my mind, and after coming across another particularly glaring price discrepancy, I muttered under my breath, "This place is a rip-off." Jack seized the Beckett's from my hand. "Let me tell you something, kid! Beckett's is not the only authority on baseball cards, all right?" I backed away. "Beckett' not God!" He chucked it across the room. "And I do everything I make sure you guys get the best cards at the best prices know what? If you think I'm a rip-off, then you can go to some other card shop and buy your cards there, all right?" Tactfully, I kept my mouth shut and wandered to the other side of the store. My father came by and apologized.

Years later, after Beatles books had dethroned card collecting as my diversion of choice, I brought a Beckett's guide home with me, just to see how many millions my 11-year-old self had had the foresight to generate. Not only had the value of most of my cards remained the same, but some had even gone down. And so, like those miners in the Gold Rush who came just a little too late, and had to sweat and scrape just to mine enough gold to pay the bills, it dawned on me that I might as well not have bothered at all.


Herr Zrbo said...

Shit, I remember Jack's cards. Jack actually lived down the street from me. Did that incident with Jack really happen, or is that also apocryphal?

Little Earl said...

I'm afraid it's the whole truth and nothing but the truth, my friend. I opened my big fat mouth and he just went off on me. I shouldn't have said his store was a rip-off to his face, of course, but it was kind of unprofessional of him to freak out on a kid. Still, it showed that he really did care about what he did. Jack was all right.

Anonymous said...

Ah, the memories! I actually still have the Griffey card at home - in a case - $275 you say?