A History of Dumb Baseball Cards, Vol. 1

The baseball card industry, to me, is fascinating. People are willing to pay real money for little bits of cardboard coated in plastic and foil, with tiny and usually grainy pictures of baseball players. The entirety of a baseball card, the images and statistics, can be found on Google in six seconds. The cards have differing values based on the player depicted on the card, and that value has no relation whatsoever to the aesthetic merit of the player in question.

Despite the crumbling of the baseball card industry some ten years back, these cards are still worth some money, despite the fact that they have no intrinsic value to speak of. The baseball card economy is driven solely by the irrational demand of its customers, driven by tales of Mantles and Wagners found in attics, or driven by the horror of the investments their own mothers had tossed away. In short, baseball card collecting is as useless as it is ridiculous, a waste of time and energy.

This is not, in actuality, a bad thing.

Happiness, after all, is often found in the ridiculous. We cannot be caught up in the spiral of productivity and efficiency; these ideas may make us better, and stronger, but they also make us slaves. They’re emblematic of the childlike sense of play that is crushed out of us by societal conformity and increased obligations. Noted (forgotten) philosopher, playwright, and dashing rogue Friedrich von Schiller spoke out as a proponent of frivolity against a backdrop of developing industrialism. It’s only during play, says he (in German), that we develop our aesthetic sense and allow our curiosity to develop. Leisure, it turns out, is good for us. A hundred and thirty years later, legendary face-maker Bertrand Russell piled on, noting that hobbies are “fun”.

So rather than continuing to impugn the dumb activity that is baseball card collecting, I’d like to celebrate it. Unlike most “important” things, no person has ever been killed over a baseball card, or at least there is no evidence of it when I google “killed over a baseball card”.

Our first entry in the history of dumb baseball cards: the 1981 Fleer Graig Nettles Error Card.

Graig Nettles somehow managed to become underrated despite spending the majority of his career with the most famous team in baseball during its most raucous eras, the Bronx Zoo. Perhaps it was his solemn, gritty personality; perhaps it was his nickname, “Puff”; or perhaps it was his name. Graig’s mother did not like the names Greg or Craig, but apparently was drawn to the phonetic sound regardless and drew an unhappy compromise.

In its inaugural season, Fleer was as confused as the rest of America, and designated Graig as Craig on its first run of baseball cards. The error became the Billy Ripken of its time, and its value shot to $21.00 by 1982, enough money to buy 16 gallons of regular gas or 36 Rickey Henderson rookie cards. In fact, here is a table of cards that were worth less in 1982 than the thrill of seeing a misplaced letter C:

Warren Spahn 1948 Bowman RC $19.25
Bob Gibson 1959 Topps RC $18.50
Steve Carlton 1965 Topps RC $1.75
Nolan Ryan/Jerry Koosman 1968 Topps RC $9.35
Graig Nettles 1969 Topps RC $2.10
Robin Yount 1975 Topps RC $3.25
Paul Molitor/Alan Trammell 1978 Topps RC $2.75
Ozzie Smith 1979 Topps RC $0.45

These days, the card is significantly cheaper: an auction on eBay recently sold 64 of them for $11 with shipping, and are frequently given away in lieu of flowers by religious solicitors at airports. Fleer’s noble attempt to give Graig the name he probably deserved has been largely forgotten.

The Nettles error card is one of the many examples of irrational, senseless bubbles that emerge and pop within an economic structure that is itself a irrational, senseless bubble. It’s as if the history of baseball card collecting is an endless string of mornings spent hung over and weighed with regret. But ironically, this irrationality is what makes (made) the hobby so entertaining, and puts it in line with fantasy baseball; collecting a specific card is, at its root, about capitalizing on the inability of other people to correctly determine value. The Nettles error is one where the bettors got it wrong; the 1990 Topps Frank Thomas No Name card is one where, somehow, they got it right. Either way, the feeling of being on the better side of demand is a heady feeling.

If only for a little while.




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Patrick Dubuque writes for NotGraphs and The Hardball Times, and he served as former Bill Spaceman Lee Visiting Professor for Baseball Exploration at Pitchers & Poets. Follow him on Twitter @euqubud.


5 Responses to “A History of Dumb Baseball Cards, Vol. 1”

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  1. pags140 says:

    This feels like a tantalizing series but it makes me feel inferior. I am uncertain as to whether I should mock those like me who have spent their youths collecting near value-less trinkets or laugh along with the rest.

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    • Pumpkin says:

      I laugh, because my parents insisted those baseball cards would be worth money someday. But those Magic:the Gathering cards that were all the rage then? Those would never be worth anything, don’t waste your money on something so frivolous.

      The thousands and thousands baseball cards have been in a landfill for the better part of a decade. The few dozen Magic cards I bought in secret? Sold on ebay for hundreds of dollars…

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  2. rdj3video says:

    What’s sillier? Collecting baseball cards or clinging to those perforated Strat-O-Matic players cards so you can enjoy those impressive Column 3s or horrible Column 1s depending on how great or bad a player was that season?

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  3. MikeT says:

    Your first two paragraphs show a clear correlation: you indicate that the stats on the back of the cards can be found on Google, and then you note that the baseball card industry crumbled ten years ago. I would say that before ten years ago, it was harder to find those stats, and that was likely one (of many, even if a small) reason that people collected them.
    I would agree with you as to why they still hold onto them, I’m sure that there is still such a large population from that era (you and me included) that collected them, that a large number of them want to hold on to the glory of their collections, and therefore continue to drive an otherwise outdated market.
    I will admit that I was one of the many in the ’80s who collected baseball cards as an ‘investment’, leaving me now with a nice pile of overproduced cardboard tucked away in a corner of the basement.

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    • It seems like such a clear correlation, and yet I think that if you asked most people why the baseball card industry died, they’d point to the pull-tab philosophy of the insert-card boom.

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