Ask NotGraphs #13

Dear NotGraphs,

I have a decent collection of baseball cards. At least, I imagine it is decent, or would have been, had I not chosen to collect baseball cards at a time when they were very popular. From 1990-1993, you couldn’t walk half a block without stepping on a discarded foil pack. My city had 15 card specialty shops. It now has 1. And I have lot of nice looking, worthless cards. Question is, what should I do with them?? It seems a shame to destroy them, but a 1988 Rookie card of Hall of Famer Roberto Alomar is still only worth 5 bucks. Maybe. There must be some way to get value out of them again.

I leave my question to your capably pondering mind.

Dear Collector,

Ah, I remember baseball cards. I spent far, far too many hours in the company of baseball cards when I was growing up. There was a seedy-looking motel not far from where I grew up that hosted a baseball card show once or twice a month, where seedy-looking people would try and sell factory-sealed 1984 Topps Traded sets to young kids like me. My grandparents made their living in the stamp and coin business, which was the baseball card business for people who were born before there were baseball cards. The Internet has done a terrific job of killing all of this stuff, hasn’t it? I mean, I remember when eBay first became a thing, and there were articles about how collecting would now be so much easier, this would be magic for collectors. Except the magic of collecting is the search. It was having to go to the seedy-looking motel near where I grew up, to their bi-monthly baseball card show, and dig through boxes and boxes looking for the three cards I needed to finish the set. It was going with my grandparents to estate auctions in some warehouse on Staten Island, where they would scour through lots filled with a combination of trash and treasure, trying to stumble upon a hidden gem. But now you can buy anything you want. So what’s the point? You don’t need to search for it. You just need to Google search for it.

I lost interest in baseball cards around 1990 or so. I was eleven. My mom didn’t lose interest for another few years. So, for a little while, I was sort of pretending to want the new Topps sets, because she really wanted to buy it for me. But between, say, 1986 and 1990, I must have opened so many packs of cards, searched through so many dusty boxes, and now they’re all just sitting in shoeboxes and binders, on shelves in my mom’s house, more or less waiting for a fire or flood to destroy them. My grandfather had a friend in the baseball card business– the friend sold baseball cards, but collected stamps. On half-days from school, when my grandparents would be watching me for the afternoon, we’d often stop at this guy’s store. My grandpa would give him a bag of stamps and they’d catch up while I sifted through dusty, dirty– filthy– boxes of cards from the late-70s and early-80s, looking for players I’d heard of. Thinking back, I realize that so many people my grandparents dealt with collected stamps– it was a social thing for them, they met people in their store or through their mail-order business, and those people became friends, they bonded over what they collected. My pediatrician was a coin collector– I remember my grandpa bringing him coins when I didn’t feel well; I don’t remember anyone paying a co-payment.

I haven’t quite answered your question, I suppose. I sort of wonder how your city even has one card shop left. I can’t even imagine buying baseball cards in 2012. I have two pieces of advice, as far as how to get value from them, and it’s advice I should probably follow too. You want to get value from them? Look at them again. Remember how excited you were to get them in the first place. Remember how different the world looked as a child, an unopened pack in your hand, the hope of a treasure inside. And then keep them safe, because even though we assume that everyone knows better now than they did in the ’50s and ’60s and people aren’t throwing away their baseball cards anymore– they will. Fifty years from now, the market may not be flooded with 1987 Topps, and maybe, just maybe, there will once again be actual monetary value in these things. Maybe not. But, heck, anything printed out on paper is going to be rare at some point soon. Anything that doesn’t merely exist in the cloud. Or at least save them for your kids. Let them look at them the way I looked at my grandpa’s stamps and coins– bored, uninterested, feeling like I was being tortured– or let the cards help them fall in love with baseball like they helped kids like you and me.

Good luck,

Have a question for Ask NotGraphs!? I’m running low again, so please send! About baseball, not about baseball, doesn’t matter, I’ll answer just about anything. E-mail me, or leave your question in the comments!

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Jeremy Blachman is the author of Anonymous Lawyer, a satirical novel that should make people who didn't go to law school feel good about their life choices. Read more at McSweeney's or elsewhere. He likes e-mail.

10 Responses to “Ask NotGraphs #13”

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  1. MustBunique says:

    Great stuff. Loved the line about spending too much time in the company of baseball cards. I had binders full of them and hated that I could only hold one binder in my arm while steering my bike with the other on the way to a friend’s house to compare and probably not trade. There’s a shop in Harwich, MA that sells cards still, love stopping in there and getting one every once in a while. Don’t try chewing the gum though.

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    • Nathan says:

      Ain’t that the truth. I tried chewing the gum from a pack last year and it was like I might as well have been chewing a 20 year old piece that I got from a pack of ’91 Donruss.

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      • Greg W says:

        It tasted really bad because only Topps ever had gum. Each company offered a different gimmick in their packs. You were eating cardboard puzzles pieces.

        Also, Topps gum is the only gum I’ve ever had that shattered when I dropped it.

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  2. Bryz says:

    My dad bought me 3 packs of baseball cards for my birthday. I’m 23 and I’ve never collected cards in my life, but I still looked through all of them. Turns out I got a Jose Bautista card. Not worth much, but hey, it’s something that I’ll treasure far more than the Brian Wilson I got in that same pack.

    It does remind me though of the Walter Johnson card that’s somewhere in my brother’s room now. Fortunately it’s in a hard plastic case so I know it’s safe, but I still wonder how I got it, and if it’s actually worth anything.

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  3. Save your cards, give ‘em to your kids who will ruin them and then you can trash them in good conscience.

    Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations, has a question for Ask Not Graph:

    Consider the proceedings that we call ‘games’. I mean board games, card games, ball games, Olympic games, etc. What is common to them all?.

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  4. Greg W says:

    Also, I do miss Upper Deck holograms. And all those painted cards of Hall of Famers in the UD yearly subset, they were painted by the same artist. And that artist just happens to be the father of Vernon Wells. Weird, huh?

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  5. Johnny Come Lately says:

    Nice piece. I haven’t looked through mine in probably 15 years. I’m going to do that next time I visit my parents.

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  6. Gavin says:

    I didn’t collect a ton of baseball cards (I was born in 1991, so by they were going out of fashion as I was growing up), but I did get one of those autographed cards that are so rare.

    Too bad it was Mike Lamb….

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    • Johnny Come Lately says:

      Throw in a Jose Offerman rookie card and I’ll let you have my autographed Jody Davis baseball.

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  7. Choo says:

    I sold all of my commons at a garage sale just before I went off to college. Boxes upon boxes of those things, mostly 1986-90. Some 30-year old (single) dude mining for gems previously removed paid way too much for the entire lot. I always wanted to turn them into a giant, mosaic art project of some sort.

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