You should see my wife’s face when she looks in our outdoor storage closet.
Amidst the normal stuff — holiday decorations, suitcases, a cornhole set, etc — is an ungodly amount of sports cards, mostly baseball but some basketball, football, hockey and various others mixed in as well.
Boxes upon boxes of cards, mostly from the card collecting boom of the late 1980s and early 1990s, as well as a bunch from the turn of the century when I was fervently trying to find autographs and jersey cards in two dollar hobby packs of 2001 Topps — where my odds were something like one in 1,200.
Still, I managed to rack up my fair share of decent collectibles, and eventually got into the hobby of buying/selling cards online, while also frequently sending cards through the mail to get autographed, building up a large collection of signed cards that are ultimately worthless unless I get them authenticated.
I honestly don’t really know whether my obsession with baseball or my obsession with baseball cards came first. I assume baseball (because why would I want the cards if I didn’t care about the game?) but I don’t ever remember liking baseball without also wanting to ride my bike 20 minutes across town to go to the local card shop and buy a new pack. This makes me sound like I was a kid in the ’50s even though I’m only 29 but we did have a local card shop where I grew up. Still do, although the location has sadly shrunk over the years.
While I don’t know whether baseball or baseball cards came first, I do know what started the baseball card craze. The card that will forever stand out in my collection, the card that I can still so distinctly picture in my head, and the card that I know is still sitting in one of those fancy four screw-top hard plastic cases — the ones that were dedicated to the really good cards — a 1970 Topps Reggie Jackson rookie.
I have not looked at this card in any way leading up to writing this article. But I can still tell you from memory that it is No. 140 in the set, it features Reggie in an A’s uniform with a bat in his hand, looking very serious. It’s a close up shot of his upper body along with a grey rim around the card, a trademark of the 1970 Topps set.
I also distinctly remember it had a Beckett value of $50, far and away the most valuable card I owned for most of my childhood — eventually surpassed by a surprisingly excellent pull of a Randy Moss autographed football card from 1999 Skybox Dominion that I still have somewhere, too.
The Reggie card was a gift from my uncle, the youngest of five brothers who had been passed all of their baseball cards over time, giving him a massive collection he wanted little to do with.
Jackson was not a particular favorite of mine, and my favorite teams were the Mariners and Tigers, neither of which he played for, but the card was rare and valuable and made my other card-collecting friends jealous, which was enough for me to want more.
Tiger (Card Collecting) King
Ultimately, I decided to focus my collection on Detroit Tigers. Living in Oregon, with the Mariners as the only team on TV, collecting cards of Tigers players was the best way for me to interact with my favorite team and connect with my dad who was born in Detroit and grew up a Tigers fan.
Of course, being a Tigers fan in the early 2000s was not so great. My collection consists primarily of players like Tony Clark, Dean Palmer, Nate Cornejo, Eric Munson, Robert Fick and my personal favorite (at the time) Bobby Higginson. For a while I chose to collect Higginson cards exclusively, trying to amass the biggest personal collection of different Higginson cards in existence. According to a spreadsheet I haven’t updated in years, I have 137 unique Bobby Higginson cards, which is something like 35% of all unique Higginson cards in existence. I have nearly every base rookie card, about half his game-used cards, and a few of his autographed cards, too.
Is the Higginson collection worth anything? Hell no. He is a completely forgotten name, a right fielder who mashed for a few seasons likely thanks to PEDs and fell off the face of the earth in a drug-fueled blaze of glory in 2005.
But the binder of his cards, and his cards only, still sits in that shed, along with the thousands upon thousands of other cards that I pull out, look at periodically, and put in piles on my desk to organize with the intention to sell them or give them away. But they rarely make it anywhere else except the desk until they get put back into another box of cards that ultimately makes my collection even more difficult to organize.
The Demise of Card Collecting
There are a lot of things that are hurting baseball’s appeal to the younger generations. Rob Manfred thinks it’s the number of mound visits per game for some reason, while many baseball announcers believe it is analytics, bat flips, and so on when they are in fact a huge part of the problem themselves.
Ultimately, baseball is a game of nostalgia and younger kids often gravitate toward games with more action to fit their shrinking attention spans, something baseball will have a hard time correcting without radical changes to the game.
However, I believe a big part of baseball’s appeal to the boomer generation was the ability to go to a local store and buy a pack of cards, whatever the newest set from Topps was — because that’s all that existed — for about 50 cents. You’d get a piece of gum (gross) and you’d hope to see a beautifully crafted picture of your favorite player with their statistics on the back, which at the time was one of the easiest ways to actually find your favorite player’s career home run total.
Now, with statistics readily available on the internet and in video games, and cards available virtually, the appeal has plummeted. Factor in the massive over-saturation of the market and a myriad of different brands, as well as the rise in price for even a basic pack of cards, and the less appealing design of cards in general, and you have a generation of kids who are not connecting to the game in a way so many of their parents and grandparents did.
It’s a sad situation that isn’t really anyone’s fault. Card companies saw opportunities to expand and raise the margins on their product, kids got bored with them in a new generation and now the hobby is mostly older people, allowing the price to stay high as young kids aren’t using their allowance to bike to the store and pick up a pack anymore.
The appeal of a Reggie Jackson rookie card to a 10-year-old kid no longer exists the way it used to, but it’s a huge part of why I fell in love with the game of baseball, how I connected with my team even though they were terrible and 2,000 miles away, and a big part of fostering a relationship with my dad. Reggie may not be my favorite player, or even close to it, but his rookie card has had a profound impact on my life.
I have no idea what box he’s in, but maybe I’ll have to go dig him out of storage.
I’m sure my wife won’t mind.
Featured Image by J.R. Caines (@JRCainesDesign on Twitter and @caines_design on Instagram)