Pandemics do strange things to a man. The protagonist's wife reacted to the following scene with one word ("Really?"), but we'll let the readers judge.
A nocturnal creature — we'll call him "John Tomase" — can't sleep. It's 2 a.m. and instead of going to bed, he's scouring eBay, a site he hasn't visited since the second Bush administration, for a product he hasn't bought since the first.
He — as in me — seeks baseball cards. It would be fantastic to own a Mickey Mantle, and here's a massacred 1960 Topps that clearly lived between the spokes on a Schwinn for only $55!
Those 1979 All-Star rosters I never finished are now just a click away; say hello to Don Money, Greg Luzinski, and Rick Monday! Why, yes, $31 for a 1955 Ted Williams that barely survived a trip through a dog's intestines is indeed an impossible bargain!
Buy it now! Buy it now!
It turns out I'm not alone. The hobby that peaked in the late 1980s and early 1990s is making a monster comeback, and gee, I wonder what could prompt grown men locked in their homes to seek refuge in an activity that defined their childhoods? The psychological underpinnings of this behavior are about as hard to read as a stop sign. Or more appropriately, a green light.
Be it escapism, nostalgia, or the thrill of the buy, there's no question the baseball card business is booming. Gen Xers have reacquainted themselves with the cards of their youth, while Millennials have experienced the uniquely 2020 joy of hitting gold with Jasson Dominguez, a 17-year-old Yankees prospect whose Bowman Refractors are fetching thousands of dollars, depending on the color (don't ask).
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Those of us raised on Rickey Henderson's 1980 Topps rookie in full crouch, Billy Ripken's vulgar bleep-face bat handle from Fleer, and Ken Griffey Jr.'s iconic 1989 Upper Deck with swaggering smile and jauntily shouldered bat, can spend hours down this rabbit hole without coming up for air.
Trust me. I'm building a warren.
They say everything old becomes new again, and baseball cards are having their moment. Joe Orlando is president of Collector's Universe, parent of Professional Sports Authenticator, whose PSA ratings are an industry standard.
"The pandemic was like throwing gas on a fire," he said by phone. "The card market was already hot. It was already escalating. I happen to be 48. I grew up in the hobby boom of the 1980s, and there's a whole generation of people like you, like me, that were part of that and maybe became disconnected from it. This seems to be a time that has brought a lot of people back into the fold, and they're remembering why they enjoyed it to begin with."
I happened across my forgotten cards while searching the deepest recesses of the attic for an old press pass. Not only were there six full albums of Topps spanning the '50s to '90s (but mostly the mid-'80s), I also discovered hundreds of doubles and assorted randoms in the convenience store cardboard display boxes that drained my meager allowance.
Flipping through them feels like a ride in Doc Brown's DeLorean. There's my 14-year-old handwriting labeling each one on inserts snipped out of index cards: 1982 Topps. 1985 Topps set. 1988 Topps.
Cracking the faux-leather binders for the first time in 30 years, I'm struck by how vividly the experience floods back, from the vaguely petroleum smell of the 3x3 album sheets to the faulty top binder ring that detaches if I flip too many pages to the tactile memory of sliding the cards into each slot without snagging a corner.
One album starts with the 1980 Topps All-Stars, my favorite cards because I somehow managed to collect all of them without the internet or card shows. These were won in trades, bought in wax packs, gifted from an older cousin.
I loved those cards because Red Sox comprised the starting outfield — Jim Rice, Carl Yastrzemski, Fred Lynn. But I also loved the design, with pennants on top and bottom revealing position and team, respectively. Nolan Ryan throws heat. George Brett stares intensely. The National Leaguers, including Mike Schmidt, Steve Garvey, and Dave Winfield, occupy the opposite page as their own starting nine.
My first late-night eBay expeditions involve completing the All-Star teams from 1977, 1978, 1979, and 1981. This means tracking down a 1978 Johnny Bench for $4.00, a 1979 Vida Blue for 99 cents, a set of 1981 Goose Gossage and Bucky Dents (blechh) for $2.99. Most of the others cost under a buck. As they arrive in packages of two and five and eight, one emblazoned with a vintage Montreal Expos sticker to establish I'm buying from a kindred spirit, I feel simultaneously embarrassed and giddy.
"What the hell am I doing?" I ask in one breath before telling myself to shut up and find a home for Richie Zisk's 1979 Topps in the All-Star slot opposite George Foster that has sat empty since 1987.
In these trying times, whatever gets you through the day, right?
Topps stopped listing All-Star designations in 1982 in response to the emergence of competitors like Fleer, instead issuing separate All-Star cards that did not capture my imagination or interest. By the early '90s there were so many companies — Topps, Fleer, Donruss, Upper Deck, Leaf, Score, Bowman — that the casual collector became overwhelmed and found a new hobby.
Now the baseball card industry is dominated by one company — Topps — and collectors are drawn by the allure of new cards, such as the aforementioned Dominguez, whose rarest finds routinely sell in the four and even five figures. A Connor McDavid rookie card just sold for over $135,000 at auction, proving that hockey can hit, while Panini's NBA offerings are among the hottest in the business.
"Vintage has been strong for a long time," Orlando said. "Babe Ruth, Mickey Mantle, Lou Gehrig, Willie Mays, Jackie Robinson, the collectibles related to those icons have been strong for a long time. That's not news. But there has been a resurgence of interest in modern cards. That's where all the volume is, and that's how a whole bunch of new people have been introduced to the hobby."
My collection contains no such gems. It only took a week of eBaying to confirm its worthlessness, coming as it does from the oversaturated '80s. Were I to sell, my choice would be sending the best cards to a company like PSA to be graded for $10 each, or just throwing hundreds online for a dollar apiece. Neither sounds particularly worth my time.
It hasn't stopped plenty of others, though. PSA grades its cards on a scale of 1 to 10, taking into account everything from how centered the photo is — old cards were cut by hand and often not particularly well — to the brightness of the colors and the sharpness of corners. Cards also receive demerits for being stained by the chalky pink gum that poisoned old Topps packs or discolored by the seal of the wax pack itself.
When the pandemic started, PSA had a backlog of roughly one million cards. In the three months since, Orlando estimates that number has swelled to over 1.5 million. The company plans to hire and train around 100 employees in the next two months to handle the demand, and it's big business. A PSA 10 1979 Ozzie Smith rookie (not in my collection, sadly), might fetch $30,000 at auction, while an ungraded version can be had for $15.
The recent death of journeyman outfielder Claudell Washington sparked pangs of sadness, because his 1979 Topps is the very first card I ever owned, a gift from my cousin that I put in the shoebox meant to hold my nascent collection (cards: 1). I promptly knocked over a glass of water and gave Claudell an impromptu bath, crying like someone who had just blown the greatest opportunity of his life. Half of the card disintegrated, but I kept it anyway, and when Washington passed, I knew exactly where to find it, in the last slot on the last page of my first album.
Then there's Joe Price's 1985 Topps. I completed that set the old-fashioned way, by buying wax and rack packs, arranging the cards by team, and ticking every name off the checklist until only one of 792 remained. I stubbornly refused to buy the straggler out of a common bin for a nickel at My Mom Threw out my Baseball Cards in North Attleboro. The purity of my pursuit demanded I keep ripping packs until I found the Reds reliever, which is clearly insane. I burned through at least 400 doubles before I got him.
Naturally, he then appeared twice in the same pack, and to this day, I still have them both.
One of my most meaningful cards is a 1983 Willie Randolph. Why would a Boston kid care about a Yankees card? My great uncle, Joe Looney, was a sportswriter for the Herald and Globe from the '40s until the '70s. On a visit to his cramped Pinckney Street apartment in the early '80s, I gave him the card as a gift because I knew he loved sports. When he died a few years later and we were cleaning out his things, my mom asked if I wanted the one baseball card they found in his apartment. Topps, Willie Randolph, 1983. He kept it, so I've kept it, too.
In any event, that's the story of my baseball cards, but it's getting late and I should probably go. Before I hit the hay, though, I just need to check a couple of auctions. I've always wanted a Bob Gibson and this Ralph Kiner's a steal and is that a Sandy Koufax . . .
p.s. I bought the Mantle. It has seen better days, but haven't we all?