Most valuable baseball cards of the 1980s

Most valuable baseball cards of the 1980s

In the 1980s, almost everyone I knew collected baseball cards, at least briefly. When we think of the 1980s today, baseball cards aren’t what comes to mind but they probably deserve to be up there with video games, Rubik’s cubes, G.I. Joe, and Star Wars. With so many of us buying and preserving cards during that decade’s baseball card bubble, there aren’t a lot of super-valuable cards from the 1980s. But that doesn’t mean all 1980s baseball cards are worthless. So let’s take a look at the most valuable baseball cards of the 1980s.

If you’re like me and thought you’d fund your retirement with baseball cards someday, this could be depressing. More depressing than 1970s baseball card values. Possibly more depressing than 1990s baseball card values, even. But there’s a flip side too. If you didn’t have all of these cards back then, you probably can afford all of them now. None of the most valuable baseball cards of the 1980s are worth what we thought they’d someday be worth.

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Will baseball cards ever be valuable again?

“Will baseball cards ever be valuable again?” someone asked me recently. The answer is that it depends. Not all cards were valuable in the first place.

Part of the problem is there was a time when 90% of boys collected cards. Now they don’t. Prices dropped due to simple supply and demand.

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How to value baseball cards

How to value baseball cards

If you have a collection, knowing how to value baseball cards is helpful. That way, if you need to insure or liquidate the collection, you’ll receive a fair price.

But fair also means realistic. A lot of factors go into value. It’s not too different from valuing other vintage collectibles, so if you already know about those, you have a head start.

Also, even though my focus here is on baseball cards, more or less the same principles hold true for any vintage trading cards: football, basketball, hockey, or non-sports cards.

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My second 1935 Goudey: Grimes, Klein, and Cuyler

My second 1935 Goudey: Grimes, Klein, and Cuyler

Sometime around the sixth grade I realized that prices on modern cards were very volatile. If a star player had a bad month, his card prices were likely to suffer, while a good month or good season could send prices skyward. I have few regrets in life, but I do wish I’d sold or traded off my Jose Canseco rookie cards when their book value was $300. I could buy several today for $5 or $6 if I wanted more. (I’ll pass.)

That’s about what I paid for my second 1935 Goudey card, which featured not one but three Hall of Famers in Chicago Cubs uniforms: Burleigh Grimes, Chuck Klein, and Kiki Cuyler, along with Woody English. And when I bought that card in the late 1980s, I knew none of them were going to have a bad year the next year.

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Taking one for the team

The press is divided: Alfonso Soriano is Terrell Owens. Alfonso Soriano isn’t Terrell Owens. No matter. There is one thing that matters.

Alfonso Soriano is an employee of the Washington Nationals Baseball Club and is under contract until the end of next year. Alfonso Soriano wants to play second base. His employer wants him to play left field.

If you aren’t a professional athlete, the case is clear: You do what your employer tells you. Period. Why is it different if you make $10 million a year?The argument against the move goes like this: Once a player reaches a certain level of accomplishment, there’s an unwritten rule that you don’t ask him to change positions. The argument is that Soriano has reached that level of accomplishment.

It’s true that Soriano is a very accomplished hitter. In five full seasons, he’s hit 30 homers and stolen 30 bases three times. Only Barry Bonds and Bobby Bonds have done it more times. It’s rare for someone to do it once. In his second full season in the majors, he fell one home run short of 40/40, which is something only men have done: Jose Canseco, Barry Bonds, and Alex Rodriguez. Looking at that list, it’s hard to do without steroids. For that matter, it’s hard to do with steroids.

But those are Soriano’s offensive accomplishments. On the field, he’s anything but an accomplished gloveman. His career fielding percentage at second base is .971. Soriano is no Ryne Sandberg. Since the Nationals have a capable gloveman at second base in Jose Vidro, they want to hide Soriano’s glove in left field to get his bat into the lineup.

Soriano’s objection is that next year is his free agent year, and there’s a better market for second basemen with 30-homer power than there is for left fielders with 30-homer power.

So let’s get this straight: He wants the Nationals to play him at second base this year so another team will potentially pay him more money next year.

I’m not surprised the Nationals aren’t sympathetic.

Besides, there’s a predecent for moving back to second base if another team wants him there. Craig Biggio moved from catcher to second base when the Astros needed a second baseman. A decade later, he moved to center field so the Astros could sign Jeff Kent, a power hitter who can’t play any other position well. A few months later, Biggio moved from center field to left so his team could trade for Carlos Beltran, arguably the best center fielder in the game. The next season, Biggio moved back to second base.

Nomar Garciaparra signed with the Dodgers as a first baseman despite never having played the position in his life. But the Dodgers already had two shortstops so Garciaparra signed as a first baseman. He wanted to be in LA, and the Dodgers wanted his bat. Problem solved. In theory at least.

So if any team is interested in Soriano’s oven mitt-like glovework at second base–and there are a few teams who have the money to pay him, and no better options at the position–nothing stops them from asking Soriano to move back there. And there’s little question that there’ll be teams interested in Soriano as a designated hitter too.

There would have been, anyway. Certainly there’s still a market for Soriano, since anybody can use someone who can hit 30 homers and steal 30 bases. But you want someone who’s interested in winning ballgames, not just in collecting a paycheck.

Some years ago, the New York Yankees were looking for a left fielder with a lot of power. They set their sights on Jim Edmonds, who was the center fielder for the Anaheim Angels at the time. There was some question whether Edmonds would be willing to play left field, since most people considered him a better center fielder than the Yankees’ Bernie Williams.

Edmonds said he’d rather play center. But he said what was most important to him was winning a World Series. "I’ll play third base for them if that’s what it takes to win a Series," he said.

Well, the Yankees and Angels couldn’t work out a deal, and Edmonds ended up playing center field in St. Louis instead. But that’s the attitude you want to see.

Some people argue that the Nationals should have discussed all this with Soriano before they traded for him. The Texas Rangers wouldn’t allow the Nationals to talk to him. For good reason–the Rangers wanted to move him to the outfield, and he wouldn’t move. The Yankees had wanted to move him to the outfield too, and his refusal to move was part of the reason the Yankees traded him to Texas. The only worse-kept secret in baseball was Barry Bonds and his steroids.

So the Nationals made a bad trade. Shame on them.

But shame on Soriano even more.

I want to believe Palmeiro

It’s all over the news. Rafael Palmeiro, the Baltimore Orioles star who just joined the elite 500 home run/3,000 hit club, tested positive for steroid use and has been suspended.

Palmeiro, of course, was outspoken on the issue when he testified before Congress earlier this year while Mark McGwire was being evasive.I remember when Palmeiro first came up with the Chicago Cubs. I was a Cubs fan back then, and since all Cubs games were televised, it was easy to follow them. I could watch their daytime games after I got home from school.

The Cubs brought him up prematurely, in 1986, because their team was ravaged by injuries. In those days he was an outfielder. He played left field, filling in for injured veterans, batted .247, and left Cubs fans wondering what the future might hold.

He came back in 1987. He only played about half the season. I can’t remember now if that was because the Cubs called him up at midseason, or if he was injured, or something else. But Palmeiro played 84 games that year, hitting 14 home runs in 221 at bats, and some of us thought we had a future power hitter on our hands.

He only hit 8 home runs in 1988, his first full season in the majors. People point back now to that as evidence that he was obviously juicing. Having seen him swat 14 in limited duty the year before, I always figured pitchers had adjusted to him. He hit .307, but he didn’t have much power. We figured the power would come.

Following the season, the Cubs made one of the worst trades of the 1980s, packaging Palmeiro and left-handed pitcher Jamie Moyer (still hurling for the Mariners today) in a deal with the Texas Rangers for notorious flameout closer Mitch Williams, Paul Hilgus (a pitcher whose career never got off the ground), and Curt Wilkerson (a career utility infielder).

The Rangers noted Palmeiro’s lackluster defense in the outfield and moved him to first base–the Cubs had experimented with him there, but really wanted to keep the position open for Mark Grace, who was just a year or so behind Palmeiro–and Palmeiro turned into a productive, sweet-swinging hitter for the Rangers. He hit 14 homers that year. The next year he hit 26, then 22. About the time Jose Canseco says Palmeiro started using steroids, he became good for 35-40 homers a year.

I always figured he had matured as a hitter. That’s what I always wanted to believe, and it’s still what I want to believe.

To me, Palmeiro became the one who got away. Even after I wasn’t a Cubs fan anymore, and even during that phase when I liked the Cubs less than the Mets, I guess Palmeiro’s success just proved to me that I was smarter than the Cubs’ front office. (So was my dog, but that’s beside the point.) I kept rooting for the guy.

I guess it helped that he was likeable. Besides being a steady ballplayer who was willing to do whatever he needed to do–eventually he honed his lackluster defense into something of Gold Glove caliber–he got involved in the community, and he was always willing to sign an autograph.

So when Jose Canseco first claimed Rafael Palmeiro injected steroids, I didn’t believe him. Drugs didn’t make him improve his defense, so in my mind, his home run surge must have been due to more work in the weight room and/or the batting cage. Besides, when you extrapolate 1987 over a full season, you get more than 35 home runs.

Canseco might as well have been claiming to have introduced steroids to Fred Rogers, as far as I was concerned.

But now, the test… Can a drug test lie?

So I don’t know what to think of Palmeiro now.

A lot are saying he won’t go to the Hall of Fame now. There’s no room in the Hall for cheaters, they say. Well, that’s not true. Gaylord Perry got to the Hall of Fame by throwing greaseballs. Don Sutton’s nickname was Black and Decker. Both are in the Hall of Fame. Neither would be if they’d followed the rules. And yes, Perry once got caught.

So we can forget about Palmeiro making it on the first ballot. That’s probably for the best. It took Ryne Sandberg three ballots to get in. Maybe Palmeiro will need five or six. I don’t think this will ultimately keep him out of there.

I’m not sure if that’s right or if it’s wrong.

I guess the steroids thing explains one thing about Palmeiro. At around age 36 or 37, Palmeiro started doing commercials for Viagra. I wondered why someone his age would have any need for the stuff. Well, maybe now we know.

Kids, keep that in mind before you shoot up.

It’s hard to know what to make of Jose Canseco’s steroid allegations

I remember back when the words "Jose Canseco money" meant something, even among people who weren’t really all that interested in baseball.

You see, Jose Canseco was a huge name. He hit long home runs in large quantities, and people paid him huge amounts of money to do it. For a time, he was the most popular and highest-paid player in the game.

Today, the money’s gone and he can’t get a job, and reading about his tell-all book is pretty sad.Terry Steinbach, a former teammate of Canseco, summed it up pretty well. Canseco worked pretty hard his first couple of years, and he actually got better during those first few years in Oakland. He worked on improving his outfield defense and got promoted from left field to right field. He worked on improving his speed and became the first man to ever hit 40 home runs and steal 40 bases in the same season.

But something happened. Steinbach says he stopped taking extra outfield practice, and it showed. The player who once was lauded for his defense became a full-time designated hitter. In one notorious incident after the Athletics had traded him to the Texas Rangers, a catchable fly ball bounced off Canseco’s head and into the stands, turning a long flyout into a home run.

And if you look at Canseco’s numbers, it’s almost like you can tell what years he was trying. Take 1998 for instance. That year, he stole 28 bases. But he stole 8 bases the year before and 3 bases the year after. He was out of baseball after 2001. He made some comeback attempts but to no avail. He complained about a conspiracy. Conspiracy? By 2001, he was good for a .250 batting average and 15 home runs per year. Why should anyone break out the Jose Canseco money a guy who can’t field and who puts up Steve Balboni-esque numbers at the plate?

So I think part of it is jealousy. Mark McGwire and Rafael Palmeiro came up about the same time Canseco did, and they played longer and put up better numbers. Both seem destined for the Hall of Fame. It’s hard to believe now that in 1987, Canseco was by far the most complete player of the trio. But both McGwire and Palmeiro worked on improving their defense, and Palmeiro worked on improving his power numbers and McGwire worked on his contact.

Meanwhile, Canseco was plagued by legal troubles. Speeding tickets (like 120 in a 55), allegations of spousal abuse, financial troubles… Seems he may have learned a thing or two from Pete Rose.

So, he’s likely a bit short on good character references.

But who better to recognize steroid users than another steroid user? And while much has been made of Barry Bonds’ transformation from a lanky guy into something that resembles a professional wrestler, a look at Mark McGwire’s 1987 Topps rookie card shows he made a similar transformation in the years between his 49-homer rookie season and his 70-homer binge. Was it just the andro?

It’s been said so many times that it’s cliche that taking steroids won’t help you keep up with Randy Johnson’s fastball and it certainly won’t make you able to hit a curveball. Whether you’re juiced or not, it’s a lot of work to stay in the big leagues. That’s why Canseco played his last game at age 37 while Julio Franco is still in the big leagues at age 45.

But the steroids will change long fly balls into homers. They may turn a hooking foul ball into a fair ball, or a broken-bat grounder to short into a broken-bat single.

And while the conspiracy that Canseco alleges may very well not exist, there’s no question that owners and the players’ union like the effects that steroids have. Fans like home runs, so more home runs means more fans, which means more money in the owners’ coffers. And the players’ union loves home runs, because nothing drives a player’s salary more than his ability to hit a long one. Ozzie Smith may have saved two runs a game with his glove, but he never made as much money as the guys who averaged a homer every 3-4 games.

Like it or not, regardless of how much truth there is in Canseco’s book, there’s a problem in baseball, and Canseco’s loud mouth is only a symptom. The bigger problem is that a drug that’s illegal for you and me to use is getting used by these professional athletes. The risk to their health is enormous, but worse yet, these men are idolized by millions of boys. Most of them are anything but good role models for children anyway, even without the steroids, but the steroids make it even worse.

In 1983, the Kansas City Royals realized they had a problem. A good half-dozen of their players had massive cocaine habits, including nearly every core player aside from George Brett. One by one, the Royals traded or released every last one of those players except for leadoff hitter Willie Wilson, who spent the first couple of months of the 1984 season in rehab. The Royals knew they were decimating their team–which had finished second the year before, and the same basic team had been in place since 1976 and been a contender every year–but they did it anyway. Surprisingly, the team of castoffs and rookies did well that year, winning its division.

Will any team have the guts today to purge itself of its steroid abusers?

I doubt it. But I guess I can hope.

St. Louis just lost more than a great catcher

Darrell Porter went out to get a newspaper, and he never came home.
That night, it rained in St. Louis. It was as if the earth was weeping. As it should. Now a catcher has gone home to play baseball with late Cardinals pitcher Darryl Kile. But when this world lost Darrell Porter, it lost more than a former MVP and three-time All-Star. It lost one of the finest examples of a human being who ever played the game. Porter overcame drug and alcohol addiction in 1980. Today, people hold your hand when you’re famous and addicted. In 1980, they just looked down on you.

Darrell Porter didn’t let that stop him. In spring training in 1980, former Dodgers pitcher and recovered alcoholic Don Newcombe paid the team a visit. He asked 10 questions, and said if you answered yes to three of them, you might have a problem with drugs or alcohol. Porter answered yes to all 10 questions. So he checked himself into a rehab center. He cleaned up. He started going to church and got right with God. And he dedicated his life to trying to keep others from making the same mistakes he made. He figured he became famous for a reason, and he ought to use his fame and name recognition for something.

So he quietly went out helping people. In 1984, he wrote a book. We’re not talking a tell-all book like Jose Canseco plans to write. Don’t get me wrong, Porter told all. But he told about the person he knew best: himself. With brutal honesty. It’s been years since I read it, but I remember him talking frankly about getting together with his buddies and snorting cocaine through rolled-up $100 bills and drinking like tomorrow would never come. He talked about checking into rehab in 1980, and he talked about lapsing once, stopping at a gas station on the way home one day, and buying a beer. He left the empty bottle in his car. Part of him wanted his wife to find it. She did.

He was candid about what drugs and alcohol did to his career. In 1979, he had the finest year a Royals catcher ever had, batting .291 with 20 home runs and driving in 112. Those aren’t just good numbers for a catcher, those are good numbers for Johnny Bench. But that was the end of the road. He peaked at age 27. He played another 8 years, but his career numbers were much more pedestrian. For the rest of his career, he was an average defensive catcher and an average hitter who could occasionally pop one out of the park. His old self only surfaced when the game was on the line. He often told people his drug and alcohol abuse destroyed his career. That’s a bit harsh–he played for 16 years, eight on drugs and eight off–but it’s easy to see that something kept him from being everything he could be.

Porter spoke to one of the Christian groups on campus at the University of Missouri while I was a student there. I’d thought about going, because Porter had been one of my heroes growing up. For some reason I didn’t, and I don’t remember the reason. It might have been that I had a test, or a story deadline. Or it might have been something stupid. Like a story deadline.

That was what Porter’s life after baseball was like. He quietly volunteered his time wherever he was needed. He didn’t go looking for more fame.

A fan recounted meeting Porter recently at a game on a St. Louis Post-Dispatch discussion board. He asked Porter to sign an old poster. He signed it, and then the fan asked him to write “1982 World Series MVP” under his name. The fan recalled that Porter was very flattered to be asked to write that, maybe even flattered that the fan remembered that. Porter wasn’t one to advertise his three All-Star appearances, or the two MVP awards he won in 1982.

Since Porter didn’t go running around, looking for chances to make appearances and introducing himself as “Darrell Porter, three-time All-Star catcher for the Kansas City Royals and 1982 National League Championship Series and 1982 World Series MVP for the St. Louis Cardinals,” not a lot of people remember him. But the people who do remember him will miss him.

Porter showed up at the Royals’ spring training this year, some 22 years after he left the team and 15 years after he retired from baseball. He wanted to learn broadcasting. Broadcasters Denny Matthews and Ryan Lefebvre spent some time with him and he impressed them. He worked hard, bought his own equipment, brought it with him, and learned as much as he could from the professionals. If he was going to go into broadcasting, it was going to be because he was a good sportscaster, not because he was Darrell Porter, three-time All-Star catcher for the Kansas City Royals and 1982 National League Championship Series MVP and 1982 World Series MVP for the St. Louis Cardinals. Matthews and Lefebvre wanted to put him on the air this year.

Nobody knows exactly what happened. Porter told his wife he was going to get a newspaper and go to a park to read it. That I understand. If you’re interested in broadcasting, you keep up on the news. I use the Internet to do that, but if you’re a 50-year-old retired baseball player, you might not want to use the Internet. Besides, it’s hard to get Internet access in a park. Why would someone go to a park to read a newspaper in 97-degree heat? Remember, Darrell Porter was a catcher, and he spent most of his career on Astroturf. At Royals Stadium and Busch Stadium in the early 1980s, it could reach 110 degrees or more on the playing surface in the summer. Porter was bearing that heat with all that padding.

And once a baseball player, always a baseball player. He probably just wanted to be outside, away from telephones, away from everything else. If you’re not a baseball player, you don’t understand. I understand.

What I don’t understand is which park he chose to visit. He lived in Lee’s Summit, but he drove to a park half an hour away. Maybe he just couldn’t make up his mind. I remember driving around for half an hour one night back in March looking for someplace to run sprints. But I ended up at a park about five miles from home. I guess it sort of makes sense. But only sort of.

Porter got to the park, but he ran his car off the road. There was a tree stump alongside that wasn’t visible in the grass, and his car got stuck. At 5:26 pm, someone drove past, saw the car on the side of the road, and saw a man lying next to it. The driver alerted police. Police arrived soon afterward and found Darrell Porter, dead. The coroner speculates he was trying to free his car and was overcome by the heat.

He left behind a wife and three kids: a 20-year-old daughter and two teenaged sons. They’re going to have a hard time dealing with this. Their dad was just 50. He was supposed to have 25 years left in him. Now he’s gone, and no one knows why, and although they might not want to admit it, they’re at the ages when they probably need him most. I was 19 when my dad died at 51.

There are a few people out there like Darrell Porter. Genuinely nice people, real people, honest, down-to-earth people. People who want more than anything else just to make a difference, who come in and take charge of a bad situation and leave it a better place when they move on. You have to look for those kinds of people, but they’re out there.

It’s a shame to lose people like that, especially at such a cruelly young age. You can never have too many of those.

Darrell, I’m sorry I didn’t hit that home run for you tonight. I was trying too hard. I’m sure you understand. But I’m going to pay you the highest compliment I know, and when I say this, I mean it, with everything I’ve got.

We’ll miss you.

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