Anyone who collected baseball cards in the 1980s and 1990s knows how the hobby has changed. In the 80s and 90s, baseball card shops proliferated like vape shops, popping up anywhere there was empty real estate. New sets were released almost monthly. And then the bubble popped, leaving us to ask, when will baseball cards make a comeback?
I would argue that the parts of the hobby that are going to make a comeback already did. The reason 1980s and 1990s baseball cards aren’t coming back is complex, but there are several reasons why those cards probably will never be as valuable as they were at their peak.
What baseball cards have already come back
Vintage baseball cards from before the overproduction era lost very little of their value in the mid 1990s when the market for modern baseball cards tanked. Everyone draws the line at a different place, but certainly the line is before 1981, when Topps lost its monopoly. Some people draw the line further back, as far back as 1972.
Reconsidering the 1970s and 1980s
But generally speaking, 1970s cards of Hall of Famers have lost little to no value since the mid 1990s. The most pristine examples of those cards are worth more than they were then. The 1970s cards that have lost value are generally those of star players who didn’t make it to the Hall of Fame. But even in those cases, some cards that fell from grace have started to recover. The 1977 Topps Dale Murphy rookie card has experienced a resurgence as we reconsider Murphy’s career. In 1987, Murphy looked like a first-ballot Hall of Famer. But in his age-32 season, his production tailed off and he never regained his old form. When a player does that, we tend to remember that for a number of years over the player’s glory days.
But Murphy and other 1980s stars whose glory faded are starting to get more Hall of Fame consideration. In 1989, when we compared Dale Murphy to Jose Canseco, he didn’t look so good. Thirty years later, when we compare Dale Murphy to Jose Canseco, Dale Murphy looks really good.
And many players in the 1980s who looked like they would be Hall of Famers, like Don Mattingly, Darryl Strawberry, Eric Davis, and Dwight Gooden, didn’t pan out. All four players had good careers as it turned out, but not Hall-worthy. The values of their cards took a hit because a future Hall of Fame induction was built into their cards’ peak values.
The 1960s and earlier
Star cards from the 1960s and earlier were affected even less by the crash in the 1990s. For the most part, by 1995 the case was closed on earlier eras. A few token players from that era have made the Hall of Fame since, but those cards already had value due to the notoriety that put the players in the Hall of Fame. Bill Mazeroski’s baseball cards were always going to have some value because of the walk-off home run he hit in the 1960 World Series to beat the hated Yankees.
In the late 1980s I shifted my focus to collecting vintage cards, to the extent that I could, to avoid volatility. If Wade Boggs failed to win a batting title one year, his cards lost value even if he hit .300. That’s still true today.
I wouldn’t call cards from this era a growth investment, because the longer it’s been since these players played, the fewer people remember them. Babe Ruth and Ty Cobb’s legends will never fade. But there’s no one left alive who has any meaningful recollection of Home Run Baker’s best seasons. Barring any new discoveries, those cards are going to increase in value slowly over time, driven mostly by condition.
Why 1980s and 1990s cards aren’t coming back
The reason the values of 1980s and 1990s cards aren’t coming back is complex. There are valuable cards from both the 1980s and the 1990s. But adjusted for inflation, most of them aren’t worth what they were then. Stories of random cards being worth tens of thousands are false hope.
There are several reasons.
The 1994 strike
The 1994 strike that resulted in the cancellation of the World Series dealt baseball a real black eye. It was hard for the public to sympathize with millionaires fighting billionaires for money. The fight really emphasized how the economics of baseball changed. In the early 1980s, you could get bleacher seats to a baseball game for $3. Adjusted for inflation, that’s $7.50 today. Without going to extraordinary means, today bleacher seats cost $16.
What about watching baseball on TV? In the 80s, you could watch your local team’s away games on over-the-air TV. That’s all on cable now. And while the cost of baseball tickets has outpaced inflation, that’s nothing compared to the way cable TV prices have increased.
It was a lot easier to enjoy baseball if you weren’t wealthy in the 1980s than it is today.
The drug scandals
Baseball changed in the late 90s, and that really fueled a comeback, until the drug scandals hit. Prior to 1987, the conventional wisdom was that musclebound men couldn’t play baseball effectively. Mark McGwire and Jose Canseco proved that was incorrect. Musclebound players could not only hit the ball further, but they could hit for reasonably high average, and Jose Canseco proved they could even steal bases, too.
In the late 1990s, Hank Aaron’s home run record started to look vulnerable. The question shifted from whether it would ever be broken to how many people would break it.
And then Jose Canseco released a tell-all book. In it, he alleged that baseball was no more real than professional wrestling, that these 40-homer seasons were due to steroids and other drugs.
Canseco was in a position to know. Canseco also had incentive to exaggerate, which was the only question. But once baseball instituted drug testing and penalties, the home runs fell to something closer to 1980s levels.
The scandal further alienated people who were mad about the strike, and it called into question nearly two decades’ worth of statistics. By 1990s standards, Dale Murphy looked like a wuss. He started looking a lot better once we knew how hard it is to hit 30 home runs per season without drugs. After two decades of players like Barry Bonds destroying the value of Murphy’s rookie card, the opposite started to happen.
Competition with other things
The world has changed a lot since the mid 1990s, and even more so since the mid 1980s. Video games weren’t nearly the force then that they are now. Nor was the Internet. The idea of a home theater was completely ridiculous then, and even if you had a big-screen TV, the big screens of those eras had nothing on today, and you were still connecting a VHS VCR to it.
We have a lot more things competing for our attention today, and much of it is a lot faster-paced than baseball.
What about modern cards?
Around 2004, sports card companies came to the conclusion that producing cards at 1980s and 1990s levels wasn’t sustainable. They cut production and even withdrew from various sports, with each producer concentrating on 1-2 sports instead of three or four companies beating each other up on every sport.
Today’s cards get produced in numbers more closely resembling the 1970s, which bodes better for their future value. But today’s collectors do a better job of preserving cards than their 1970s counterparts did.
Selling and collecting cards today
And just because the cards from the overproduction era aren’t especially valuable doesn’t mean they can’t be fun. The 1989 Donruss set provides an unexpected challenge, for example.