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Why collect baseball cards?

When I was a kid, baseball cards were something everyone collected. Today, it’s an obscure hobby. So why collect baseball cards?

People collect cards for any number of reasons, including the thrill of finding a card when they least expect it, a relatively inexpensive means to enjoy the sport of baseball, and even, to a degree, to make money.

Why collect baseball cards? Because you need a hobby.

Why collect baseball cards?

This 1934 baseball card of Joe “Ducky” Medwick dates itself. But that’s kind of the point. Whether it’s the Art Deco 30s or the excesses of the 70s, baseball cards reflect their era.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: You need a hobby. It’s good for you. Having a non-technical, non-digital hobby is a good way to detach and unwind from a demanding world. Cardboard pictures of baseball players with numbers on the back is decidedly low-tech. And while you can buy cards online, part of the fun is visiting shops in search of cards. It’s different from how it used to be. As recently as 15 years ago I had two shops within 10 minutes of my house. Today there are probably three shops in all of St. Louis. And you can forget about driving into inner city neighborhoods and finding an family-run old drug store or confectionery and buying boxes of 1950s cards they had stored away. That ship had sailed by the early ’80s, when I heard those stories.

But, having spent some time on the road for my job, I can vouch for the value of unwinding after a day of meeting with clients by visiting whatever card shops still exist in that city. It takes your mind off the stresses of work and softens the blow of being away from your family. You’ll find your home team’s cards a lot cheaper on the road. And it’s healthier than drinking.

It can be cheaper than other hobbies

Collecting 1980s and 1990s baseball cards is certainly affordable. Collecting every variation of every 1989 Donruss card can keep you busy for a while, but the cards themselves are generally worth pennies apiece. But even vintage cards that held their value are affordable in middle or low grade. And worn 1930s cards have a certain rough beauty to them. Don’t call them low grade. Call them distressed.

Building a low grade distressed 1935 Goudey set took me a couple of years to do, but I spent less doing it than most people would spend on beer in two years. For that matter, I spent less doing it than season tickets would cost. And at the end of building the set, I have more than memories.

It’s Americana

There’s more to it than just pictures of players on cardboard. Prior to the advent of color photography, there was an element of artistry involved. Not all of it was great art, mind you. But some of it is. The 1934-36 Diamond Stars Ducky Medwick, which depicts the Cardinal great swinging a bat with the upper deck of Sportsman’s Park looming large overhead is a fine example of Art Deco. The rest of the set is fantastic too, but that card is one of its finest moments.

Not every set was a hit. Goudey made one of the best sets ever in 1933, but some of its later sets left you wondering what they were thinking, and there’s no question why Goudey’s sales fell off. But all baseball cards are a reflection of their time. Just from looking at the cards, you can see how the 1970s were wilder and woolier than the 1950s.

If you like to overanalyze, there’s a lot to overanalyze in the cards that doesn’t even have anything to do with the game itself. There’s the time they were printed in, the technology and methodology behind the printing, the companies who made them, how the market itself changed over time, and probably 15 other things I didn’t mention. And if you’re a baseball fan, you probably do like to overanalyze. The complexity is part of the appeal.

It holds more of its value than some other pastimes

Saying that baseball cards hold their value is controversial, because all you have to do is point at the bubble. But the baseball card bubble mostly affected a specific period of cards. The value of cards from outside the overproduction era recovered relatively quickly, if it dropped at all. The value of some 1980s cards and 1990s cards even recovered. Valuable cards from those eras have to have a good reason, because there were so many of them produced during those years.

But for the most part, cards from outside those eras hold their value unless you’re talking contemporary players who flame out. The value of Mark Appel’s baseball cards was tied up in his potential. In 2013, he looked like he could potentially become a Hall of Famer someday. Since he never pitched in the major leagues, his cards have lost most of their value.

But cards of players who established their legacy rarely lose much value. Their value may or may not outpace inflation. But if I went to sell my pre-1972 cards, I could get most of my money back out of them if I needed to.

By the same token, most of the CDs I own and paid $15 to acquire would net me 50 cents today. The beer I drank, before I stopped drinking, is a sunk cost now.

You can make money in baseball cards

If you need to make money, I recommend stocks or real estate. But there are ways to make money in baseball cards. How much you make will be unpredictable, but high-grade pre-1972 cards are a reasonable investment. Most people can’t afford to invest in high-grade superstar cards, but the people building high-end sets need the commons too. So if you’d rather invest a couple hundred dollars at a time in something other than index funds, you can make money in baseball cards if that sounds more interesting.

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