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.

What cards are valuable

The value of cards produced before the early 1970s never dropped much, if at all. Star cards from the 1970s, especially rookie cards of Hall of Famers, still retained most of their value. Rookie cards of players like Mike Schmidt, George Brett and Robin Yount didn’t continue to appreciate the way they did in the 1980s.

What caused prices to drop

When I collected cards in the 1980s, my friends and I all thought our baseball card collections would make us rich. Our teachers warned us it was a bubble. But in our defense, we were in our early teen or even pre-teen years. None of us had experienced a bubble. If I told you I even knew what a bubble was at 13, you wouldn’t believe me. None of my classmates did.

In retrospect, it was like just like the dot-com bubble and the housing bubble. Prices rose too fast and for the wrong reasons, then there was a correction. Two big factors played into the correction.

Overproduction

In the 1980s, baseball card manufacturers did the logical thing to do. They printed as many cards as they could sell. That was good in the 1980s but it’s bad today. Cards from the 1980s are probably more common than cards from last year.

And since kids like me bought them with the expectation they would be valuable, we carefully preserved those 1980s cards. Cards of utility infielders and fourth outfielders went into archival boxes. Cards of even minor stars went into plastic sleeves or even cases.

Too many of these cards were printed in the first place and too many of them survived.

The strike

In 1994, baseball players went on strike. This happened twice in the 1980s as well, but in 1994, the strike ended the season in August. That meant no playoffs and no World Series. Baseball had economic problems but the general public had a hard time feeling sorry for the billionaire owners and the millionaire players. The minimum salary of a baseball player at the time was around $100,000. The average was closer to $1 million. Among the US population as a whole, the average salary was $23,753.53. Minimum wage was $4.25.

It was hard for someone making $24,000 a year to feel sorry for people who made 42 times as much as they did playing a game.

The rebound

After the strike, baseball juiced up. Actually, it turned out some players were juicing before the strike too, but it went up a notch after the strike. At first, fans loved the increased home run output. But after it became clear what they were seeing was only slightly more real than professional wrestling, things crashed back to earth. Cards of scandal-tainted players like Mark McGwire, Jose Canseco, Sammy Sosa, Barry Bonds, Rafael Palmeiro, and Roger Clemens lost value.

Paradoxically, 1980s players whose production didn’t match that wave, like Dale Murphy, Alan Trammell and Lou Whitaker, also suffered. 1980s stars didn’t get respect because they didn’t match the output of 1990s stars. But even after the 1990s stars got discredited, the 1980s players still don’t get respect because they didn’t match the output of 1990s stars. Double standard much? It’s a shame but it may take another generation for those players to get the respect they deserve. In the meantime, there are too many of their cards out there.

Bubble-proof cards

But some cards proved to be bubble-proof. Generally speaking, we’re talking vintage, pre-1970 cards of high-tier Hall of Famers. The nicer the condition, the better, but affordable low-grade cards of the really big names like Babe Ruth and Mickey Mantle still sell very quickly.

It dawned on me sometime around 1987 that cards of Hall of Famers weren’t that much more expensive at the time than 1980s cards. But while Jose Canseco’s cards would drop if he went into an 0-for-40 slump, or Don Mattingly’s cards would drop if he didn’t win a batting title, I knew Al Kaline and Roberto Clemente weren’t going to have bad years. So I started buying and trading for those cards.

My late-career Kaline and Clemente cards haven’t done much but keep up with inflation, but at least they’re still worth something. I could get most of my money back out of them if I needed to.

When I buy cards today, I tend to go not just for pre-1970 cards, but I usually dial it back to pre-1950 cards. I collect for enjoyment, not investment. But I know if I ever need to sell off my 1934 Goudey set, I won’t have much trouble. I may or may not turn a profit but I won’t lose terribly much.

What about modern cards? Well, Kris Bryant’s cards will probably always be less common than Ryne Sandberg’s cards. But I also expect a higher percentage of Kris Bryant’s cards to survive in top condition. The other question will be how much demand Kris Bryant’s cards will have in the future. Modern cards may be valuable someday, but I still think pre-1970 cards are a safer bet.

Not that I’m planning on using either of them as a retirement vehicle, for the same reason I won’t use video games as one. I use index funds and real estate for that. I learned my lesson.

Further reading

Here are some more tips on how to value cards, how to grade cards, and how to sell cards. And here’s a scam to avoid on graded cards.

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