Back in the late 1980s, I collected baseball cards just like millions of other kids. That’s around the same time that popularity of baseball card collecting skyrocketed and the producers of cards — and Major League Baseball — ruined the hobby, never to recover.
Taking advantage of collector — and even investor — interest, the companies tried to make as much money as possible and increased supply to meet demand. By the early 1990s, there were too many brands of baseball cards producing too many variations and too many prints of each. Card collecting became a chore rather than a fun and exciting exciting. (Plus, like millions of other kids, I was simply getting older and less interested.) Looking to make money on baseball card appreciation, fewer cards were handled and more cards were kept in pristine condition, ensuring that no cards would ever be “rare” in top condition.
Recent;y, I had heard that Major League Baseball finally realized that they had helped ruin the card collecting hobby (with additional help from the public distaste with the sport for a time). They recently cut back the number of baseball card producers to just Topps and Upper Deck. Perhaps, due to limiting the production of baseball cards and the resurgence of the sport, card collecting and trading would become popular again.
As I tried to complete team sets of Mets cards for myself and my girlfriend, not for investment but just because we’re fans of the team, I discovered that not much has changed. It’s true that there are only two companies producing baseball cards, but there are so many variations and sets that keeping track of everything would still be a chore. For example, Topps sells factory-sealed sets for each team. The team sets contain only about 15 cards, but these cards are slightly different from the cards you would find if you looked through the traditional random baseball card packs sold in delis and convenience stores looking for the cards you want.
Here is what it would take the be a true collector presently. If you’re an enthusiast looking to complete just a 2008 collection for one team, not only do you need all the cards from Series 1 and Series 2 featuring players from that team, but you’d need a second 55-card “special edition” team set that includes cards for the managers, coaches, and mascot. You would also need cards from the “Opening Day” series, the “Chrome” series, the “Co-signers” series, the “Finest” series, the “Milestones” series, and the “Heritage” series. Don’t forget that Topps also owns the Bowman brand, so you would need to find the “Bowman” series as well.
Even for kids who spend their parents’ money with reckless abandon, it’s simply too expensive to properly be a child interested in being successful at collecting cards in the traditional manner. You might as well just give up now. I certainly understand why millions of kids have left card trading and collecting behind.
Here’s how to make card collecting popular (and perhaps even profitable) again. Lower the price of baseball cards. Reduce the number of cards in a complete set to fewer than 1,000 for the year. Don’t print as many. Keep investors away. Convince kids that the cards should be traded, handled, and even abused, not placed in pristine holders to be kept in mint condition forever.
Updated February 6, 2012 and originally published July 20, 2008.