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House of Cards
John Garrity
July 29, 1996
Driven by greed, the sports-trading-card industry all but collapsed. Can it rebuild itself?
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July 29, 1996

House Of Cards

Driven by greed, the sports-trading-card industry all but collapsed. Can it rebuild itself?

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Basketball cards are the fastest growing sector in the market. That's a bitter pill for Topps's Langdon, who still lives in Brooklyn and is old enough to resent Walter O'Malley for having run off to Los Angeles with the Dodgers. But Langdon understands why fans turned their backs on baseball and baseball cards. "Hero worship," he said, "is an essential reason why people have always collected cards. We're hopeful that we've reached the bottom of this drop."

There is some evidence that the rebound has already begun. Card-shop owners report that all baseball lines got a boost from Topps's Mickey Mantle Commemorative sets, which sold out quickly this spring and are popping up in collectors' magazines at $135 for the 19-card reprint edition and $125 for the nine-card Stadium Club set. And baseball's image got a needed boost last season from Cal Ripken Jr.'s consecutive-games record. Says Maryland dealer Joe Bosley, "That got people back into the swing, so to speak."

Most important, card manufacturers have reduced their print runs, stabilizing prices somewhat. Last year Topps produced its lowest number of baseball cards since 1965, when it began keeping records. And Pinnacle's CEO, Jerry Meyer, promised retailers, "We'll produce less than the demand. Count on it."

Says Leibowitz, "The worst is over. Barring some negative event, the companies could start putting some impressive numbers on the board."

The consolidation of manufacturers is also expected to help. Last year Pinnacle, a producer of baseball and hockey cards, bought Action Packed, the top NASCAR racing brand; Marvel, which bought Fleer in 1992, bought Skybox, taking a dominant position in basketball cards. This year the Finnish conglomerate Huhtimaki Oy that owned Leaf North America and its Donruss unit sold Donruss to Pinnacle.

Another survivor of the storm is the secondary market, with its infrastructure of card shows, magazines and Internet sites. This market may not operate rationally, but rare cards of stars still give collectors a focus for their energies. As Bosley wisely says, "We shouldn't think of the cards in terms of investments. We should think of them as collectibles."

That may sound naive, but to a true collector, having is more important than holding. Patrick Quinn, a Chicago-area collector who has about 100,000 baseball cards from the 1940s, says he pays no attention to the value of his portfolio. "That's not being a collector," says Quinn. "That's being a worried person."

Seen from that perspective, the shakeout is almost welcome. As for those youngsters Martin worries about—the kids with a buck or two of newspaper-route money in their pockets—Topps recently introduced a drugstore line of baseball cards reminiscent of its 1950s issues: five no-nonsense cards plus a chunk of sweet-smelling Bazooka gum for 50 cents. Slogan: "The fun is back."

Let's hope so.

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