Chaos and Kanji is the blog where I write about my adventures through Japan!

Want Lists are located here. NPB Baseball Want List is located here.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

State of the Relics Address

First, a shameless contest plug: It's time for another Big Fun Game! If you know what this is, you want in. If you don't, go find out at this different link explaining the game (it's a little different now but the same basic concept)!

I sometimes feel like I'm repeating myself, but current "developments" and an earlier post by The Diamond King has inspired me to continue the topic. This post is a lot longer than I expected, but I hope it's worth a read.

If you're old enough to remember card collecting in the '80s, there really was no such thing as a chase card. The only inserts I can remember were the ones Topps put in rack packs, plus the one-per-pack puzzles or stickers inserted by Donruss and Fleer. The chase was on in the '90s, though, with packs guaranteeing one insert and/or parallel per pack by the middle of the decade, turning what was a novelty and challenge into a guaranteed thing, and most inserts were cheap, especially at shows. Does anyone remember how tough it was to pull those Elite inserts? And there were 10,000 of each of them! Now cards numbered to 25 or even less can be had for well under $10. The '90s brought experimentation with design and card materials, seeing products made of plastics, metals, and wood, die-cut, embossed, and in 3D, released in cans and tins, and tied into comics and magazines. Inserts and sets were popular by design.

With the coming of certified autographs and relics, there was a new chase to be had. By the mid-90's, autographs were available in boxes of Donruss Signature, and in 1997 the first relic cards appeared in the hobby. The market was certainly there - fans wanted autographs of their players and this was a way of guaranteeing you had an authentic one if you couldn't obtain it in person. Plus, a game-used artifact provided an added connection to players and the game. Like the 1990s insert experimentation, what started with just a square of jersey, branched out into everything conceivable (baseball listing only):

  • bats, including knobs and barrels
  • jerseys and pants, including several variants: patches, laundry tags, MLB tags, buttons, button holes, and seams
  • batting gloves
  • fielding gloves
  • hats, with the same variants as jerseys (logos, tags, etc)
  • ball leather, including the MLB printing (has anyone ever seen a relic using the rest of the ball?)
  • bases
  • pitching rubbers
  • field dirt
  • warning track dirt
  • stadium seats
  • wall padding
  • catching gear (face masks, chest protectors, and shin guards have all been identified)
  • shoes
  • shirts and pants (several Mickey Mantle relics such as those included in flagship sets contain wardrobe from his closet)
  • tickets
  • stadium bunting
  • jackets
I'm sure I'm missing something (if I am, let me know). Keep in mind, these are relics from baseball cards only - other sports and the non-sport world have their own range of relics (Willy Wonka chocolate piece, anyone?).

Just like ten years before with inserts, hit cards reached a point in 2005 where they were almost worthless, being mass-inserted into products (especially by Donruss/Leaf/Playoff, trying to eliminate excess inventory after losing their MLB licenses). But that was the height of variety, too - DLP was the leader (in my mind) of bringing a wide range of player-used materials.

While it's expected these days to include at least two hits in every hobby box, the quality of the relics has really gone downhill. As far as baseball relics are concerned, Topps only uses bats and jerseys now. It's almost guaranteed any relics you pull will be gray or white jerseys, or bat chips, from common or regional/semi-stars. So not only are all the relics you pull the same plain colors, they are of players you are most likely not interested in.

So what has happened to the treasured patches, barrels and knobs that brighten up a box? That material is saved for high-end releases like Tribute, with small (usually limited to 25 or less) quantities of a short checklist inserted into some of the lower releases. 

As Matt (The Diamond King) says, the special factor is gone. I don't think it's because the novelty of pulling a relic has worn off. I bet it's more that you will most likely pull a dull gray relic of Ryan Dempster, Billy Butler, or Derrek Lee. Why wouldn't Topps fill its cheaper products with Daniel Hudson? Here's a hypothetical for you. Let's say Topps buys one jersey of Alexei Ramirez and one jersey of Derek Jeter. Ramirez's jersey might go to flagship, Heritage, Gypsy Queen, and Allen & Ginter. Jeter, being a high-demand player, will end up in all those sets, plus the high-end sets like Tribute and Triple Threads. Plus, I bet it costs much, much less for Ramirez's threads than for a Jeter jersey. So the Ramirez jersey can be used up in one season, while Topps will spread the Jeter fabric over two, three, or more years.

I'm not siding with Topps. I can see why everyone in the world has a David DeJesus autograph, though (the same concept applies to autographs).

I bet if Topps used a bigger range of relic types, they would see an increase in popularity. They're not worthless, though. I've been following relics since I returned to collecting in 2003, and I've noticed an increase in prices since 2006. Of course, with everything else in the hobby, new hotness is worth more than old and busted, so prices for A&G relics are higher than flagship relics, but when the flagship relics were first released they were more expensive as well. And there are only so many people who want Alexei Ramirez jerseys, so eventually prices bottom out on those, while a Jeter jersey will retain more of its value as new issues are released.

Yes. Jerseys can be had on eBay for a buck plus shipping, but given that shipping is at least $2 (usually $3), the true cost of most "common" relic cards is at least $3-4. In fact, six or seven years ago, relics were usually selling on the 'Bay for $1 plus $1-2 shipping, so overall cost has risen. Yes, you're not seeing any more money as a seller (and with rising fees are probably seeing less), but the cost to the collector is higher through the auction site. Before you say anything, I know you can get lucky with some listings and get a relic for a buck with free or very-low shipping, but that isn't the norm.

One more point to consider. Many of you have figured out that it is no longer cost-effective to buy most sealed product. I believe this is due to over-inflated manufacturing costs. Granted, this is a hobby, and collectors shouldn't expect to be able to open any box and get 100% back (that went away with "big hit" concepts), but an average $100 box of Ginter is generally going to yield about $25 in base cards and SPs, $20 in inserts, and $15 in hits. It isn't until you pull the better autographs, patches, and truly limited cards that you start making your money back.

One of the best things Topps did several years ago was a release called All-Time Fan Favorites. The best part of the set was the inclusion of retired local heroes and semi-stars who had never had a certified autograph before. I believe this set should be brought back, with relics and certified autographs of some of the players who have been ignored because they aren't current players and they weren't superstars of their day.

Are relics dead? No. Are they poorly executed right now? Yes. But they have a place in my collection. As a rule, they're less expensive than autographs, but are a great way to highlight a player collection. While I doubt I'll ever pull one from a standard release, I'd love to have a beautiful patch like the Ichiro or King Felix above. I wish Topps would do something other than what they've always done with them (namely, more alternate-colored jerseys and different player/game-used materials). I really think Topps needs to work on lowering their cost per card, as well. Somewhere along the line there is way too much money involved in getting the cards to market.

(I should note that my real beef with relics is coming up in a post tomorrow... or later today depending on when you read this.)

I'm interested in your input. Where do relics fit in your collection today? Where do you think they should go in the future?


  1. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  2. I agree with montanna, ab machines are not all created equal.
    But back to the point, I've never been all that interested in relic cards. Maybe it's because my two main baseball players I collect don't have many relic cards. I have a handful of relics in my collection that are important to me, but the relic card ranks fairly low in my hierarchy of cards and definitely below autographs, manupatches, and printing plates.
    But that's just me.

  3. Excellent and well thought out post (as usual). Looking forward to the next one. I am relatively new back to the hobby, so I missed the Donruss/Playoff relic explosion. That's one thing I need good blogs for is to fill me in on the history I missed and the reasons for the way things are now.

    I very much agree that All-Time Fan Favorites should be brought back in some form. I'd even buy packs of it, probably! There are several players that I want to see relics of that just aren't popular enough for companies to include in regular sets.

    After reading this though, I think that I am realizing that while relics are cool, for me they might just be gimmicks. The thing that brought this realization to me is the pic of the Berkman 6 relic card above. I thought 'wow, that would be awesome to have!' But then I asked myself why it would be so awesome, and the answer is that it is outlandish and different. Now that isn't a bad thing, but I collect cards mostly as a way to connect to sports and their history. I have no real attraction to Berkman as a player, but the craziness of that card grabs my attention. I think I want to get back to collecting for the nostalgia value of it.

    That doesn't preclude relics, but they will need to have some value to me outside shock value. Just because its a relic card shouldn't make it part of my collection. I think most people have already come to this conclusion, but I am slow!! Cur me some slack. Great Post!

    Oh, and to be sure, Montanna makes valid points. He is a great commenter and I always value his opinions.

  4. I've been getting more and more spam comments like that lately. I may have to go to a moderation-style posting format (UGH!).

    I enjoy manupatches (namely the non-letter type), and autographs rank highest on my list too, but I know that the player on the relic means something to me. The Berkman isn't in my collection, but I have similar cards of Tony Gwynn and Nolan Ryan, because the variety of materials from my favorite players makes that card exciting to have.

    Writing that comment reminded me that I forgot one more part. Gotta edit today's post before it goes live!