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Sunday, December 11, 2011

Thoughts on Thoughts sought on modern collecting

Bob Lemke's blog is a wonderful source of baseball card history, in both tangible and intangible means. He has a wealth of knowledge of vintage cards and shares wonderful, nearly forgotten sets, cards and images on a regular basis. But he also has stories behind many of the photos and cards, and a relationship with the cards that shows he is a true collector (or, at least, was - he states it in the past tense).

As such, I'm sure he gets frequent emails from collectors asking his opinion on a broad range of topics. His post today reveals a letter about collecting in today's hobby from a highly-experienced viewpoint. The writer asks what cards one might collect that would be of value to his kids down the road, and lists some of the cards he's currently focused on.

Lemke's reply is long, and certainly worth a read. It's fun to see the parallels to a 1950s collector and today's 30-something collector. He returned to the hobby in the 1970s and focused on the cards from his childhood, something many of us do today. His "current" collections during any point from then on forward were focused on specific players.

Lemke gives great advice, and it's the same thing we hear over and over. Collect what interests you, at a level you can afford, and don't worry about value.
But there is some thought before this conclusion that might be an eye-opener to some people. There are fewer card collecting kids these days than in my generation (not big news here), but that means today's cards and those of the past will hold even less meaning for future generations. The true key cards in the hobby (Lemke mentions the '52 Topps Mantle, '33 Goudey Ruth and Gehrig, and T206 Wagner) will continue to maintain value as status symbols without much meaning to them, but will the 1956 Topps set still be held in such a high regard 100 years later?

This discussion reminds me of a recent discussion which I turned into a post on selling cards. The view that cards are anything but a fun hobby can quickly turn a collection into a bad investment. Cards shouldn't be bought for future sale - they should be bought because you enjoy having them in your collection. And while I know there are cards I want that I can't really have without putting down large amounts of money, I don't expect to sell those cards or use them as an investment in my future. This is one reason why I focus so much on inexpensive cards. I know I've "invested" thousands of dollars in the past 20 years in baseball cards, but for the most part no one card really holds a large value to it. Most of my collections are based on quantity, though each has a specific focus - cards representing awards and Hall of Famers, cards from sets I want to collect, the type collection. I have my "nice" personal collection, but even so, I apply my thrifty spending policy to the cards found there. I don't need a Nolan Ryan autograph that's numbered out of 10 to be happy - having a Nolan Ryan autograph is enough. I can wait on purchasing a Pujols autograph, because no one single modern card is worth my spending $100-$150.

The real problem with collecting (anything) these days is that it is always about money. Whether it be collector's plates, cards, stamps, Beanie Babies, or even computer parts, it's about having the rarest versions  of each in top condition because they're worth more. When kids collected baseball cards in the 1950s and 1960s, future value wasn't important. When families collected trinkets or souvenirs as they traveled the country or world on vacation, they bought items for the joy of having them and remembering something important in their lives, not because 30 years down the road they could rent a booth at an antique mall and get triple their money back.

So as Bob Lemke says, it's important to collect what interests you, at a level you can afford, and (let's take this a step further) expect nothing back monetarily in return for your investment. Today's and the future's societies will always have a group looking to profit from cards and there will always be opportunities to sell, but if you really have an interest in collecting cards, such things shouldn't matter to you. And maybe you can instill the joy in collecting cards for the fun of it into your children, instead of teaching them that they'll be worth something in the future. It worked in the 1950s. Why can't it work now?

Maybe that's the big lesson we can learn from the 1990s. Children need to be taught to enjoy things for their intrinsic beauty and fun. They need to be allowed to play with and damage their cards, and watch the games to get an attachment that's more than monetary. They need to play with their Hot Wheels toy cars, and maybe smash some with a hammer to create a junkyard. Don't attach dollar symbols to the stuff you buy for them until they really are old enough to understand what value is. Having an allowance and managing their money is enough to teach them about purchasing power and the value of a dollar - they need to be able to use what they buy in a fun way.

If, thirty years down the road, the market for cards disappears much like the stamp hobby did, perhaps you'll still be in it to enjoy the cards, and maybe you can add some more cards at great value. If you're still collecting at 64, that is.


  1. Truth. Collect what you love and don't worry about value--that makes it so much easier to make trades and give things away, something the blogging community seems to excel at.

  2. Shoot, I can't remember the last time I even cracked a price guide!

  3. I've never really thought about my baseball cards becoming a source of income, mostly since my collection is relatively small and is basicly made up of cards I would never imagine of selling. Such as my first cards from my first pack, the very first cards I ever got in a trade etc...
    Although I have heard of fathers collecting every single baseball card the year their son/daughter is born and roughly 18 years later when that son/daughter goes to college the father sells that whole lot to pay for the tuition fee...

  4. Thanks guys.

    Colbey - that's almost a scary thought! But these days, we know what we're willing to pay (in cash or trade) for a particular card, so usually a price guide isn't needed.

    Zippy Zappy: I'm wondering if anybody has had real success with that idea. Perhaps if they started in the 1970s and sold in the late 80's/early '90s boom? I'm not sure if all the cards I have would pay for a year of college tuition anymore!

  5. I'm with you and Bob on this one, Ryan. So few cards in the last century hang on to value year-in and year-out. Even my 1933 Goudey set, a collecting challenge with 4 (!) Ruths, wouldn't resell in today's market for what it cost to build a few years ago. So I don't worry value; they're just nice to have.

  6. I really like this post. it's nice to see a calm and thoughtful assessment of the hobby.