True Value: A Journey Through a Box of Baseball Cards (Part 1)

Each pack was potentially the pack with a Rod Carew card in it (via supportcaringllc).

Each pack was potentially the pack with a Rod Carew card in it (via supportcaringllc).

First I lifted the box flaps, a feeling reminiscent of that hopeful moment so long ago, but also so immediate, as if memory had brought it near enough to repeat, when I had pressed my 10-year-old fingers to the back of a pack and pried apart the wax paper, the glue giving way with a satisfying snap. It had always been a moment that only Christmas could rival in the promise of all possibilities – or at least 10 possibilities, including Carew! – each poised at the edge that separates unknowing from knowing, anticipation from payoff.

The box – 15 inches long, 11 inches wide and 11 inches deep, with “renewable resource” printed on one of the flaps – had sat undisturbed in a closet at my mother’s house for more than two decades, a time when I had explored a variety of incentives and yields but none in rectangular cardboard. Now, having retrieved and opened the box, I waited for the smell of pink sweetness to further wed the past and the present, a scented reminder of the flat stick of a bubblegum that upon contact with the tongue would balkanize into several gum republics before reconstituting into a single unified state. None came, the smell remaindered to memory.

In its absence I gazed at the artifacts, disordered tokens of separate but connected lives. Framed for posterity, the players had somehow intersected my Saturday jaunts to 7-Eleven, back when I had chewed that gum without regard for consequences. Cavities? What cavities? The sugar, such an addictive rush, would always usher the discovery of a coveted all-star infielder keeping company with some no-name pitcher, the sort I might as well have trashed with the played-out gum.

But here they were now, I imagined, all of them, still in this long-unopened box. I gazed at its treasure, thrilled but also uncertain. Would I find what recalled? Would I discover, or rediscover, the faces I’d put away? After all this time I could still envision the ’75 Rod Carew card. I could still see the “AL ALL STAR 2nd Base” printed inside a bold white star in the bottom right-hand corner, and the man himself, the batting champ, in a momentary but everlasting pose: pretending to swing the bat for a Topps photographer.

I hadn’t seen them in decades, but I could still picture the Bench, the Palmer, the Ryan and the Brett, each now poised between paired applications of fair market price. How much had I paid, using my own skimmed lunch money, for the cards at 7-Eleven? Wasn’t it something like 15 cents for the 10-count pack? And how much, today, were these cards worth?

Focused now, my eyes came upon an inch-thick stack of newer cards, purchased in early adulthood, all held together by a blue rubber band. Clearly, this wasn’t the ideal storage. A rubber band could easily damage a card – remove it from the ranks of mint condition, the go-to status for any collector who had monetized his hobby – and sharply reduce its value.

The fact remained, however, that I hadn’t collected cards for the purpose of creating a foolproof investment portfolio – not at first, anyway. As a kid, I considered each card a window to a world I wished to inhabit, a souped-up Neverland where grown men played the same game I played. If not windows the cards were portraits, each of a man I wanted to become. Not until years later, when I had become a man, did I look to cards as a sound investment, a way to buy that 10-room beach house by placing a box in Mom’s closet and waiting for it to go ka-ching!

Alas, like every so-called collector who’d bought a pack during the first Bush Administration, I’d discover that my Topps and Fleer and Donruss – the ones issued circa ’86 to ’92 – weren’t worth the print on their cardboard. Thanks to press runs in the millions, the Glavines and Griffeys had joined the Meolis and Montagues, players whose cards, owing to the basics of demand, were worthless. The old price guides – $10 minimum value! – had made a mockery of investment dreams. No longer would Jose Canseco (Fleer ’90) put little Jimmy through Harvard.

Still, even as I gazed at the cards, I felt the thrill that precedes discovery even if the treasure is what you once stashed away. First, the cards lay in a heap whose excavation might reveal what archaeology often uncovers: truths more surprising than those we imagined, and relics whose value is understood only through the eyes of those who buried them. Second, I reckoned that the older, more valuable cards lay somewhere at the bottom of the pile, primed for conversion into something tangible and pricey – if not a beach house, then a beach vacation.

Grinning, I reached for the stack. Upon seeing the top card I laughed. A ’92 Topps, it showed a skinny shortstop in the instant that precedes the outcome, a batter stepping toward the pitch. In the time since I bought the card I had grown to dismiss Ozzie Guillen as an egocentric blowhard. But back in the early ’90s I really liked the guy. Now a memory came to meet me: One summer night, while sitting above the visitors dugout at old Arlington Stadium, I feel a tap on my left shoulder. I look up to see an attractive young woman gazing down at me.

Score!

She smiles and says, “I’m gonna go down on the field.”

Does that mean we’re not going out for drinks?

Disappointed by the romantic development but still happy that she has chosen me, among all these people, as her confessor, I reply, “Go for it.”

I then watch as the woman descends the steps toward the dugout. Once there, she leans in and says something. On the top step, Guillen turns around and nods assuringly. Given the go-ahead, she climbs over the dugout while Guillen helps her down. Safely on the ground, she runs toward the Rangers pitcher while Ozzie, having aided and abetted, howls.

Gazing at the card, I remembered how much I had liked that guy, the other Ozzie, the younger Ozzie. I didn’t like him now, but so what? Such is life. Things change. Feelings fade, move around, collide with other feelings. But that doesn’t devalue the feelings you once enjoyed and claimed as your own.

Those feelings no longer exist, sure, but neither have they vanished.

——–

It is a sunny afternoon in the 1970s, and I am tossing a ball to myself in the front yard of our house on Rupley Lane. Just after snagging a “deeeep driiiiive” at “the warning track” to win “a dramatic Game Seven” of the World Series – cue crowd noise: bwaaaaaaahhhhhhhhh!!! – I see my sister Laurie arrive in the driveway. Smiling in a way that Santa would smile if he were a blonde-haired teenage girl, she tells me to hold out my hands for a surprise.

I do, and immediately feel the presence of one … two … three … four … four packs of baseball cards! I thank her like no boy has ever thanked a sister, like no boy has ever thanked anyone, and run posthaste into the house.

Once inside I stack the packs in a short column on the den floor, to express with impromptu architecture the magnificence of my windfall. With a deep breath I pluck the pack at the top of the column, feeling in my palm the familiar edges of the still-concealed cards, the weight and solidity of 10 rectangular treasures, the telltale contours of that flat stick of gum, and, finally, the waxy texture of the vibrantly colorful paper – so colorful that it seems precisely like wrapping paper, as if it really is Christmas in late July.

Eager, I press my fingers to the flaps and gently pry them apart. The snap, so satisfying, is the auspicious prelude to a stratified discovery, an excavation whose Meoli/Montague layers will render the Carew/Jackson layers eminently more exciting, greatness requiring the props of mediocrity to set it above and beyond … and, now, as I put the Guillen card aside, I recalled that boyhood feeling. I remembered – I felt – the thrill of wondering, “Who’s first? Who’s next?” Were Rod and Reggie just waiting for me to find them?

Well, not now.

Not yet.

Next, in this moment, I arrived at Delino DeShields. What stood out most was the word “Expos,” once so familiar but now extinct, a vanished ancestor in the chain of descent. Here and now, the card seemed ample proof that no matter its appraised value, memorabilia might always serve as a time capsule, a cache of information that yields a nod or a grin. This card, a Topps ’92, omitted as much as it revealed: Like Guillen, DeShields is batting from the left side. But on closer inspection you see that he is wearing only a hat, not a helmet.

The picture is posed. The moment is faked, a fraudulent reality but still a reality, still an honesty of product met with a sincerity of appraisal. The moment, such as it was, had produced the card that I now held in my hands, a card as real as any other. On the back it read, “His leadoff HR gave Expos a 1-0 win vs. Dodgers 4-30-91.” What it didn’t say is – doesn’t say – is that in the year that Topps produced the card, DeShields produced his son, Delino Jr., now patrolling center field for the Double-A Corpus Christi Hooks.

It seemed to me, in the moment, that a card is never in isolation, never offset. Even if stored for 20 years, it is always a link in an unbroken chain.

——–

It could have been any day, at any place. Maybe I had popped into the E-Z Mart for a Coke, or elswhere for a six-pack of beer. Maybe I was in line at the market, preparing to buy a Swanson’s frozen dinner, when I noticed the see-through packages of Cansecos and Goodens at the checkout.

Whatever the place, I grabbed the cards and said, “Ring ’em up!”

And why not?

According to my calculations, I was paying 50 cents on the dollar – heck, maybe 40. The supermarket might as well have given me the money, yeah?

Strutting toward my blue Corolla – soon to be traded in, no doubt, for a red Porsche – I’d ask myself, “If the cards are so valuable, why doesn’t Topps just keep them?” The problem was, I never bothered to answer the question.

Now, years later, I kept flipping through a worthless stack, cards that no appraiser would ever overvalue … cards I should have wrapped around the dispenser, used as directed and flushed directly down the crapper.

Yeah?

I came next to Edgar Martinez (Topps ’92), his gaze fixed on a distance more inscrutable than even the card’s blurred background. Was he looking for Ken Griffey Jr., or was he searching for some bright promise of what might come? What Martinez couldn’t know then, beyond the stats on the back of the card, were the facts that I knew now, the sorts of certainties that might have populated his ’92 dreams: a .312 lifetime average, 2,247 hits, six 100-RBI seasons and seven All-Star selections. But here, on this keepsake, he remained an ancestral version of his eventual self, a player whose career had been synopsized in one enduring line: “Edgar went 4-for-4 with a Triple and Home Run and scored 4 Runs in 14-3 triumph vs. Indians, 7-14-91.”

It had been a great performance in what would be a great career, but was the card worth more than the vegetable medley on that old frozen dinner? I went to my computer, and for the first time in decades I sought a card’s value.

The result: 69 cents.

No bids.

I kept moving through the stack: Lou Whitaker, Rob Dibble, Andre Dawson, Omar Vizquel, Fred McGriff, Jack Clark, Joe Carter, Ron Gant, Ryne Sandberg and Darryl Strawberry – all great players, some Hall of Famers, but their cards?

Diddlysquat.

I grabbed a Cal Ripken Jr. card and searched online, hoping that one of history’s most beloved players would defy this woeful market performance. Wincing at the truth, I turned the card over, searching for solace in numbers devoid of dollar signs: Following the ’91 season, Ripken had notched 1,638 games – and that meant consecutive. I turned the card to the front. In the photo he is staring out from the batter’s box, bat in hand, having elevated the ball to right field. What happened here? We cannot know. We’re in a moment between twin mysteries: a pitch that preceded a swing, and the result that lasted. Still, despite the riddle of the instant, this is a dot on a pointillist portrait that hangs on a Hall of Fame wall.

It means something.

But the card?

99 cents.

No bids.

——–

At once eager and disappointed, I continued through the cards: Wade Boggs, Alan Trammel, Tom Glavine, Vince Coleman, Craig Biggio, Jack Morris, Julio Franco, Frank Thomas, Cecil Fielder, Will Clark, Don Mattingly, Dave Winfield, Greg Maddux, George Brett, John Smoltz, Curt Schilling, Robbie Alomar, Eddie Murray, Kirk Gibson, Barry Bonds, Kirby Puckett, Randy Johnson – all All-Stars, some MVPs, some Hall of Famers, and yet all of them, in their cardboard incarnations, worth less than half a ham sandwich.

What world is this, I wondered, where a cardboard box is a suitable bank for the souvenirs of mastery? It had always seemed odd, somehow unjust, that a man’s professional life could find such easy summation on a 2 ½” x 3 ½” cut of recyclable material, the tiny numbers so feeble in their expression of Boggs’ bat, Johnson’s arm, Alomar’s glove and Coleman’s legs. So much sweat, so much pain, had been reduced to rows of digits that had stolen from their creators the breath that once made them move. But here the injustice, or perhaps the imbalance, had been compounded, not only by careless storage but also by a collective value that, by all indications, justified the storage.

As if to underscore the depth of this sad revelation, Canseco came next. Canseco – the card I had plucked from a supermarket checkout to use as a down payment on that new red Porsche; the card, even then, that had traded for 10 bucks, 20 bucks, 30 bucks and more; the card, now, that had joined the likes of – let’s see … Brian Barnes, Tom Pagnozzi, Jim Eisenreich, Todd Van Poppel (the next big thing!), Steve Lyons, Kal Daniels, Donald Harris, Jay Baller (what a name!) and Willie Canatewho? – in a collection of mementos that weren’t worth remembering, at least on an objective level.

Jose Canseco – reduced to a fraternity of unremembered men.

Infamy, in the modern age, could yield a big check, and Canseco had made it work, not so much for his legacy but for his room and board, but here the infamy had generated no more value than a shrug and a chuckle. No book or celebrity boxing match could bump this card’s price.

Geniality, as much as infamy, had also proven a weak predictor of precious cardboard securities, even if paired with Canseco-like power. Indeed, the term “rookie card,” like “oil well” or “marrying up,” had long equated to instant riches, but even the “nicest guy in the game” couldn’t create much value in the rookie card I discovered next. Even Jim Thome, having slugged just the first of 612 career home runs, couldn’t generate any more power, economically speaking, that a 12-volt light bulb.

Nice guys might not finish last, but neither do they finish above $1.99.

I then arrived a different-looking card, featuring Twins second baseman Chuck Knoblauch. It appeared to have been cut out with scissors. I turned it over and sure enough, the card had been copyrighted “1992 Baseball Cards Magazine.” Scanning the back, I read the bio. “Chuck’s a scrappy, hard-nosed player who’s not afraid to get his uniform dirty.”

Indeed.

I kept reading: “Chuck’s fine glovework led the Twins to the A.L. title.”

What ironies, I mused, does the future bestow on past revelations?

Finally, the Investment Advisor counseled, “Chuck will never have real big-money cards, but over the long term I like the chances of this scrapper. Buy now if you can buy cheap.”

——–

Origins are joined but fates diverge. Players begin in the same location, or in similar locations, but their paths become their own, lengthening and dead-ending, twisting and crisscrossing, one on the rise and another on the drop. I came next to a ’92 Topps Top Prospects card featuring third basemen Frank Bolick, Craig Paquette, Tom Redington and Paul Russo. At the instant the camera clicked, each had surely hoped for Hall of Fame greatness or at least a steady check.

Today, by way of lifetime stats, I saw how it turned out.

Paquette: 11 big league seasons, worth a WAR of -1.6.

Bolick: 298 big league at-bats, spread across two seasons five years apart.

Redington: eight minor league seasons, none beyond Double-A.

Russo: 10 minor league seasons, seven at Triple-A.

This would be Russo’s truth, a biographical detail that only a decade’s work would author: seven years of sniffing the big leagues.

Next came another Top Prospects card: Manny Alexander, Alex Arias, Wil Cordero and a fourth named Chipper Jones. Paths diverge. I kept moving, to a rookie named Jeff Bagwell and a prospect named Shawn Livsey, to an All-Star named Mark Grace and a “Future Star” named Mike Campbell. I arrived at men I’d never heard of – big leaguers, sure, once the best in the whole dang county, but no-names now – and then to Tim Crews, Steve Olin, Eric Show, Gus Polidor, men who had lived the dream of so many kids but who, tragically, had passed away while still young men.

Moving on, I came to Tony Gwynn and Bob Welch, just days after their deaths. Framed in a follow-through on a Fleer ’92, Gwynn by this time had begun rearing a future big leaguer, Tony Gwynn Jr. Meanwhile, on his Score ’94, Welch is tossing a pitch to a little kid.

——–

I gazed at the Ruben Sierra card, a Topps All-Star ’92, and smiled. As a lifelong fan of the hometown Rangers, I had cheered for Sierra in the late ’80s and early ’90s. But long before that, at around the time I began buying cards, I had played against him. It happened in a national championship tournament in Knoxville. Sierra, with future big leaguers Ed Correa and Juan Nieves, in addition to Roberto Clemente Jr., played for the Puerto Rican team. I played for the Texas team.

Following the game, we joined the Puerto Rican players in a room at our shared hotel. Despite the language barrier, we managed to exchange T-shirts. I traded a Dallas Cowboys shirt for one that bore the word “Flores.” Unable to communicate further, we did a lot of nodding. At some point, upon an epiphany, I went to my room and returned bearing 10 cardboard gifts. Maybe I gave one to Sierra, another to Clemente Jr. In the future I wouldn’t quite recall.

Now, still smiling, I kept digging toward the bottom of the box.

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Comments

  1. Jason B said...

    Thanks for posting this…I remember passing through the same phases: enjoying the cards for their own intrinsic sake – the colors, the pictures, the unexpected joys of rifling through a pack, the stats and stories on the backs of the cards – when I would be just as happy with a crouching Ernie Whitt as a bespectacled Greg Maddux. Then viewing them as “investments” in high school – those pricey 85 Donruss, 87 Fleer, 89 Upper Deck – if I can just get my hands on “the good ones” then I’ll be set for life!

    “Set for life” with illustrious stars like Eric Davis, Bobby Bonilla, Ruben Sierra…all of whose rookies can likely be had for a Starbucks coffee (if not a McDonald’s bucket of cola) nowadays.

    *Sigh*

    Back to the salt mines…

    • John Paschal said...

      Yep, the joke’s on us: The Mets are paying Bobby Bo $1.2 million a year through 2035, and meanwhile, we could build a decent-sized treehouse made exclusively of his rookie cards.

      Seriously, Jason B, I’m glad you could relate to the piece. Thanks for the comment.

  2. Josh R said...

    Thank you for this article. I collected cards from the late 80′s into the 90′s. Recently after my Mother’s death, I found a trunk that had quite a few of the cards I had collected. I remember the excitement of opening them originally and was able to recapture some that by viewing them again. We forget or move on from our childhood joys but every so often it will spring upon us.

  3. J. Henry Waugh said...

    Summer of 1960 or ’61, neighbor Jeffrey P’s big brother has given him his birthday present. Three or four boxes of Topps baseball cards. He was going to have a complete set or series, I forget what the term was.

    As we sat on his front porch, he opened each wax pack, the gum and cards stacking higher and higher. All I could do was live vicariously, but I don’t think this nine year old even knew that word back then.
    But I did know, well ok, feel envy, knowing my hands would never feel this euphoric experience. My packs came in one’s and two’s and not too often. Oh well, I would have to win some of those cards in our games of Touch and Match.

  4. William Wallace said...

    Thanks for the trip down memory lane! This all sounds very familiar. After buying lots of packs of 1980 Topps cards at Quik-Stop, I decided to buy the complete 1981 set for $16 (if memory serves) …and then the complete 1982 set.

    Then I finished 8th grade and started looking at the cards as an investment, until sometime in college I realized that supply had outstripped demand and I wasn’t going to make a pile of money. I sold the two boxed sets to a card shop and maybe got back the inflation value of what I spent. Online, it looks like those sets are still worth what I paid for them plus inflation plus an ROI about 10% of what I could have had investing in the S&P 500 … definitely not what we high schoolers had in mind when we horded the cards!

  5. Bobby The Booby said...

    Great memories. Just a few from me:

    I remember buying an entire box of 1989 Upper Deck from a 7/11 for the price of a pack because the cashier rang it up wrong and as a 14 year old, I didn’t have the honesty to tell him and just took the whole thing. I remember getting a Ken Griffey Jr. RC out of the box. Later that year, the update set came out with the amazingly hot Jerome Walton card and Nolan Ryan throwing a football.

    I used to trade with my cousin at our grandparents house. I would try to get as many Roger Clemens 1985 Topps as I could because I thought it was the best investment I could make with my paper route money.

    In 1987 I was excited by the prospects of seeing Ray Fontenot in my packs of Topps because I knew Mark McGwire was sitting behind him. Still can recall the smell of the packs and the cards.

    My first full box of cards I ever bought was a box of 1985 Donruss at the cost of $135 for the box… in 1987. Now that was a lot of delivered papers, but I needed to pull that Eric Davis rookie (and Clemens of course!). The Danny Tartabull was a nice hit too. I knew I’d make my money back if I could just get a Puckett and Gooden to go with them.

    I remember a guy who thought that modern day cards of top prospects would be a better investment than 50/60s cards and traded me a 57 Clemente for a bunch of 87 Topps and Donruss Kal Daniels RCs.

    Fast-forward to today… he would have been right! Values of unproven minor league players and top draft picks sell for far higher prices than those of superstar established players. Once the hobby became more about high dollar cards, autographs, game used, and packs that escalated to $500+ a pack, kids were pushed right out (for the most part). Opening boxes has become more about gambling than collecting and most people already have the illusion of selling high dollar cards for big profits before they even open the box (and many times don’t get those cards). Look at the value of a David Wright 2002 Bowman Chrome RC Auto and compare it to a Byron Buxton or a Kris Bryant. Does something seem out of whack?

    • J. Henry Waugh said...

      These are wonderful stories. Being in my 30′s I never got into the cards during their heyday of the ’80′s. So different….we played with the cards, amassing a collection and maybe the entire series by winning them through the games.

      Match ( flip a card or cards down and other person had to “match” the order you got ie say face, face, back )—- if successful they got the cards, if not you did. Touch, where you flipped and attempted to touch a card already down on the ground. Could make it so card touching had to match the face up or down card it touched. Also, just remembered where we would attempt to “Lean” a card against a wall. First person to do that got all the cards. While Match usually played with maybe up to three or four cards, the other two games could win you a whole bunch of cards at one time.

  6. Dave Rice said...

    The story, and the stories in the comments… I can relate to it all. Starting collecting for fun in 1976. Then my friends and I found our first pricing guide in maybe 1980/81, and thus started our investment phase (though we never really lost the pleasure of opening packs).

    The story about knowing McGwire followed Fontenot… oh, when we could figure out the patterns and go rummaging through the mega-pack bins at Toys-R-Us, that was like hunting for buried treasure with a hyper-accurate map!

    I once went to a warehouse to pick up two 500-count boxes of Topps 1989, and they brought out two cases! Of course, based on the current value, I’m pretty sure I still lost on that deal.

    But every now and then, I’ll venture to the closet that contains all the cards, and just open a box or two to look at the players of my youth. And I’ll usually buy a few packs every year. It’s still a magical feeling. Oddly, my wife does not share that sentiment.

    • said...

      @ William, Bobby, J. Henry and Dave: I’ve really enjoyed reading your comments — wonderful, evocative details. Thanks for taking the time to post them. I’m glad that the piece has resonated so personally with you. Turns out, those old cards have become pretty valuable after all.

  7. mike said...

    I managed a card store from 1990-1994 and even then the ONLY thing that the young ‘collectors’ cared about were the damned price guides and what the cards were ‘worth.’ It was very frustrating trying to generate a sense of satisfaction in collecting for fun and for its own sake but I simply couldn’t compete with the greed. I remember my neighbor across the street was absolutely convinced that her factory sealed 1989 Topps set was going to put her 10 year old through college. I tried to tell her it wasn’t going to happen but I gather she eventually found out the hard way. Glad to be out of that business and glad that I started collecting in 1970 when all I wanted was Mets cards.

    • John Paschal said...

      Yep. Tell me if I’m wrong, but perhaps the only kids whom baseball cards helped send to college were those of card-shop owners.

      Thanks for reading, Mike, and for the comment.

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