Tuesday, February 5, 2013

The way things used to be

I am as guilty as anyone for wallowing in nostalgia. This blog is often an ode to old cards. It is an enabler to those who think of collecting in the 1970s as the best way to collect. You want rose-tinted glasses? I'm handing them out for free, night owl style.

I even went a step farther into the past a few months ago by declaring that I would stop trying to complete modern card sets, that it would be mostly vintage for me, because of my disgust for what collecting has become.

And then, yesterday, I tweeted this:

But this can be taken a couple of different ways.

For some collectors this is "The Truth." Cards and collecting and life will never be as good as it was when we could walk four blocks to the store, put a quarter on the counter, and get a waxy pack filled with photos on brown cardboard that was almost as edible as the gum that was included.

There are many, many days when I consider this "The Truth," too (although I never experienced a six-series set).

But I actually wrote that tweet in reaction to yet another round of modern Topps bashing. The complaints just didn't sit right with me this time, and I tend to get sarcastic periodically.

I do disagree with a lot of what Topps does these days. The shortprints, the gimmicks, the eight-zillion parallels, the dismissal of the base set. But one of the reasons that I disagree with it is because it runs contradictory to what I think is "the best way" to collect cards. I grew up during a period when there was basically one card company that issued one set that was 660 cards, and when you completed it -- if you completed it -- you were done.

That way makes the most sense to me. I like that way, I wish we could go back to that way. I wish we could go back to the way things used to be.

But if there is one thing that I have observed during my time on the card internets over the years is that not every collector thinks like me, and there are a lot of them that don't necessarily think that one card company issuing a 660-card base set with no inserts and no other sets available, aside from a few oddballs out of a cereal box, is the way things should be.

For them, the way things should be involves multiple companies issuing cards. There should be possibly one tradition-laden company -- and that company's base set MUST BE 792 cards -- but there needs to be competition. There should be about five card companies issuing sets in a given year. That's the way things should be. There should be some inserts -- but not too many -- and there should be some special boxed cards that you can buy from a department store or a toy store. And one set should have holograms. Holograms would be cool.

Wouldn't that be great?

Well, I don't think it would be so great, but I know a lot of collectors who think that it would be perfect.

Or maybe the way things should be is the way things were in the late 1990s. I remember being blown away when I first read Wax Heaven and there was a guy named Mario on there talking about the glory days of Pinnacle Totally Certified and Dufex and things that I had to look up because I didn't know what it was.

To me, the late 1990s card scene is an absolute freak show. That's what I would call it if I had to come up with a name for the period. "The Freak Show Era." A zillion sets, all trying to outdo each other, with lots of innovation, but not a lot of staying power.

But you know what? The people who grew up in that era, who started collecting in that era, think it's the greatest period for collecting ever. They have no time for a monopoly or for boring old cardboard. They want crazy variety and strange parallels that no one can find.

For them, that's the way things used to be and the way things should be.

This is all a generational thing, is what I'm saying. Maybe those who first started collecting about a decade ago aren't old enough to look back on anything with nostalgia, but I'm thinking that in time, people who started collecting around 2002 will reminisce moony-eyed over all the sets issued then with old-timey players in them. Full sets of nothing but old-timey players. Four and five and six different sets of just that.

That's the way things used to be. The way things should be.

And this is where we are today: Topps just released a set for 2013. It looks pretty good. I like it. But I'm mad at them so I'm not going to try to complete it.

I'm just one voice. Others are hollering about too many parallels or the wrong kind of cardboard or the lack of competition or the devaluing of the base set, or that Topps will eventually strategize itself out of business.

And all I can see is a bunch of folks with their own idea of "the way things should be," based mostly on "the way things used to be."

But "the way things used to be" for some isn't "the way things used to be" for others. It's different.

I don't want 228 different sets and 8,000 different Topps Tek parallels to chase every year. And somebody else doesn't want to be stuck with 660 cards printed off the bottom of a shoebox every year.

We're all different. Hollering about the way things should be from different viewpoints.

There's another thing I've observed.

When I went to Walmart the night before 2013 Topps was released, I found a shelf packed with new product. Several boxes completely full of loose packs. A few columns of rack packs 12-15 packs deep. A full set of hanger boxes. Three rows of blasters four or five boxes deep. Completely untouched.

If I were to go to Walmart right now, not even a couple of weeks later, I'm willing to bet most of that is cleaned out. The shelves are probably a disaster.

Obviously, other people besides me are buying 2013 Topps. They seem to be pretty willing to buy it, too.

And, if I'm not mistaken, nobody in my town has a card blog besides me.

So while a bunch of bloggers and tweeters are yelling about "the way things used to be/should be," a whole bunch of other people --- many, many, many, many more people than the bloggers -- are still collecting in whatever fashion they want. Still buying current cards.

And I see it on Twitter, too. A whole bunch of people on there aren't complaining about 2013 Topps. They're just buying it.

But -- somebody asked me -- will anybody ever look at 2013 as "the good old days" of collecting?

"I don't know," I said. "Probably."

I have no way to gauge that. I can't see the future.

But this is what I do know. If you could go back to 1990, in the middle of the junk wax era, and ask me if I thought that this period was the pinnacle of the collecting era, the best that it ever was, the "way things should be," I'm sure 1990 me would have looked at you like you were insane.

The same deal if you were to visit me in 1998 -- "Hello? 1998 Night Owl? What do you think of the card scene these days? All these glorious shiny cards, exclusive cards, metal cards, swatches stuffed into cards, autographs on cards. Do you think it's the greatest period of all-time?" -- I would've given you my "you so crazy" face again.

But there are people who collect today who think that was "the way things used to be" and probably the way it should be, too.

That means -- to me -- that there are probably people collecting cards today who think 2013 -- with its camo parallels and hunk of metal in cards and exclusive license -- is the way things should be. And one day they'll look back on those days with their nostalgia glasses as "the way things used to be."

Will there be fewer of them than the number of people who are looking back on 1987 or 1975 or 1952 as "the way things used to be"?

Yeah, probably. But I'm not a marketing guy or a business guy or any of that. That's for other people to measure.

I just know that Topps is a for-profit company. They try to make what people will buy.

And it appears that people are buying it.

Whether I think it's the way things used to be -- or should be -- or not.


  1. I don't understand why folks let Topps tell them what to collect. Why bother with the SSPs if your not interested in them.

    the base set is 660 cards give or take a few SSPs or a #331 here and there. collect the full print base - if your that concerned about being a stickler for completeness take one of those white decoy cards and draw a picture of Alex Gordon on it and put it in the binder - or just wait a few year and topps will issue it as an insert.

  2. Terrific post.

    Although I'm not sure if it's the way things "should be", I'll always have nostalgia for that crazy late '90s period for precisely the reasons you mentioned. It's the era that introduced me to this great hobby.

    I've found myself getting nostalgic for the 2006/'07 years lately, when Fleer, Upper Deck, and Topps were still in the game. It gave me a choice, but still provided a reasonable amount of different sets. There weren't a million different ones like there were in the '90s.

    I'm sure I'll end up getting nostalgic over years like 2011 or even 2012 at some point down the line.

  3. Nicely written. I'm of the 'walk four blocks and put a quarter on the counter' crowd. Although in my case it was a nickel!

    But I know that things change. The cards today are really pretty cool. I don't collect them because I don't really follow the game much but if I did I'd be excited about the new issue. But the seemingly endless variations and parallels would bug me.

  4. I don't know if the magic number is 792, but it sure isn't 400. Every player (known to be on the major-league rosters at press time) should have a card. Also, team cards, post-season highlights, leaders cards, checklists (not necessarily per team, but overall), and other assorted stuff [like deckle-edge photos! :D ]

    I'm torn about having multiple companies. On the one hand, more sets means more money (we will invariably be induced) to spend. On the other hand, there probably needs to be other companies, just to keep Topps on their toes!

  5. That's why you are the best in the business.

    I like to think I'm in a unique group. I will complain (often for humor's sake) about a lot of things in the sets, but I will also heap praise where it is due. At the end of the day though, I am a collector and I still buy it because even when it's bad, it's still pretty good.

  6. What an excellent post! What most folks don't realize, though, is that inserts and parallels have been around about as long as the hobby. Look back on T206 and see the "variations." One of my person faves is the 1965 Gold Foil insert set. Since I am a team collector, the only thing that bothers me are the 1/1's. I will never be able to get those for my team collection, and, as a collector, that sucks. But, I will keep on collecting because I am addicted to these bits of cardboard and have been for a long, long time.

  7. I think that has to be the best post I have ever read on the blogosphere ever since I first joined.

  8. What an awesome post! Very well done. I certainly have envy for the way things used to be. I can only imagine what it's like being a collector in the 60's or 70's.

    I grew up in that crazy 90's period and I at least knew then that it was pretty out of hand and then seeing upon my return in 2010 that things are much calmer but still very relevant, I was pleasantly surpised and have settled in well to the way things are now.

  9. I grew up on 660, but that isn't enough cards to adequately cover a set. Although my collecting heyday was the mid-late 70s, I think the early 80s Topps sets had it right-- 792 in the main set along with a traded set.

  10. I'll take 1982 as the perfect year in cardboard.

  11. Nothing wrong with the way you feel. I've bought some 2013 already and I do the same thing I did when I was a kid. Read the backs, learn about the players, etc. I know I could just look them up on the internet, but that's not any fun. I also wish they would focus more on the base set and less on the SP's, parallels, etc. Do I really need several versions of the same card? Throw another base card in there for me. I want to finish the set before Series II comes out and my ADD kicks in.

  12. I don't know what the perfect number of cards in a set should be but I do know it should be divisible by 9.

  13. You are the standard by which all others should be judged. Masterfully written.

    I don't mind the current sets, though they are a bit bloated. Nothing wrong with 10 or 25 card insert sets - for the whole year. 50x3 is just overkill, and dilutes the novelty of individual cards because they inevitably repeat at some point.

    I do wish I had more choices for sets, though. I'm not one that has to do every set issued, just the ones I like. Having a choice of four or five sets and doing two or three of them would be ideal to me. And make them different every year - from the previous year's issue and from the other sets.

  14. I'm not a fan of the extra sets, but I am of fan of your blog starting with a vintage Cub. Do that again.