Tuesday, October 1, 2013


This is the only 2013 "hit" that I have bought the first nine months of the collecting year. I expect it to be the only one when the end of December arrives.

In total for this year, I have purchased one hit card, obtained one through a trade, and pulled one myself. That is all.

There are a lot of reasons for this. Lack of money. An increasing lack of interest in modern sets. And especially a lack of interest in the way the hobby operates today. This last item is where this post is going, although I've tried mightily to steer it toward something positive.

I learned early on in my return to the modern collecting world not to judge the way people collect in this hobby. You collect your way, I collect mine. As a born set collector who grew up in a set collector world, it took me a little bit to adjust to that viewpoint, but I got there. And I'm cool -- or at least I thought I was -- if all you want to collect is rookie refractor patches. Go to it, son.

So why did this article make me sad?

The story, published in the L.A. Times, appeared last Thursday. I read it then, but it's still making the rounds among hobby folks. I saw more people linking to it and commenting on it today.

There is nothing in that story that I didn't know already. People congregate at a card shop, throw down lots of cash, and look for that huge hit, searching for a thrill and a profit. I've been aware of this kind of collecting ever since I started blogging.

I didn't go into this story wanting to be sad. I didn't expect it to make me sad. But when I got to the end of it, I was sad. A mourning kind of sad.

I'm not entirely sure why I felt that way, so I'll try to explore what I went through here and see if it makes any sense.

First, I tried to put aside the way I collect. I figured my biases were coming to play here. I value base cards and admiration of the individual card, no matter how mundane the card or player. I value assembling cards over the life of a collecting season, trading with fellow collectors, searching card show tables and internet sites for that elusive number that will complete the puzzle. But putting that aside and just looking at the monthly ritual at Spokane Valley Sportscards, what did I see?

Easy. It's gambling. It's referenced several times in the story. Even the guy participating says so.

There is an aspect of collecting in this kind of card pursuit, provided the person who lucked upon the hit keeps the card. But the gambling element is so pervasive it's all I see.

True, gambling exists in the hobby even at the basic level of buying a pack in Walmart. And that's part of the thrill of collecting. But what the article documents is elevating that pack-buying sensation a thousand fold until you can practically see the dealer at the blackjack table. With set collecting, there is hope in every pack. With gambling-style collecting there is hope in -- what -- every box? Every three boxes? Ten boxes?

It just looks desperate. I'm sure that offends some collectors. But I don't see people having fun or fully enjoying cards when I see this. I see the same underlying desperation that pervades casinos and horse tracks. It's people seeking a fortune, not a card for the collection.

None of this is new to me, so what else about it made me sad?

Well, I think it's that I finally realized that this kind of collecting -- this lottery-style collecting -- isn't ever going away. The industry makes money on this approach to collecting. A number of influential people prefer that the hobby operates this way and that means I'm totally out of touch as I slowly plug along on my 1972 and 1979 Topps sets. The money is in people who buy $600 boxes and keep one card, not in me whining about $5.99 packs. (even if I wanted to be this kind of collector, I couldn't, because I can't afford it).

Again, no revelation -- I've been out of touch so many times in my life that it's the way I prefer to be -- but that realization hit me because there is part of me that can't get rid of the idea that the set collector will not exist in 50 or 60 years. Perhaps it's a large leap to go from some guys betting on the ultimate hit in a card shop to the demise of the set collector. But even cutting out the lottery collectors, there are just too many "disposable cards" to too many collectors' way of thinking. And that's what I thought about again while reading the article.

I also thought about how Topps and other card companies put us on this path -- with the inserts of the '90s, followed by hits, and parallels, and super-short prints, and eventually nobody's going to ever look at the back of a Rafael Betancourt base card ever again. There's no going back. Unless the entire industry blows up and we start from zero.

This is why you hear certain bloggers say "the hobby is dead." There's a percentage of truth to that depending on your viewpoint.

All of that made me sad.

Yes, some of this is me mourning the way things used to be. And I know the dangers of doing that. I've already documented it. But my biases are there. There is no denying after reading the article the sadness that I felt for a certain element of the hobby that is probably dying and for the sense of community that kind of collecting fostered.

This is very unlike me, as I've been a "I don't need you/do what you want" type of person my whole life.

But knowing that someday that there might not be some guy hunched over a card table, looking through a 1973 binder, searching for Denny McLain, number 630?

I'm sorry. That makes me sad.

Just like looking at the guys in their NFL jerseys gathered around a box, waiting to pull the lever on the slot machine.



Without a second to think about it.

That's just the way I feel.

I can't change it. I've tried.


  1. I get what you're saying. It bothers me less but we're from different times. I was at a card show on Saturday and the busiest table was the vintage dealer who has everything in binders. Every seat was filled with people completing their sets or searching for the card they want. I sat down and completed a couple Phillies Team sets and was quite pleased. I think there's room for both kinds of collectors. I love a fun hit as much as the next person but my first though goes too maybe I can trade it for a card I really want but don't have the funds for.

  2. I think you probably speak (at least somewhat) for all of us set builders.

  3. Yes, investor/gambling addict collectors are a sad thing, and they're depressingly numerous. But then there's us, the strange, Random, for-the-love-of-the-hobby collectors who enjoy this blog thing. As long as there's a point at which you can let the "one of one" type cards go, which are the result of the dark side of the card business, there's enough fun left in it for those of us who are looking for it. And even the "hits" are fun when they happen. The challenge is that most of us collectors have OCD tendencies, so we have to fight to keep things in perspective. Want, not need. Rip, digest, enjoy. Let the addicts burn themselves out and the gamblers end up with their expensive Jeff Francour rookie cards. Hell, have you seen what people were paying for Puig cards on eBay in July? Crazy.

  4. Well said, NO. It's okay to be sad, though - its a glorious hobby that, like the sports it pays homage to, has changed tremendously over the years. Some good. Some bad. All relative, I suppose.......wish I could buy you a beer, sit back and lament together.

    Never give up.....it's collectors like you and the blog/twitter sphere collecting community we're a part of that keep me interested and having fun.

    Thank you for that!


  5. As others have said, fear not, old warrior Night Owl - or at least, fret not so much.

    We're really talking apples and oranges here. There are collectors - and there are speculators, or gamblers. Definitely two different animals. Speculators like those in the article toss 90% of what they open and sell the other 10% for profit. Nobody could even loosely call this "collecting".

    Since back in the days when kids tossed every other card because they only cared about a Mickey Mantle or Willie Mays, our hobby has had its speculators. The hobby survived until us, and it will go on after we're done.

    Just look at the youngbloods like Dimebox Nick who join us. Yeah, it'll survive.

    1. I hope you're right. I still have my doubts.

    2. I am from the same era as you in collecting cards. I only worry that the gamblers will make the base set collections disappear. I got out of collecting in the early 90's, and one of the main reasons was all of the high end sets. This slowly destroyed the low end card market, and I was not going to pay the extra cost of the cards. I have recently returned to collecting, once again as a base set collector, and the reason is to share the hobby with my son. He is not yet two, but I want to share my love of sports with him, and have a hobby that we can share together. This years Topps set almost turned me off from collecting again because of all of the inserts. I have a hard time buying cards when I know that I am getting cards that I have no interest in(inserts). Hopefully we can keep the base set collections alive and well.

  6. Very well said, as always, but I think there are a couple points worth mentioning. I read the article a couple days ago and didn't re-read, so I may be off on some of my facts.
    1) They talk about football cards, which for some reason is a completely different animal. That has been purely hit based for a long time. Basketball thrives more on rare inserts and parallels and big name rookies. Baseball tends to have the set collector types. Not sure if it helps, but my point is different sports seem to attract different mentalities in general.
    2) These prospectors feed the set collectors. We can't afford $400 boxes, but we can pick up their scraps in those dime boxes. And it's all money that's going to a local card shop, which is something that can't be ignored as a positive. he'll take the scraps, sell them in the dime boxes and make a few more bucks off those guys.
    3) I don't think that team collectors will go away anytime soon. Even if set collecting becomes less common, team collectors are thriving and they'll always be looking for their version of the Denny McLain.

    Not all hope is lost, but the atmosphere is certainly changing. Time will tell if that actually ends up being a bad thing.

    1. Thanks for pointing out the football card angle. I was going to include that and kind of got lost with what I was saying.

      I don't believe all hope is lost for set collecting, the future just looks very iffy.

  7. This article (and your post...well written by the way) reminds me of going to shows and seeing dealer tables that are just memorabilia cards and autos. All I can think of is "How much did he have to spend to get all of those?" I don't even look at these tables. I've got my lists of base cards that I need and I look for dealers that have them.
    On the other hand, because these cards that I need are often considered "junk", I can get them for pretty cheap.

  8. I just read the article using your link. I would take all those vintage cards in that case and wouldn't trade them for a 100 cases of Ginter. Well, maybe 100 cases. Back in my hey day of heavy spending, I remember seeing people bust boxes of cards and leave EVERY single base card on the counter and walk out the door. Crazy. I love being a team collector who dabbles with the odd set now and then and pretty much anything vintage if it's cheap enough.

  9. Part of what worries me is that younger kids are getting into the "gambling" approach as well. For every wide-eyed, fellow dime box youngster I see at shows, there's the kid that goes straight for the boxes hoping to get that big hit.

    But, as was mentioned earlier, I've found that baseball and football collectors are very different. I think a good percentage of baseball fans in this hobby are relatively lower-end people like us. That makes me happy.

  10. the flip side of the gambling is the people who buy the "hits" and is every bit as sad as the gambling in my opinion. I definitely have no plans to read that link.

    'The Hobby' is partially about the manufacturer stroking the ego of the 'collector' with the 1/1, /5, /10, etc. cards. So someone can think "I own something you don't". This is never explicit on either side as it is not one of the more positive parts of human nature, but it is there. I don't particularly care for this craven appeal to our base natures.

    But they will always make base sets for us to enjoy. I just don't like having to help subsidize all the junk.

  11. If there is no 600 count 2020 set (Topps or other brand) to build, I will be sad, but there are other aspects of the hobby that interest me.

    There are 30+ Topps Base sets from 1952-1989 plus a half dozen bowman sets. That is a lifetime of sets for a collector to build.

  12. deal hits the key ~ as long as they still make the base(ic) sets, there will be those of us trying to complete them. Wouldn't break my heart if they cut back on all the inserts. But the companies so far still consider base sets viable, then we'll be OK. I'd love to start a campaign for all the mojo hunters to donate their unwanted base cards to their local dealer or to an online source so we can finish our sets, team, and player collections.

  13. That gambling aspect is why I left the hobby (though publicly I blame girls). Packs felt like scratch-offs. Not anymore. I still buy packs of Topps, but it's to complete the set. Other packs I buy just to check out the new product, and only one or two at a time. Collecting one player (actually about a dozen) has helped me to escape the need for pack-ripping, though I still love ripping them.

    I don't think these guys who spend huge money on cases to search for hits are happy. They're all seem to be trying to sell you something. And they throw away great cards which drives me nuts. There was a guy ripping a whole box of jumbo packs at the LCS the other day, and his throwaway pile was massive. He let me take the whole thing and only kept the hits. I felt pity for the old man.