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Steals of a lifetime

It's nothing short of bizarre how ESPN has started dictating the prices that people can charge for commonly available cardboard.

Recently, people flipped out over the ESPN "Last Dance" documentary, which mercifully just ended Sunday. I don't have any problem with Michael Jordan or the documentary, in fact I will always be on the MJ side of any Jordan-LeBron debate. But I have zero interest in the NBA and watching Last Dance referenced all over my timeline the last few weeks is not how I want to enjoy my quarantine time.

That's my problem though. What sellers have been charging for Jordan rookie cards (and other Jordan cards, I guess, I have no idea what those are) since the documentary came out could be your problem. If you're not a regular follower of the card market, that is.

In other words, if you're thinking now is a good time to buy a Michael Jordan rookie, maybe hold off on that urge a few months or so, or probably a little longer than that.

Some sellers will get mad at that statement, but as someone who doesn't regularly sell cards, I will always be on the buyer's side. And buyers should beware. Sure, you can spend whatever you want on a card, I'm not going to get on you for that, but I don't think you want to pay thousands more for a card now, which is what graded Jordans are selling for above what they were 10 years ago, in some cases. (Sadly, the Jordan rookie is one of those few cases from the last 35 years in which it's better to buy graded because there are pathetic people in the world and counterfeits everywhere).

But the latest example of ESPN docu-hype is regarding previously plentiful cards of Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa. ESPN has created a documentary on the 1998 home run chase by McGwire and Sosa., which honestly doesn't seem that long ago to me, but, yeah, 22 years, I guess it's the distant past to the Gen Z types.

Cards of those two players have started to skyrocket. I've never been someone who jumps on the going rate of cards but I have noticed. The cheapest copy of the 1985 Topps Mark McGwire card on COMC is about $23. Nongraded copies have sold on ebay recently for between $25-$45 and in some cases more. Sportlots copies that are near mint go for $20-$30.

Those prices seem perfectly normal to someone who was hoarding '85 McGwires in the 1990s. I remember those times. But I'm fairly certain you could buy a copy of that card for 10 bucks or less even a few of months ago.

Right now, if I wanted, I could sell my copy of the McGwire card for $50 -- temporarily breaking up my complete set -- and then buy it back in a few more months when the price went down to something more reasonable. But I'm not going to do that.

Right now, I'll simply consider it a candidate for one of my "Steals of a Lifetime".

Those "lifetime steals" are cards that I was able to acquire very cheaply. I'm not including cards as gifts. I've received many nice, pricey cards as gifts, not paying a cent. But, no, "Steals of a Lifetime" are cards that I either purchased or traded for that I've made a killing on, whether through passage of time or simply because the seller/trader had little idea of what they had.

Here are five quick examples:

1971 Topps Nolan Ryan

I acquired this card on the front porch of a friend's house on a summer day in 1978. Me, my brother and a couple of friends were marveling over the "old cards" that our one friend had received from his older brother. His brother was at least eight years older than all of us so were were amazed to see cards from 1968, 1969 and 1971 in our one friend's possession.

As we all stared at those ancient cards scattered across the carpeted porch, we began to talk deals. I was about four years older than my friend with the cards. My brother was two or three years older. My friend was a Yankee fan, very interested in current Yankees. My brother and I sensed an opportunity. Each of us, in I believe separate deals, traded several 1978 Topps Yankees to our friend, for several cards from the late '60s and early '70s.

I remember that most of the cards I received in the trade were from 1971, because I thought that set was the coolest cardboard I had ever seen. And that Ryan card topped them all. I received it for a handful of '78 Yankees, probably Rivers and Munson and Figueroa and the like, guys I hated actually.

Years later, I put together the 1971 Topps set and one of the things I didn't have to do is put down 45 bucks on a Nolan Ryan from the set. The copy I "stole" at age 12 worked just fine.

1955 Topps Sandy Koufax

I've featured this card several times on the blog and a couple of times quite recently, so a quick story here. I can't remember some of the key details anyway.

In high school, I knew two other kids in my class who collected cards enough that they were aware of older cards (we didn't call them "vintage" then, I don't even know if that was a definition at the time). Both of the other two kids seemed to have quite the selection of older cards. I didn't have nearly as many.

One mentioned they owned a copy of Koufax's rookie card, which even then was a big deal. He said that it was in pretty ragged shape, tape on the edge, creases, etc., but a Koufax rookie meant no explanation was needed.

I wanted the card. I got the card. I have zero remembrance of what I traded for it. I'm sure it was significant at the time. But whatever it was couldn't possibly have matched a Koufax rookie card, and that's what makes it a Steal of a Lifetime.

To this day, I think it is awesome that the first 1955 Topps Dodger I owned is the Koufax rookie card.

1982 Topps Traded Cal Ripken (Jr.)

We knew who Cal Ripken was in 1982.

Rookie hype wasn't what it is now. Thank goodness. I never would have been able to handle 40 different Topps Now cards of Ripken issued in 1982 when I was 16 years old. But we knew he was going to be good. I read about him in the newspaper and in The Sporting News. I went to a game in which he played and he hit a home run. We knew.

However ...

Back then, you could still order a set of cards with a prominent rookie inside without the cards going for a premium. In other words, you could buy it without getting ripped off.

The "Traded Set" was still a new concept at the time and I saw ads for the 1982 Traded set in copies of Baseball Digest and the Fritsch catalog that came to my house. I had wanted the '81 Traded set and never got it. I wasn't going to miss this opportunity.

I don't remember what I spent for it but I know it was probably around $12.99, $13.99 or so. For 132 cards that seemed like an acceptable price. I do remember the day it arrived and taking that glorious, tidy blue box up to my room. There inside was the Ripken (along with the Steve Sax card that I cared about more).

It basically cost me 12 cents to buy a card that for a long time would rank as the most expensive card in my collection. It's still one of the most expensive.

Probably one of the best buying decisions I ever made.

1961 Topps Roger Maris

I wish I had started a little notebook titled "my card show steals" a long time ago. That seems like something that would be fun to look through over the years.

I just can't remember all the steals that I've made at the numerous shows I've attended. There was the selection of '72 and '73 Topps cards that I landed for much too little cash in Vermont four years ago. But I'm sure there are many other examples lost to time.

One that will never disappear from my memory is the time I received this '61 Maris card for 7 cents.

Some may consider this somewhat less than a steal because of the mangling/paper loss toward the bottom of the card. I have absolutely no problem with it because IT'S A 1961 TOPPS ROGER MARIS, PEOPLE!

I will always enjoy the memory of leafing through those cards, most of which were written on, hearing the dealer lament about how great those cards would have been if there was no writing on them, and then not hearing the dealer anymore because one of the cards in that stack was -- holy smokes, a '61 Maris!

Definition of a steal of a lifetime right there.

2011 Topps Update Mike Trout

What is more ridiculous?:

1. The fact that a card like this -- just as plentiful as any other card created in the 2011 Update set -- goes for crazy prices, a concept I will never comprehend (remember when price was based on rarity and age?).

2. The fact that I did not have a clue who this was or the significance of the card when I pulled it.

I can't even tell you when I pulled this card or how. Was it at Target or Walmart? Was it a blaster or rack pack? I can't tell you that because even though I was writing a blog in the fall of 2011 and documenting current cards as frequently as ever, I never noted when I pulled it.

I do know that I had the card by November 4, 2011. That's when I wrote my "All-Fish team" post with the Trout card topping the post and me being all clueless about the difference between Trout and Mark Trumbo.

But none of that matters anymore. What matters is that I landed Trout's rookie card -- the poster card for the outrageous prices non-scarce cards can go for these days -- for probably no more than 40 cents.

So, it certainly qualifies as one of my Steals of a Lifetime.

The 1985 Mark McGwire card doesn't make this list and probably never will, unless sellers and buyers get even more crazy and a non-graded copy hits triple figures. When I look in my Standard Catalog of Baseball Cards from 10 years ago, the NM price of an '85 McGwire is at $20, so the prices are actually still reasonable for people who need to look for the card RIGHT NOW.

But those who know almost nothing about cards, here's a tip:

Unless you're selling cards, too, there's nothing to be gained for buying a card when it's "HOT".


Wow, cool post. I collect McGwire, so his cards getting pricier is bad news for me!

Love the stories about the 'steals'. The Maris and Ripken especially, since I am still chasing those two.

And weirder still, I just posted about my own Trout find. I too cannot remember where or when I got it, but it wasn't out of a pack. Crazy dollars!!
Old Cards said…
My steals of a lifetime - 63, 64,67 & 68 Mantles. Got them out of 5 cent wax packs. Your 61 Maris looks great!
The last time I "technically was selling" cards was in 2005. I must of unloaded a dozen 85' Mac's for 60-80 bucks each (my cost was somewhere between pack pulled to $25.00). I probably have picked up 2 or 3 of those in the last 10 years. Paid between 5-8 a piece. I'm good with that card at that price.
GCA said…
I can't find a post, but I'm pretty sure I got McGwire for less than ten dollars a year or two ago.
You would think there would be a recession in value in the cards of all these guys that have confessed to doping or cheating, but it really hasn't happened to a significant degree.
Matt said…
I got my '71 Ryan from my uncle - He gave me a stack of early 70's cards, had me sort them, and said I could keep any duplicates.
Fuji said…
Wow. Yeah, I'd definitely call these "steals of a lifetime". This post might just be the inspiration for my Thursday post... assuming I can find the time to dig through some cards. As for these spikes in sales, I find it so fascinating. I'm glad it's coinciding with me cutting back on my hobby spending (although I did just spend big money on a Gwynn card I've wanted for years).
Comatoad said…
I always love hearing how collectors were able to acquire a certain card or two, and these are great stories. I have to agree with you about the Jordan documentary - Pro basketball just leaves me cold.
Jon said…
From what I've seen and read, it's absolutely pointless trying to advise anyone to not buy whatever's "hot" right now -- they need it to be a part of something, and the only way that you can be a part of that something is to overpay for all of these "trending" items.
Jeremy said…
The ESPN documentary stuff is crazy. I feel like when sports return, people are going to be paying less attention to these documentaries and prices for graded junk wax will return back to Earth. Everything that is going lately in the hobby just shows how irrational the hobby truly is.
Nick said…
I found a '71 Ryan for $5 on COMC last year -- it's in way worse shape than your copy, but I still thought that was a steal. I also owned that Trout rookie -- and the liquorfractor parallel -- at one point. Like you, I don't know specifically where they came from but I imagine I pulled 'em from packs. But alas, I sold both Trouts when I was out of a job about five or six years ago (for a tiny fraction of what they go for now...).
Jafronius said…
Way late but wanted to say this was a fun read. I'm surprised this didn't become one of those bat arounds...unless it did and I completely missed it.

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