Baseball cards: a 'home-run' business for N.Y. couple

To Vivian Barning, hidden treasure is a cache of old baseball cards salted away in a shoe box.

She didn't always value the cards so highly, not even the ones she accumulated as a youngster in New York City. But ever since she and her husband Frank rediscovered the joys of baseball card collecting six years ago, her devotion to the hobby has deepened.

The couple even gave up jobs -- hers as a teacher, his in public relations -- to concentrate on putting out ''Baseball Hobby News.'' The monthly magazine for collectors, of which Vivian is publisher and Frank editor, now has a circulation of about 15,000.

Vivian is well known in card collecting circles -- so well known that Drake Bakeries, which encloses cards in its pastry products, hired her as spokeswoman for a regionally distributed series.

She has the complete series at home, but her nine-year-old son still insists that mom buy the specially marked boxes of Yankee Doodles and Ring Dings. ''Opening the box is a very big thing with him,'' says Vivian understandingly.

''Even serious collectors, who buy complete sets in mint condition, often go out to the store and buy a pack at a time. The fun comes in ripping open the package and finding a card you don't have. There's no excitement in buying them in sets.''

The Barnings don't really know how many cards they own. In addition to a large personal collection, they have many cards available for resale. Their strategy is to collect all the cards from a particular year, and when thoroughly satisfied with the condition of those cards, to go on to accumulate another set. They use profits from sales to buy other cards.

This systematic approach is a far cry from the impulsive way they started out six years ago. Vivian, her interest piqued by a newspaper ad, dragged Frank to a card collectors' show in New York's Roosevelt Hotel. They expected to discover a ''lunatic fringe,'' but instead were impressed by the scope of the show and the seriousness of the adult collectors. The Barnings returned two days later and started buying cards hand over fist, but they didn't know what they were doing.

Vivian remembers trading duplicate cards from her beloved childhood collection of Brooklyn Dodgers. ''The fellow I traded with was delighted,'' she says, ''because I was giving him players like Sandy Koufax and Roy Campanella from 1957 and getting nobodys from 1974 in return.''

Novices, they learned, often buy cards without rhyme or reason, and make costly mistakes as a result. To help others avoid such pitfalls, the Barnings hit upon the idea of publishing Baseball Hobby News.

The response was immediate and encouraging. Today the Hobby News runs about 100 pages and carries 150 to 200 classified ads in addition to its editorial copy. The Barnings work out of their Long Island home, with the help of two assistants and a couple of computers.

The tabloid's theme, if it has one, is that collecting is an individual experience. ''A person has to tailor things to his interests and budget,'' says Vivian. ''Someone in Boston, for example, might want just Red Sox cards, or maybe only Jim Rice cards.''

Vivian will tell you that baseball cards don't need to collect dust. In teaching the upper elementary grades, she would occasionally use cards in the classroom to drive home a point about bartering in the Middle Ages or to demonstrate how to make bar graphs using a player's statistics.

She even taught her pupils to figure batting averages. Says Vivian, ''We were doing nothing more than practicing division, but it's one thing to get up in front of a class and say, 'Today we're going to practice division.' Ugh. But to say, 'Today we're going to learn how to do batting averages,' well, that was a lot more interesting.''

Collectors are represented by all ages, occupations, and socioeconomic backgrounds. But whatever differences exist are unimportant, Vivian explains.

''As long as people deal with each other honestly, they really don't care how the next guy makes his living or what he does in real life. It's how they deal with each other within the hobby that matters. The love of baseball and the love of collecting are the levelers here.''

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