Baseball card dealer peddles nostalgia that fits in your hand

The photo-snapping grandmother taking pictures at a family party is preserving memories. So, too, is the baseball card collector. By glancing over his collection he remembers the nostalgia of America's national pastime. ``They take you back to another time,'' says Larry Brown, a Boston-based baseball card dealer. ``People like to see pictures of players who were famous or who they saw play.''

Major dealers around the nation own shops and attend baseball memorabilia shows, where one will find everything from baseball sheet music to baseball jewelry.

Earlier in the season, the National Sports Collectors Convention, the largest event of its kind, was held in Arlington, Texas. It featured a trade show with 300 national dealers, seminars and demonstrations, and autograph sessions with retired baseball stars Mickey Mantle, Whitey Ford, Lou Brock, and Bob Gibson.

Far more common than huge conventions are flea markets with baseball memorabilia stands. Most serious dealers attend the smaller shows, although some work exclusively through mail order.

Brown, however, does business on a square table outside Boston's Fenway Park. The night of a Red Sox home game, fans can be seen browsing through his photo books packed with baseball cards.

Brown recalls collecting as a boy in Florida. By the time he graduated from high school, he had amassed 50,000 cards. He picked up his collection and moved to Boston after doing odd jobs up and down the East Coast for eight years.

A college education seemed in order, so he sold his massive collection to a card shop for $1,500 to help with tuition. Now he has a job proofreading technical documents for an engineering firm and sells cards next to Fenway Park for extra cash.

``Right now, I'm selling a lot of Dwight Gooden,'' Brown says. Gooden, of the New York Mets, won the National League's 1985 Cy Young Award as the league's best pitcher. ``I have to raise the price of his [1986 Topps] card every week just to keep a few.'' It currently goes for $2.50.

Cards of baseball legends are scarce and the most valuable. Honus Wagner, possibly the greatest shortstop to play in the major leagues, graces the most expensive cards. ``His lousy cards cost $6,000, and there are some people who would pay $30,000 for one in real mint condition,'' says Lenny DeAngelico, owner of Bay State Cards in Boston.

Wagner's card is the rarest. An opponent of smoking, he demanded it be pulled off the market when the card began appearing with cigarette packs in 1909. ``There are only 15 to 40 of Wagner's card around,'' DeAngelico says.

Baseball cards were first used as inserts in cigarette packs in 1887. Tobacco companies used this marketing device until 1915, when other companies began copying them. In the 1950s, General Mills used the cards to promote its products: On the back of Wheaties cereal boxes there was a baseball card ready to be cut out.

Today, baseball cards are most commonly found in bubble gum-filled, wax paper packages and sold in drugstores, convenience markets, and other retail outlets. The packs were a hit in the 1950s, when six cards sold for a nickel. Now 15 cards go for 35 cents.

Topps Chewing Gum Company, which began printing baseball cards in 1951, is the longevity leader. It is also bigger than its chief competitors, Fleer and Donruss. All refused to disclose the exact number of cards they print annually. ``It's not good business to reveal marketing details,'' says Norman Liss, a Topps spokesman. He did estimate, however, that ``we print over 500 million cards a year.''

The cards in the wax packs, like the toys in Cracker Jack boxes, vary. So the buyer inevitably ends up with many he doesn't want, but can trade. Or, of course, he can go to a dealer and pay a premium price for a specific card.

In addition to nostalgia, much of the interest in the cards is grounded in statistics. ``People like to look over the stats on the flip side of the cards,'' says Brown. Comparing such things as batting averages, home runs, RBIs, and stolen bases among players helps keep the 162-game season exciting. And there is always the hope that an active star will break a longstanding record.

But how does one determine potentially valuable cards? There are no hard and fast formulas to follow; you have to use educated guesses.

``It's like the stock market,'' says Brown. ``Buying cards of the young players of today who end up as tomorrow's legends can be very profitable.'' But popular cards aren't simply manufactured. The players on them must not only compile impressive statistics, they must be likable, too. ``Joe DiMaggio had dynamism,'' says Brown, ``which is one reason his card is popular.''

Like a stock in a new company, cards in a packet can depreciate or soar in value. Brown, however, doesn't look just at their monetary value. They are links to his childhood, a past he keeps in his hands.

Before each Red Sox home game, he opens the foot-long boxes of cards which he buys in bulk at baseball card shops. The cards are randomly stacked. He organizes the players in teams and places the cards in the photo books.

When setting up outside the ballpark, he carefully places the photo books on his table and waits for the crowds. Mature adults, young men and women, teen-agers, and small boys all show an interest in his merchandise. His customers want cards of today's hottest players like Gooden, Rickey Henderson, Wade Boggs, and Kirby Puckett. And they want pictures of longtime stars like Pete Rose, Reggie Jackson, and Tom Seaver.

Half an hour into the game Brown folds up his table, gathers his photo books, and takes dinner at Mississippi's restaurant a block away. While eating he reorganizes his cards, until a steady stream of pedestrians begins leaving the park, usually about two hours into the game. Then he goes back to his spot to set up shop -- back where Americans see pictures of their heroes.

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