FOR years the mark of a dedicated fan, baseball cards are falling dramatically in popularity as a bitter strike has soured fans on the sport.
The Topps Company, the grand-daddy among sports-card manufacturers, expects demand for new baseball cards to be so low in 1995 that the company dismissed 200 of its 688 workers in its main Pennsylvania plant last month. Not since 1965 has Topps printed as few cards as this year, says spokesman Marty Appel.
Topps's five main rivals are also cutting back heavily in card production, and some industry observers expect sales to fall as much as 50 percent because of the baseball strike.
``The companies are going through the doldrums as far as baseball goes,'' says Jim Smith, the St. Paul Pioneer Press's deputy sports editor who frequently writes about card collecting. The cards ``just aren't going off the shelves very quickly.''
A few years ago, the picture was quite different. At $1 to $5 a pack for the latest generation of premium cards, top collectors sank thousands of dollars a year into the hobby.
At the height of the card-collecting mania in 1991-92, sports- and entertainment-card manufacturers made $1.5 billion in sales, according to investment bank Salomon Inc. in New York.
Diminishing enthusiasm even before the baseball strike brought the number down to about $1.1 billion in 1994, industry analysts say.
Few can predict how sales will shape out this year with the strike still unresolved. But many company executives are hoping that a settlement will inspire fans with late-inning buying enthusiasm.
``The pent-up desire for cards will sort of burst out,'' predicts Vince Nauss, director of marketing at Chicago-based Donruss.
Until real baseball arrives, every company is trying an array of marketing strategies. The Upper Deck Company in Carlsbad, Calif., has delayed the introduction of their main line of cards from December to May or June, according to Christopher Corman, manager of their baseball line. ``It's a major strategic change,'' he says. ``We think things will be settled by that time.''
Topps even went as far as to introduce special cards for the 1994 season that projected how well players might have done had the season not been interrupted by a strike.
And in an unprecedented promotion, all six baseball-card manufacturers have issued a joint set of cards showing 18 leading players. They are billing the collaborative effort a tribute to fans, but others call it a desperate attempt to drum up more business.
One wild card is the possibility of cards bearing the likeness of replacement players now trying out in spring training. Even if there's profit to be made there, many manufacturers are ambivalent.
``It won't work no matter what,'' says Mike Cramer, president of Pacific Trading Cards in Lynnwood, Wash. ``I don't believe in it.''
The only profits in the baseball-card market today come from sales of older collectibles, industry insiders say.
``The baseball strike has nothing to do whatsoever with Mickey Mantle's being a great baseball player,'' said Robert Rosen, sales manager for Kit Young Cards, a San Diego dealer specializing in older cards. ``We have not seen a slump in sales.''
Some prices of older cards have fallen because of less enthusiasm for baseball, which for market contrarians means opportunity.
``It's probably a great time right now to buy cards,'' says Smith of the St. Paul Pioneer Press. ``You can certainly get better deals.''