Shortly after the 1952 World Series, executives at the Topps Co. had a problem. They had boxes and boxes of baseball cards that nobody wanted to buy. So, in a decision that would echo through the baseball-card market for decades to come, they tossed the extras into the cold waters of the Atlantic Ocean.
And so, only a fortunate few ended up with that year's Mickey Mantle rookie card. Today, a near-mint condition Topps No. 311 Mickey Mantle from 1952 is worth more than $20,000.
Back then, baseball cards were for kids. They were made of cardboard. Each one-cent pack of cards included a wide stick of (usually dried-out) bubble gum. Kids would wrap their stacks of cards with rubber bands and stash them in shoe boxes. Cards got lost, worn, and thrown out. Few knew they'd be valuable. Not many of those cards survived to the present.
Today baseball cards are mostly a grownup hobby. Twenty or 30 years ago, the cards were marketed mostly to kids. Most collectors now are over 30. And in this age of PlayStations and the Internet, kids are less interested in baseball cards.
"We are competing with lot of other things that get the kids' attention these days," says Lloyd Pawlak. He's senior vice president of sales and marketing for cardmaking company Fleer.
Trading-card companies like Fleer, Topps, Upper Deck, and Donruss still make cardboard varieties (for $1 to $2 a pack), but they also make lots of expensive cards designed to appeal to older collectors. Topps removed the bubble gum from most packs of cards in 1991 after numerous complaints from collectors that the gum was staining the cards.
Even seawater would not be able to destroy some of today's cards, made from high-tech "chrome board" or "foil board." "Relic" cards come with embedded slivers of players' bats, gloves, jerseys, even dirt. New packs can sell for as much as $200 - hardly within a kid's budget. Topps makes 15 kinds of baseball cards, in three series.
'The price of cards - it's way up there," says Alan Vinogradov of New York City. He's been collecting cards for 12 years now, ever since he was 6. "You've got to do your research."
A typical baseball card today may look simple in design, but it takes up to six months to produce.
The process begins when trading-card companies negotiate new contracts with the Baseball Players Association. The BPA represents the players collectively. At the end of the year, money earned from the cards is divided among the players, based on how many days each was on a team roster. It doesn't matter if a player was a bench-warmer or a superstar - each is treated the same.
That arrangement does not satisfy every player. Last year, San Francisco Giants slugger Barry Bonds became the first major-leaguer to withdraw from the BPA and make more money from his cards by signing an exclusive contract with Topps. Spokesman Clay Luraschi won't say how much Topps paid Bonds, but it was more than $1 million. (Topps sold nearly $300 million worth of collectible cards, candy, stickers, and comic books in 2003.)
First, baseball players are photographed in various poses, often during spring training. Using a computer, card designers crop and position the photo. Cards are redesigned every year to give them a new "look."
Photos may need a minor touch-up. A shadow may be removed or a player's face brightened. Sometimes, though, the changes are major. A player's uniform may be switched from one team to another. Spectators may be added to empty seats in the background.
Team logos, names, and statistics are added. The cards are grouped and printed out on large sheets. Proofreaders carefully scan each card for mistakes. Everything from an out-of-date team logo to a photo that does not match a player's name is corrected.
On rare occasions, Luraschi says, an error slips by, and the card goes to print. In the past, the error would be corrected and new cards printed after a number of faulty cards had gone to market. The rare "error" cards were valuable. This is much less common now because reprints are expensive. Often, the company won't correct an error until the next series, Luraschi says.
The corrected proofs are turned into color-separated "match prints" that go to make the printing plates. The cards emerge from the press on poster-size sheets with 100 cards on each. They are laser-cut and inserted into packs. Some packs may be "seeded" with autographed cards, relic cards, or other promotional material. Topps has put $100 bills randomly in some sets it makes.
In the late 1980s and early 1990s, trading sports cards was a good business, Fleer's Pawlak says. Today the market is flooded with new products, and there's a glut. But opportunities still exist to have fun - and even make money.
Vinogradov, the longtime card collector who works part time at his father's Manhattan sports card shop, advises his friends to buy the Topps Complete Set each year. It has 700 cards and costs about $50. Unopened sets gain value rapidly. The 2002 set now sells for about $100. And the best single cards to collect? The players sure to end up in Baseball's Hall of Fame.
A brief history of baseball cards
Baseball cards date back to the late 1800s. The first mass produced ones were distributed by tobacco companies, which inserted the cards into packs of cigarettes to boost sales.
From 1909 to 1911, the so-called T206 White Borders cards were made. One of them, featuring Honus Wagner, is the "Mona Lisa of baseball cards." Only 50 are thought to exist.
After World War I, candy companies were the primary producers of baseball cards. Some of the most notable ones were produced by Goudey Gum of Boston. Those from the 1930s that featured Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, and others were especially popular.
Candy company Topps began making baseball cards in 1952. It dominated the market for nearly 30 years. A court order in 1980 broke their monopoly, and other cardmakers joined in.
Today, the Internet has replaced the hobby shop as the place where baseball cards are traded and sold. Many, many choices are available.
"It's like anything else now," says Rich Klein, price-guide analyst at Beckett Media. "It's a wonderful opportunity because you can pick and choose what you want to do."
Top 10 most valuable cards:
1. 1909 (T206 366) Honus Wagner $400,000
2. 1933 (Goudey 106) Nap Lajoie $25,000
3. 1952 (Topps 311) Mickey Mantle $20,000
4. 1949 (Leaf 8) Satchel Paige $12,000
5. 1914 (E145-1 Cracker Jack 103) 'Shoeless' Joe Jackson $8,000
6. 1914 (E145-1 Cracker Jack 30) Ty Cobb $6,000
7. 1933 (Goudey 181) Babe Ruth $4,000
8. 1938 (Goudey Heads Up 274) Joe DiMaggio $3,500
9. 1954 (Bowman 66A) Ted Williams $3,500
10. 1951 (Bowman 305) Willie Mays $2,500
Source: Rich Klein, Beckett Baseball Card Plus magazine, May/June 2005