The Future of Baseball Cards
July 1, 2007
by William Szczepanek
The future of baseball card collecting is up in the air. It will certainly continue to exist, but to the extent that it can recreate the glory years of the 1950s and 1960s is doubtful without considerable change in the product itself and possibly the game itself. Baseball card sales are sliding. The sale of Topps to The Tornante Co. LLC, a group founded by former Disney head executive Michael Eisner, will probably not change things significantly. After all, Topps has been a big business for a long time, and new big business is not the solution.
The perfect storm of baseball card collecting occurred in 1952. The first baby boomers had just turned 6 years old, and had just begun to read. The cost of a package of baseball cards was just 5 cents at the time and for many years to come baseball cards were affordable to all. To read about and see pictures of players who were on TV was a novelty that wouldn’t wear off for many years. While the first World Series was shown on television in 1947, TVs were just starting to populate American homes in 1952. Baseball was still America’s pastime. Millions of eager buyers would spend their entire allowance, which for many was that precious nickel, on a package of baseball cards. The suspense was enormous. Opening a package of baseball cards was like being on a TV game show. Many kids were trying to get their favorite player, or one from their favorite team. But, sliding the top card slowly from the pile of 5 cards often produced the disappointment of finding mediocre players from enemy teams. Occasionally, a Mickey Mantle, Ted Williams or Warren Spahn would appear and there would be some solace in getting a good player. It was like gambling, and millions of young boys were hooked. Affordable, colorful, informational, portable, educational and fun all packaged in a little piece of cardboard.
I still remember a day, in 1957, when I purchased a pack of cards and was walking on the sidewalk next to my house and noticed that I had a Willie Mays card. I thought to myself that his name sounded like that of a good player, but I wasn’t sure. I turned the card over to see what was written about him. I saw from the description on the card that he had won the batting title in 1954 and the statistics showed that he had 51 home runs in 1955. Even at that early age I knew that was a lot of home runs, and it made it seem like I was holding something special.
A cardboard baseball card can no longer satisfy the attention of the kids of today and certainly not those of tomorrow. The cards will need to change as well as the game itself. Players of the past were models to emulate; they were put on pedestals, even though they had faults like the rest of us. Many of them had drinking problems. Most of them did not make enough money during the season to avoid having to work at a second job during the winter. Today, players are paid more and get into bigger problems. Baseball is big business and baseball cards have followed suit. Both have suffered, but probably not enough to change.
Will there come a time when a baseball card have a microchip in them, where games can be played, one card against another, or one team of cards against another? Or maybe the card will show a video of the player in action. The perfect storm could form again in the digital arena, where all kids seem to play nowadays. Maybe that's what Michael Eisner has in mind. It could be better in the future, but we can be assured that it will never be the same.