When I was a younger kid growing up in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s, collecting baseball cards was something that most of the kids in the neighborhood would do.  We would run to the local grocery store in my small town to pick up the newest Topps cards of guys like Reggie Jackson, Tom Seaver, and who could forget the 1980 Topps Rickey Henderson card.

In those days, sports cards packs were still relatively cheap, and most people collected cards for the enjoyment, and of course to maybe make a buck or two.  Starting in the early 1980’s all of that changed as Topps Company had their monopoly broken up and Fleer and Donruss entered the marketplace also producing baseball cards.

Seemingly overnight hundreds of sports card shops and dealers were opening on corners in cities everywhere.  Flea Markets and Baseball Card shows were suddenly happening every weekend.  Weekly magazines started to be published indicating the relative market value of cards.

This simple hobby was turning from one of fun and collecting to one of investment and opportunity.

Fortunately for me, this was also the time that my interests turned to other things in my mid to late teen years and I held onto and then sold most of my Baseball Cards about the time I started college.  I made an absolute killing as it was the peak of the “sellers” market.  Matter of fact a couple of nice Michael Jordan Rookie cards paid for my wife’s engagement and wedding ring with some of those proceeds!

I recently had the chance to read a new book by Dave Jamieson titled MINT CONDITION – How Baseball Cards Became an American Obsession.  I would highly recommend it to anyone of you out there who has collected cards at any point in your youth or even now.

The sad story is that sports cards have now really turned into a two horse game.  One for the “middle aged collector”. A guy like me.  Who still yearns to put together some old sets from their younger days, but will often now utilize third party grading companies to make sure that the cards they are collecting are “authentic” and of a “certain grade”

The other side of the hobby has been around for many years and it is much more scary in my opinion.  It is basically nothing more than impulse gambling.

Sports cards store depend on this “impulse gambling” type of buyer.  With Millions and billions of cards produced throughout the 80- and 90’s most of that inventory they have is completely worthless.  While they will occasionally get the “old school” collector coming in looking for some football or baseball cards from the 50-s and 60’s, most of their business is derived from selling of packs costing anywhere from $5-$250 each, with “guaranteed odds” of pulling things such as fancy autographs, “authentic game used pieces” of jerseys, balls, hats, etc that have been cut up and placed onto cards, and even the occasional factory produced limited #’d cards.  Many times which are numbered to 1 of 1 made, thereby implying extra scarcity that you have the only one like it in the world.

This year is a great boon so far in the baseball market for basically none other than Washington Nationals Pitcher Stephen Strasburg.  He has yet to make a big league appearance, but you would not know it based on all of the baseball card industry hype.  I mean it appears this guy is projected to be a multi 30 game winner, pitch 12 no hitters, and have over nine thousand strikeouts.

He has already had a card produced by Topps under the Bowman name, a 1 of 1 numbered Superfractor card, sell for $16,093 just a week or so ago on EBAY (see the auction here).  Various other examples of Strasburg short printed refractors numbered to 25 or even 250 can be seen up for auction for multiple thousands of dollars right now.  Not bad for a guy that has not even played in a MLB game yet.

Of course the lucky ones are the guys who spend $100 for a box of these cards, and essentially hit the lottery.  With other players such as Jason Heyward from the Atlanta Braves having a great year, there is usually more than one rookie to be chasing.  But here in 2010, Strasburg is clearly leading the pack.

Scary thing is that there really has not been that much product released yet from Topps, who is now the exclusive licensed dealer for Major League Baseball cards period.  As Topps produces some of their more “premium” sets later this year, which will include, cards including autographs, actual “patches” from jersey etc, and you can bet there will be more of these one of one cards made….and you can also bet that thousands of potential sports card lottery winners will be out, spending some disposable income in hopes of hitting their big ticket Strasburg card and flipping it for a quick profit on a site such as eBay.

It is just too bad that for every one that gets lucky, there will be thousands that don’t.

Happy Collecting!

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Johnny Goodman writes a weekly sports column for The Soap Boxers. His articles can be found in The Goodman File.

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