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Baseball's big bucks? It's in the cards.

Every Saturday morning, when I was a kid growing up on the south side of Pittsburgh, I hurried down to the local grocery store and plopped down ten cents for a packet of Topps Bubble Gum. Only it wasn't the gum I really wanted. It was the ten photos of bas ball players emblazoned on cardboard that came in the package.

Within minutes of unwrapping the contents, I started making the rounds of my neighborhood, looking for others who might want to trade their cards for my acquisitions. Trade talks lasted much longer than did the gum. Sometimes trade strategies echoed the intensity of a major-league executive offering to trade his superstar for three or four young prospects.

In my teen years, other things became more important, such as school and--girls. Baseball cards became symbols of the past. One day, with no great fanfare, I casually tossed away an old shoebox that contained hundreds of cards I had collected over the past decade.

It was a horrible mistake. I had just dumped a small fortune into the wastebasket. Many of those same cards would have brought hundreds of dollars in today's market.

0 The packet of cards you bought for a quarter in 1983 may include the rookie season card of the Boston Red Sox infielder Wade Boggs. The going price for this card today is $32. (That's a return on investment of 12,800 percent. What stock, bond, or real-estate deal can match that? "It's a lot better than putting your money in the bank at five or six percent," says Sal Riggio, the owner of B & D Baseball Cards in Deltona, Florida.)

A 1965 Topps Company baseball card featuring the Hall of Famer Mickey Mantle will now fetch about $400. His 1952 rookie card produced by Topps is worth more than $6,000.

A rare 1909 card printed by the American Tobacco Company featured the Pittsburgh Pirates' shortstop Honus Wagner. It recently sold for $115,000, the largest amount ever paid by a baseball-card aficionado.

The card never circulated widely because Wagner, a nonsmoker, demanded that American Tobacco remove his card from the selection. A few cards reached the streets, but only six in excellent condition are known to exist today. About 40 others of poorer quality are around.

Pre-1920 baseball cards were exclusively a tobacconist's affair. American Tobacco's main competitor was Goodwin & Company, the maker of such cigarette brands as Old Judge and Gypsy Queen. More wholesome fare for young collectors arrived in the 1920s with the entry of candy companies into the field, and in 1933, the Goudey Gum Company ushered in our modem era of bubblegum cards. By the 1950s the Topps Chewing Gum Company was tops in the field, a position it's held to this day.

Topps had chosen the right time to get into the market. The baby-boom generation, millions strong and flush with generous parental allowances, went on a baseball-card buying spree that made the baseball card ubiquitous. The cards were so common that millions of them wound up clipped to bike frames for the familiar rat-a-tat-tat they would make against the bikes' spokes. Millions more were rounded up by moms and unceremoniously relegated to storage once their sons had reached adolescence.

So dig into that childhood memorabilia. The worn shoebox your mom banished to the closet decades ago--behind the Little League mitt and the swimming medals from summer camp-could hold investments more valuable than your stock. Although many cards never exceed their base price of about ten cents, one perfect game or an all-star season can increase the worth of a player's card quickly. (Cards of so-so players who later gain fame in other fields can also zoom in value. One famous TV commercial shows the backup-catcher-turned-entertainer Bob Uecker unable to give away one of his cards. Actually, that card is worth about $40).

"It's the poor man's stock market," says Jeff Boyle, the owner of the Baseball Exchange in Ormond Beach, Florida. The booming baseball-card market, however, is outmoding Boyle's definition. Mainly kids used to visit the baseball-card shows that tour the country; now the clientele is an even split of youngsters and adults.

Many younger collectors appreciate the business side of the hobby too. Juston Anderson, an 18-year-old highschool senior from Lake City, Minnesota, has amassed a return on investment that would be the envy of any financial guru. In just four years his $500 investment has grown to more than $8,000.

Every investor-collector has his own theory of how to make a profit in the baseball-card market.

The prevailing thought is that collectors should buy cards from each player's first season. The theory is that if the player becomes a household name in the sport, his rookie card skyrockets in value, becoming more profitable than paying for the many cards of mediocrities. "If you hold on to them for ten years or so, they'll be worth some real money," advises Matt Federgreen, the owner of the Beverly Hills Baseball Card Shop.

Federgreen says a card picturing a superstar during his second year in the big leagues costs much less than his rookie card, yet its value also increases significantly each year.

Most experts suggest purchasing a complete set (one of every card produced by a company for a full year) instead of a packet (a random selection of cards) to ensure possessing one of every card made.

Others suggest buying a pack, any pack, and never opening it. The value of an unopened pack, they say, skyrockets over the years.

Card prices vary by region. A Los Angeles Dodger card will sell for more in Southern California than it will in central Nebraska; a card featuring a Chicago Cub is popular in the Midwest.

The value of a card also rests on factors other than the name of the player pictured. The number of cards produced in a series, the age of the card, and the card's condition all go into a baseball card's market price.

I Serious collectors secure their more valuable

n em in airtight plastic containers. Some even wear white gloves to prevent grease or moisture from smudging the cards while they show them off to wide-eyed admirers.

The popularity of the hobby has increased rapidly in the past few years. Every major city in America now has at least one store that buys and sells Mickey Mantle's 1952 Topps rookie card, sold a few years ago for $3,000, is now valued at more than $6,000. baseball cards. Even the yellow pages often has a separate category for listing these outlets. "When I opened my shop in 1983," Matt Federgreen says, "less than 200 baseball card shops existed nationwide. Today, there are probably more than 10,000 shops."

The proliferation of current-card collectors has attracted more card production. Five brands of baseball cards now flood the market. Topps is still the reigning king among collectors; Fleer, Donruss, Score, and Upper Deck are serious challengers.

Specialized magazines, such as Baseball Card and Sports Collector's Digest, inform avid collectors which cards are "hot" while listing the asking price of just about every card ever produced. No matter what the initial price, a baseball card may never lose value. "As long as there are baseball fans, there will be baseball cards, and those cards will be worth something," Sal Riggio says.

I'm convinced. Right now, I'm going to take one more look on that closet shelf. Perhaps-just perhaps-still lying there is a baseball card or two that didn't get tossed out with that old shoebox.
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Copyright 1990 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Title Annotation:baseball cards
Author:McCollister, John
Publication:Saturday Evening Post
Date:Apr 1, 1990
Words:1260
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