How Baseball Cards Got Weird

A very analog hobby finds a way to thrive in the digital age.

Amy Lombard

One night not long ago, with my 3-year-old son finally asleep and my wife wisely heading to bed, I settled onto the couch, beer in hand, to catch some baseball. Well, not really baseball. I opened my laptop, navigated to, and prepared to watch a pair of rubber-gloved hands in East Wenatchee, Washington, open an entire case of baseball cards—more than 4,000 cards in all.

If that sounds like the only activity more tedious than sitting through four hours of pitching changes and batters calling time, I shared some of your skepticism. Though I was once a middle schooler with a pack-a-day habit, whose heart raced whenever I crossed the threshold of Gilbert’s Sports Nostalgia in suburban Boston, the last time I tended to my card collection, Bill Clinton was president and Barry Bonds was a speedster with some pop. I’d been under the impression that the card industry had all but died out around the time I went off to college, eclipsed in the adolescent imagination by Nintendo 64, Pokémon, AOL.

And yet, here I was, staring at the tightly framed hands of Billy Byington, the proprietor of Gargoyle Card Breaks. Byington, an affable father of seven, was about to open a case of 2019 Topps Series 2 live on streaming video. Like the other dozen or so participants in this “break,” I’d purchased a stake in the cards. For $18.75, I’d secured the rights to any cards depicting members of the Oakland Athletics. I don’t root for the A’s, and can name only a player or two from their current roster. But I’d read that this set had a few throwback cards dedicated to Oakland old-timers I do know a bit about—Dennis Eckersley, Reggie Jackson—and the A’s were priced more competitively than my hometown Red Sox were.

A case of Topps Series 2 contains 12 boxes, each made up of 24 packs, which in turn each hold 14 cards. Some breakers, I would later learn, tear open the packs and riffle through them with the speed of a blackjack dealer, pausing only to display the rarest cards. Byington is more methodical in his approach, carefully unwrapping each pack and allowing the camera to glimpse every card. This break threatened to last nearly as long as a regulation baseball game.

As he started pulling individual cards from the packs, Byington offered the kind of pleasant, meandering chatter that might fill the air during a rain delay. About an hour into the break, he turned over a card depicting Rickey Henderson, the brash Oakland leadoff man who had set stolen-base records during my childhood. “Oooh, look at that!” he exclaimed. “Boom! Nice, Eric.” Not only was Henderson a player I recognized; this was a “relic” card, embedded with a shard of a bat Henderson had once used in a game. In the break’s live chat room, other participants gave the rookie in their midst a round of attaboys.

Up until that point, the experience of baseball-card collecting as a spectator sport could hardly have been more foreign. Having acquired the limited-edition Henderson card—or, at least, having seen Byington unwrap it—I now felt a familiar rush, one I hadn’t known since the days I’d spent opening packs at Gilbert’s: the thrill of the hunt.

Baseball-card collecting really ought to be extinct. It’s an analog hobby in a digital world, an expression of fandom in a sport whose attendance is in slow decline and whose cultural relevance is in free fall. But as my experience in Billy Byington’s break suggests, the hobby has not only persisted; it’s found effective, if peculiar, methods of adapting to an inhospitable environment.

The story of the baseball-card market is a story of scarcity. Before the 1970s, varying prices for individual baseball cards were virtually unheard-of. Vintage cards were traded through the mail by completist collectors seeking to round out a set. In the late ’60s, the 1952 Topps Mickey Mantle listed for about a dollar—the going rate for any card from the sixth series of 1952 Topps. It was only in the ’70s, as Baby Boomers sought out favorite cards from their youth, that certain stars began to soar in value.

As kids, Boomers had treated baseball cards like what they were—playthings, not museum pieces. They fondled them and flipped them and stuck them between the spokes of their bicycles—then went off to college and lost shoeboxes stuffed with cards to flooded basements and spring cleaning. Later, when grown Boomers returned to their childhood hobby, ardent demand met limited supply. By the end of the ’70s, that same ’52 Mantle approached $1,000 in value.

By the ’80s, blue-chip cards were outperforming the S&P 500 and collecting had transformed from a sleepy novelty into a billion-dollar industry. In 1991, approximately 18 million people in the United States bought at least one newly issued pack, spending $2 billion to acquire nearly 21 billion baseball and other sports cards. A 1990 market study found that 77 percent of collectors were drawn to cards partly or fully because they considered them a “good investment.”

Then the bottom fell out. In their eagerness to put new product in front of Boomers and their kids, manufacturers had flooded the market with cardboard. Collectors bought up new cards and squirreled them away. Nothing like the scarcity of the vintage market would attach to those billions of new cards.

The card companies realized they’d grown greedy. In 1993, The Wall Street Journal reported that insiders at Topps had sold off massive quantities of shares the prior year, right before the company posted its first quarterly loss in more than a decade. One industry observer told the Journal that oversupply—too many competing sets; large print runs—had “choked the goose that laid the golden eggs.” The cards of Hall of Famers from the ’60s and earlier retained their value, but new product was rendered all but worthless by the late ’90s.

Yet even as the market was tanking, efforts were afoot to save it. Scarcity, it turned out, could be engineered. The value of a card had always been determined, in part, by its condition. All 1952 Mickey Mantles were rare; one with sharp corners and crisp printing was rarer still. Throughout the ’80s mania, condition had remained in the eye of the beholder—one man’s mint was another man’s near-mint. Late in the boom years, however, a solution to the subjectivity of condition appeared: third-party grading firms.

The first was Professional Sports Authenticator, or PSA, which launched in 1991. It offered to play the role of dispassionate arbiter: Card owners could send the company a card, and experts with jeweler’s loupes would painstakingly assess its condition, encase it in a tamperproof plastic slab, and stamp a grade on it. By 1998, PSA was grading 1 million cards a year and had inspired numerous competitors.

With standardized assessments of condition in place, cards could be traded on auction sites such as eBay without fear of fakes or frauds. More important, PSA gave the market detailed information about supply. Each time it grades a card, the company logs the grade in a publicly accessible database, which has had a profound effect on pricing. For example: Of the approximately 4,000 Pete Rose rookie cards from 1963 that PSA had evaluated as of early August, only one scored PSA’s top grade, Gem Mint 10. That card sold for $717,000 in 2016. The 30 that scored Mint 9, still less than 1 percent of those Roses, can be had for about $35,000 each.

Because PSA’s approach to grading is so unforgiving—a pack-fresh card can fail to score the Gem Mint 10 designation if, say, it was printed slightly off-center—even cards from the boom years have seen their value restored, provided they earn that highest mark. Perhaps the most coveted card from that era is Ken Griffey Jr.’s rookie. Upper Deck printed more than 1 million of them. Of the more than 70,000 that have been graded by PSA, however, only about 5 percent are Gem Mint 10. These routinely sell for $500 on eBay—far more than the $75 a mint card would have fetched 25 years ago.

Grading returned scarcity to the market, and the card companies that survived the bust took notice. Today, the baseball-card business is driven by demand for limited-edition cards that are scarce by design. These “hit cards” typically feature an autograph, a relic, a reflective coating, a die-cut edge, or some combination thereof. Even entry-level $2 packs of Topps tease long-shot cards and carry the sort of warning found on a stock-fund prospectus: “Topps does not, in any manner, make any representations as to whether its cards will attain any future value.”

Recognizing collectors’ fetish for rookies, card manufacturers have also trained their attention on the stars of tomorrow. Back in 1989, all of the Ken Griffey Jr. rookie cards—from Topps, Upper Deck, Fleer, Donruss, Score, Bowman, and others—could easily fit on a couple of polypropylene pages in a three-ring binder. Last year, by contrast, the Japanese sensation Shohei Ohtani appeared on at least 2,700 distinct rookie cards manufactured by just two companies, Topps and Panini. That might not sound much like scarcity, but nearly all of the variants were produced in limited runs—the more limited, the more valuable the card. The rarest, most coveted Ohtani sold for $184,056 last September, before his rookie season was over and only three months after being pulled from a $170 box of 24-packs of Bowman Baseball cards, a popular Topps offering. The most valuable Mike Trout rookie—a one-of-a-kind card printed before he’d ever had a Major League at-bat—sold last year for $400,000.

The market for the new hit cards has been fueled by a new generation of young buyers. At Manhattan’s Midtown Sports Card Show, I met Sharon Chiong, half of a two-woman partnership called BlackJadedWolf. Chiong is a high-end broker-dealer and card-buying consultant with a network of clients around the world. Born in Manila and raised in Queens, Chiong collected basketball cards as a fan during the last boom but came to cards as a profession only after leaving the diamond trade. “I went from one luxury business to another,” she told me. The day I met her, she had $1 million worth of inventory listed on eBay.

Chiong’s typical buyer is a Wall Street guy in his 30s or 40s who loved cards as a kid, drifted away after the bust, and returned in recent years with money to spend. Some collect anew the cards that had filled childhood closets, only now they are seeking ones in Gem Mint 10 condition; others are drawn by the limited-edition-hit craze. Lately, Chiong has seen an uptick in slightly less affluent clients looking to invest four- or five-figure sums made from flipping other nontraditional assets, such as Bitcoin or limited-edition sneakers.

This year’s National Sports Collectors Convention enjoyed its highest attendance since 1991, a mark of the hobby’s returning strength. But card shows and card shops like Gilbert’s, which once dotted the retail landscape, have all but disappeared. The hobby now competes in an entertainment landscape that includes Twitch (which has turned video gaming into a spectator sport) and DraftKings (a blend of fantasy sports and gambling).

The live break borrows elements from both, turning the hunt for high-value cards into a communal online experience—one that even a cranky old collector like myself can enjoy. I’d like to tell you that the Rickey Henderson break was my last, but the truth is I went back for more, and long after the reportorial demands of this article were satisfied.

Still, as entertaining as I came to find breaking, it exists on an almost entirely different plane from traditional collecting and quaint notions of fandom. No serious collector buys into a break hoping for a veteran star, let alone a favorite journeyman shortstop. Many breakers don’t bother mailing non-hit cards to their customers; the cardboard isn’t worth the time and postage. And some participants opt to not even collect their hit cards, trading them back instead for immediate credit (toward more breaks), or consigning them to the breaker to be graded and auctioned for cash.

Restoring scarcity to the market and bringing the hobby into the digital age have come at a cost: Cards are now so valued for their rarity that collectors treat them more like securities than memorabilia. This year, PWCC, a card consignee that bills itself as the world’s “largest seller of investment-caliber trading cards,” completed construction of a “bank style” vault in Oregon offering 24-hour armed security for your cardboard portfolio, credit lines based on your holdings, and the ability to benefit from Oregon’s lack of sales tax by shipping new acquisitions straight to the vault. Safer than a shoebox, but I think I’d miss my cards too much.

This article appears in the November 2019 print edition with the headline “How Baseball Cards Got Weird.”