The era of baseball cards was a long one. But for kids growing up these days, it’s over.
If you go to a school cafeteria at lunch time — you won’t find kids looking at and trading baseball cards — YuGiOh cards, maybe, but not sports cards.
I remember the death knell — it sounded back when I was in junior high, 15 years ago. The baseball strike of 1994-1995. The strike lasted 232 days and nearly 1,000 games were cancelled, including the World Series.
The dispute was over salaries and wages of players. The owners and players eventually came to a resolution, but the cost and impact on baseball as an industry was immeasurable.
Baseball cards were a classic, collectable item. A pack of cards was a common prize at school or church when I was young. Cereal boxes would tout that they contained baseball cards, but really were just filled with disappointment in the form of cheap oversized cardboard imitations.
Real baseball cards were shiny and had lots of stats on the back — not advertisements for cereal.
Donruss, Topps, Fleer and Pinnacle were some of the big brands. The cheapest cards came with chewing gum in the pack (if you got it out of a prize box you had to watch out — sometimes the cards were several years old). Most brands had a budget line, and the more expensive ones were glossier cards with metallic seals proclaiming their premium value.
The key to all collectibles is that there is lots of worthless cards, and just a few valuable cards. Why else would I have card for some manager I have never heard of on a lousy team with a losing record in my pack of Upper Deck cards? I don’t think Bip Roberts ever made a blip on my radar screen as a player for the Padres on my 1991 Topps card — even with the Stadium Club shiny gold label. The best part was if you couldn’t afford new baseball card packs you could buy the worthless ones for a penny a piece at the baseball card store.
If you were lucky, when you bought a pack of cards, it would have an actual star player you liked — maybe Ken Griffey Jr. or Alex Rodriguez (both played for the Mariners when I was growing up in Washington state). The other thing you looked out for was rookie cards. Most were worthless … but if the player became a star, the rookie card was the most valuable card you could have.
The baseball strike ended the fascination with baseball cards for many in my generation. The idea of people fighting over how many millions they could earn or had to pay out really distanced me from the game. That and the baseball card shops closed up.
Without players playing, the collectibles industry centered around baseball collapsed. The overall value of cards plummeted.
Eventually the strike ended and baseball made some recovery — but the baseball card shops never started back up. Other collectibles were more lucrative if you could ride the wave of popularity (and get off before they collapsed).
Trading card games, such as Pokemon and YuGiOh, have replaced the popularity of baseball cards for American youth. And while you can still buy baseball cards at some places, the popularity is gone.
I still have a giant box of penny cards collecting dust. Sorting through them, I can’t find a single name I recognize — and their value, 15 years later, probably hasn’t gone up at all.
Hey, is that a piece of baseball gum that fell out of a pack? I wonder if it is still good …