Pipeline: Pipeline, Issue #71

Mon, October 12th, 1998 at 12:00am PST

Comic Books
Augie De Blieck Jr., Columnist

THE BASEBALL CARD MODEL

I stopped collecting baseball cards in about 1990 or 1991. Baseball was - and still continues to be - my favorite of all the major sports. But at that point, I didn't have the money to collect both those and my relatively new-found love of comic books. And comics seemed to have more to offer. I still believe that.

So I stopped collecting, after close to 8 years. Cold turkey. Just like that. Never looked back.

While digging for something else completely this weekend, I chanced upon a box of my old baseball cards and flipped through for nostalgia's sake. Man, a lot of those players have since retired. A lot of names and stories from my childhood came flooding back. Like Paul Zuvella, who the Yankees once traded for and then subsequently took 30-some-odd games before getting another hit. They were the away team when he got his first Yankee hit, and the

crowd still gave him a standing ovation. And then there's the All-Stars of yesteryear like the Braves' Dale Murphy (whatever happened to him?) and the Phillies' Von Hayes. Dick Howser and Dan Quisenberry were both taken from us too young with brain tumors. And remember when Bo Jackson hit those four straight home runs? I watched the game he hit the first three in against the Yankees before getting hurt.

I mightily digress here. . .

So I pulled out all the old cards and flipped through them, and then picked up a copy of the magazine now referred to as BECKETT BASEBALL CARD MONTHLY. In my day, it was simply BECKETT's and it was THE price guide for baseball cards. Nobody cared about trading cards or other sports cards, or action figures or Beanie Babies or -- you get the point. It had cardboard covers and black and white interiors, filled with editorial material, columnists, and a huge price guide. I wish I could find an old copy, but I don't seem to have saved any.

Nowadays, the magazine is completely glossy, including the cover, full-cover (except the price guide middle section), and completely toned down, from my point of view. It's a lot of gloss and glitz and no content. There's some interesting little tidbits, but you could read the entire magazine cover to cover in a half-hour if you wanted. The type is big, it's printed on backgrounds of bright colors, and the text is wrapped around pictures and images

which jut into the paragraphs for no other reason, probably, than because the desktop publishing system they use lets them.

Sound like WIZARD yet?

Oh, wait, it gets better. When I left baseball cards, it was just after the height of the collector's craze there, wherein all the people with all the money created a craze and a spectacle of an otherwise respectable hobby. Packs of Donruss baseball cards, worth about $1 a pack, were being sold in local food stores for $4 or $5 per in the hopes that the Billy Ripkin card with the legible offensive word on the knob of his bat might show. And although the Sportflix cards died a horrible death (they were the ones with the images that changed as you looked at them at different angles), they paved the way to end the "monopoly" Topps, Donruss, and Fleer had. All of a sudden, you had Score and Upper Deck trading card sets. Bowman returned from a period of dormancy decades-long. They were

glossier, more colorful, and more collectable, foresaking the gum for the rare card which held a player's autograph or contained a rare subset.

But the market was dead or dying already and they were jumping the bandwagon much too late. How could they survive? These cards were being printed like they were money. Everyone had a dozen of each of the popular ones. It couldn't last, could it?

(Do I really have to explicitly state the connections of the previous two paragraphs to the comic book industry?)

In the end, it didn't. The market busted, and had to reform itself.

And so, some 7 years later, I pick up a copy of Beckett's Baseball Card Monthly. And I'm amazed at the price guide. For starters, all the cards I couldn't hope to afford as a kid are now in my price range. The Don Mattingly rookies that once went for $80-$40-$30 are now $40-$20-$8. Yee-ha! But the other big change is in the sheer number of sets. No longer does each company produce their main card set, plus maybe a shorter set post-season. Oh, no. Nowadays you have glossy, hologram, silver-embossed, signed, and limited edition cards. You have card sets which are limited to 62 copies of each card or some such silliness. The prices per card are huge because the supply is low, thus creating demand. It seems silly to me, but there you have it.

On the other hand -- and here's where Gladstone Comics could learn a lesson -- the regular sets are still being produced. Yes, the high-end collectors can still buy the $4/pack baseball cards, but the regular sets are still made, although I imagine the cost of a pack isn't the 50 cents or a dollar I used to get them for. Say they're $1.49. A parent would be willing to pay that. And the kid will enjoy baseball cards. That's what's missing in Gladstone's Disney comics these days. They produce the high-end collectors' books, but there's no alternative for the kids who happen into a comics shop and want a comic book with Donald or Mickey.

No, the analogy is not perfect. I don't know if Gladstone would be able to make any money on low-priced titles. Definitely not without newsstand distribution. But that might be a bigger problem than mere marketing. Why sit and read a static comic when there are singalong videotapes to be rewound endlessly and watched in a car, for goodness' sake?

But there are other points to touch upon here. There's a new debate raging in the baseball card community over having professional card graders: people who will take your card, seal it in plastic, and tell you what grade it's in. I imagine this is done for a small fee. I couldn't help but look back at the one attempt we had a few years ago to make comics grading be done on a numeric 1-100 point scale. The ex-stamp collectors went nuts with that one, saying it was what helped kill their hobby. After issuing that system one year, Overstreet seemed to forget about it the next, and so it died.

One last thing I'd like to discuss, too: why baseball card collecting is vastly inferior to comic book collecting.

Put simply, there is none of the intimacy. I look in the backs of Wizard and Beckett, to the section where they list all the shows and conventions going on in their respective industries. You almost couldn't tell them apart. Except for one thing: Comic book creators are a lot more accessible than baseball players. And one other thing which really disgusted me: Comic book creators, generally, don't charge exorbitant fees for their signature. The professional autograph dealers have ruined it for the kids in the baseball card collecting hobby to the point where in order to limit the damage done, the players must profit directly from signing items, at a given fee per item. You won't find a baseball player calmly walking the aisles at a show, doing a little shopping. Granted, their career is in baseball and not baseball cards. But the intimacy is not there.

Even comic books' greatest legends and talents are approachable, personable, friendly, and open. With a rare exception or three, they're not recluses, money-grubbers, and alienators.

Finally, there's a longer-term satisfaction from reading comics. What's the thrill in baseball card collecting? Completing a set, maybe? Getting lucky that once and having the card of the century in a pack you just bought? Well, you can get that with comics, too, in a way. You can complete a run of a given title. Or you could pick up a comic book at random and find you really like it. But it goes further. You can read, enjoy, discuss, reread, learn, and imitate a comic book. You're not going to learn how to swing a bat better by picking up a baseball card. You might learn a better way to draw or a stronger way to tell a story from a comic. You might fall in love with a character based on their comics. Your opinion of a baseball player is pretty well defined by ESPN, by contrast.

This essay reads a little disjointed, and I'm sorry for that. I wrote it over three different nights. But I hope you understand the points I'm making, and maybe even learn a thing or two. The collectors killed the coin market. Then they killed the stamp market. After decimating the baseball card market, they came after comic books and won. Baseball cards seem to be learning from their mistakes and are correcting some of them, and not correcting others. It's never too late for the comic book industry to take stock in itself and change some things.

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