Twenty Years Ago and the Chase for Wagner

McNall-Gretzky T206 Wagner card

McNall-Gretzky T206 Wagner card

Anyone who collected baseball cards back in the mid-90’s should remember Wallmart’s big sports card promotion that included the possibility of winning the McNall/Gretzky T206 Honus Wagner card.

The promotion, called the “Greatest Trading Card Giveaway of All Time,” included the Wagner card as well as other important cards in the hobby. Up for grabs were cards of Gordie Howe (’51-52 Parkhurst #66), Joe Namath (’65 Topps #122), Knute Rockne (’33 Sport King #35), (Mickey Mantle (’53 Topps #82) and George Mikan (’48 Bowman #69) and many others.

Sponsored by Upper Deck, Leaf, Fleer, Skybox and Topps, the idea sprung from the brain of Harold Anderson of Treat Entertainment who purchased the Wagner card for $500,000.00 from Gretzky in 1995. Anderson approached Wallmart and the five major card companies and the promotion was born. All collectors had to do to enter the contest was to request an official entry card, send a self-addressed stamped envelope to “World’s Most Valuable Card Entry Card Request,” P.O. Box 11838, St. Paul, MN 55111 by January 1, 1996 or enter a Wallmart store and buy the specially marked 2-for-$1 trading card packs and fill out the contest card and send it away.

"Greatest Trading Card Giveaway of All Time" Ad Poster

“Greatest Trading Card Giveaway of All Time” Ad Poster

The promotion lasted five months from Oct. of 1995 to Feb. of 1996. Each month there would be a draw in each of the four sports, October was Hockey, November was Basketball, December was Baseball and January was Football. On Wagner’s birthday, February 24th, the draw for his card took place.

Patricia Gibbs was the final winner of the Wagner card which she put up for auction almost immediately after winning (she couldn’t afford the taxes on the card). Christie’s auctioned the card off to Michael Gidwitz for $641,500.00.

There was mixed feelings in the hobby at the time about this promotion. Many card shop owners thought it would draw business away from their shops and get collectors accustomed to buying their cards at big department stores like Wallmart. Others took a different view thinking that the promotion would bring thousands of more people into the hobby as the contest would introduce them to a fun pastime. Either way you had difficulty ignoring the phenomenon. Personally, I liked the idea that for once there was a chance a normal Joe, rather than a star hockey player or owner, or other well-to-do collector would have a chance to own some of the great cards in the hobby. It is a bit frustrating when a hobby meant for kids transforms into a hobby that reserves the best cards to the exclusivity of those collectors with hundreds of thousands of dollars to spend.

 

The Elusive PSA 10 1951 Bowman Mantle Rookie Card

1951 Bowman #253 Mickey Mantle RC PSA 10

1951 Bowman #253 Mickey Mantle RC PSA 10

How times have changed over the past 20-plus years in the hobby. If you asked me back in the late ’80s what would be the most influential trend in card collecting that would affect pricing I would have probably said that Beckett Magazines created and would continue to create a central pricing structure that would attract lots of speculators, investors and collectors. This increased participation would skyrocket demands on product which in turn would increase pricing. I wasn’t half wrong, Beckett did create a marketplace that attracted huge amounts of new people into the hobby, but the card companies also reacted by producing huge amounts of cards to match or exceed the demand. Over time this suppressed pricing on all newer cards and the trend in pricing upward stayed only in the vintage area of the hobby.

The overall biggest influence on the pricing for cards wasn’t actually Beckett Magazine. The largest trend that pushed pricing upwards was the introduction of third party grading services.

The best example for this trend can be seen in one of my all-time favourite cards. A card that, once graded, quickly moved out of my budget and into the realm of the rich.

The card I’m speaking of you probably have guessed from the title of this post is the 1951 Bowman Mickey Mantle RC. It has the distinction of being one of the very few seminal vintage cards that has a PSA 10 population of only one. It, over the last 22-23 years (since it has been graded), has remained unique. Other important vintage cards either have no PSA 10 examples or more than one which makes this card highly desirable to high end vintage collectors.

1951 Bowman #253 Mickey Mantle RC PSA Pop. Report

1951 Bowman #253 Mickey Mantle RC PSA Pop. Report

The card first came to the public’s attention in an article written by Michael Payne for Beckett Baseball Card Monthly back in 1994 (the November issue). Two University of Miami students (Dan Forman and Jerry Schwartz), who came across the card (the article didn’t give any specifics), sent it in to be graded by PSA.

The card came back a 10. They informed a Mantle collector who they had sold cards to before, by the name of Rick Skurnik, that the card would be put up for auction. Skurnik, with some financial help from his wife Gail, won the auction with a bid of $30,000.00.

Nov. 1994 Beckett Article

Nov. 1994 Beckett Article

The card periodically came up in dealings, Skurnik didn’t keep the card for too long. It was sold for just under 100k in 1998, then 325k a few years later. In 2008, Memory Lane Inc. set up a private sale of the card for 600k. The 600k sale was the last anyone has heard of the card.

The card, if sold today, would fetch around a million according to most experts in the hobby and I wouldn’t disagree.

To summarize, the card, once graded, went from 30k to 100k to 325k to 600k all within 14 years. If we consider it a million dollar card in 2016 that would be a 33 fold increase in 22 years. That is the essence of the hobby today, the search for high end copies of important cards to then be sent off to be graded and resold at a huge profit.

The Mantle card is not a unique example, it is a regular occurrence. Cards that were priced in the hundreds of dollars back in the ’80s and early ’90s are now sold in the tens, if not the hundreds, of thousands of dollars because they have had the distinction of being graded very high by one of the 3rd party grading companies. The difference between a NM or higher non graded card, to its graded counterpart can run in the range of 10 to 100 times higher in price. That is if you can even find ungraded copies of important cards in superior condition. Most high end cards with some significance have been graded creating a two-tiered system of collecting, those that are graded and high end, and those that are ungraded and are less than NM. In some cases grading has even moved into the lower conditioned cards depending on the card’s significance. Eventually there will be no more vintage cards to grade and the companies will be competing to grade the new and more recent cards only. We will see if another trend comes to the forefront at that time.

 

If I Had A Million Dollars…

I’d buy me some cards. I would have cleaned up at a recent auction hosted by Heritage Auctions. Dubbed the Platinum Night Sports Auction, it was held Feb. 20-21 in New York. If you don’t think that high grade vintage sports cards is a part of the hobby reserved for the rich, then you haven’t seen what these cards are selling for lately. The greatest example of this was the bidding on a PSA 9 1955 Topps Roberto Clemente RC:

1955 Topps Roberto Clemente PSA 9

1955 Topps Roberto Clemente PSA 9

This card shown above fetched, and I kid you not, $478.000. It make my saving up to buy a T206 Roger Bresnahan card at a low grade for $100.00 look infantile.

1952 Topps Mickey Mantle PSA 8

1952 Topps Mickey Mantle PSA 8

Not to be outdone by the Puerto Rican Hall of Famer, a Mickey Mantle 1952 Topps card graded at PSA 8 realized a price of , and stop telling me to stop kidding around, $501,900.00.

It’s time to start buying lotto tickets if I ever wish to participate in these auctions. Perhaps I have a rich uncle somewhere who will leave me a million in his will. I can just image me sitting in a room with other astute refined men holding numbered paddles trying to keep an air of maturity and sophistication as we bid on cards which were sold to children over 60 years ago.

Two other significant cards were sold in New York those two days as well. A 1916 M101-5 Blank Back card of Babe Ruth graded at PSA 5 realized $191,200.00 and a 1951 Bowman Mickey Mantle RC graded at PSA 8 sold for an astounding $137,425.00:

1915 M101-5 Ruth & 1952 Topps Mantle

1915 M101-5 Ruth & 1952 Topps Mantle

Those four cards, some of the more significant cards in the hobby’s history, are ones that will never be in most card collector’s inventory (including not in mine). I will need to stick to high grade cards from the 1990s if I ever want to stay out of bankruptcy court and leave the vintage ones for those that have more money than brains.

The Rookie Card, Obliterated

At some point after World War II, The rookie card became important in baseball card collecting. It no longer is so. It’s hey day (1948 to 1993) is long gone and collectors no longer find this designation as anything important. This may be a bold assertion, and many may disagree, but read on and you can voice your opinion below.

The main reason why the rookie card had such an important role in the history of baseball card collecting was because it became synonymous with a player’s first major league card. Let me explain…

To put it another way, it wasn’t that a card was a player’s rookie card that made it most desirable, but it was because it was the player’s first major league card. There is a difference. But because, for the most part, a player’s first major league card was his rookie card, the two terms became practically synonymous.

If we realize that it’s the player’s first card, not his rookie card, which is the most desired by a majority of collectors, then we can see that all the fuss over the last decade on what defines a rookie card, is all just smoke and mirrors and mostly unimportant to the experienced collector. It may be something a new, or novice collector might like as it would be easier for him to identify a player’s important cards, but for the experienced collector it matters little as he knows it’s the player’s earliest major league card which is most important.

We must also factor in scarcity when we speak of first cards, if the card was mass produced like cards back in the 80s, then alternatives will be looked for. If they are so rare that no one looks for or sometimes even knows about them, then collectors will pass them over as the most desired of the first cards.

Lets look at some examples that show my point.

The most famous first card/rookie card difference was concerning Mickey Mantle. Mantle’s rookie card comes in the 1951 Bowman set. It is quite a desirable card selling in the $4000.00 range in VG condition. But it is not Mantle’s most desirable card. That belongs to Topps 1952 card which sells in the $20.000 range in VG condition. Here is an example where a rookie card is less wanted than a first card. Topps has become the most desired brand name over the post war years and when Bowman was beat out by Topps in the cardboard wars of the 50s, the Mantle Topps card was seen to be a better card than the Bowman issue.

Mickey Mantle Cards

Mickey Mantle Cards

If we move forward to the 80s a few more examples come to mind…

There are cards from the 80s that easily spring to mind that shows that first cards are more important than rookie cards. And here is where the definition between what is or is not a rookie card first started.

The first card pertains to Darryl Strawberry and his 1983 Topps Traded #108T vs. his regular issues from the next year (Topps #182, Fleer #599, Donruss #68). Most argue that a true rookie card of a player is the player’s card which is first issued by a major baseball card manufacturer in a regular nationwide set. If you agree, as Beckett and others did at the time, it would mean that Strawberry’s Topps Traded card is not his rookie card since the traded set was not issued as a regular set but distributed to hobby dealers in limited areas. But as a experienced collector, we all know that if we chose to buy a Darryl Strawberry card it would be the Traded version we would be looking for. If you compare pricing the Traded card sells for around $100.00 (PSA 10) and the regular issues sell in the $20.00 to $60.00 (PSA 10) which further proves the point that it is the first card not the rookie card which is most important to collectors.

Darryl Strawberry Cards

Darryl Strawberry Cards

Other important examples include: Roger Clemens and Kirby Puckett’s 1984 Fleer Update cards and Barry Bond’s 1986 Topps Traded card.

Extended and Update XRC cards

Extended and Update XRC cards

The second card pertains to Mark McGwire and his 1985 Topps #401 Team USA card vs. his 1987 cards from Topps and Donruss (Topps #366. Donruss #46). Fleer missed McGwire in their regular set issuing their first card of his in their Update set later in the year. Since McGwire never entered major league baseball until 1987, some argued that his Team USA card from two years earlier was not his true rookie card. Others disagreed since the Team USA set was part of Topps regular issue and not an insert. To experienced collectors the issue was pointless as the Team USA card would always be the more desired card because it was McGwire’s first card. If we look at pricing for the cards we draw the same conclusion ($500.00 compared to 20.00 in PSA 10).

Mark McGwire Cards

Mark McGwire Cards

Before we move forward I must also note that if I was to be perfectly precise the most sought after and desirable cards from this era of baseball are the Topps Tiffany cards (and to a lesser degree Fleer Glossy). Many experienced collectors forego the regular sets of cards from 1984 to 1991 (with some individual exceptions) to avoid buying cards that were produced in the millions. They believe the cards in the Tiffany sets are the cards that are most collectible from the era. A Tiffany card sells for much more than its regular set counterpart. For example the Team USA McGwire card in the Tiffany parallel sells for 2500.00 rather than 500.00 in PSA 10 condition. The regular sets would technically hold the rookie cards as the Tiffany cards are a parallel but again this rookie card designation is unimportant to the experienced collector.

If we move up to the 2000s there are two more cards that can be looked upon. They can be found in the 2006 Bowman Chrome release, that is, 2006 Bowman Chrome Draft Picks Evan Longoria #66 Autograph, and 2006 Bowman Chrome Draft Picks Clayton Kershaw #84 Autograph. Both are examples of cards that are more desirable that the player’s true rookie cards which didn’t come out until 2008.

2006 Bowman Chrome Draft Picks

2006 Bowman Chrome Draft Picks

Lastly, as there are exceptions to everything, there is one card that balks the rookie/first card comparison. That would be the cards of Barry Larkin. Larkin’s first issued major league card was Sportflic’s 1986 Rookies #34. At first this was argued to be his rookie card, but as time passed and Sportflics cards were looked on as a novelty item rather than a regular issued set (3D multiple image plastic cards did not catch on with collectors) Larkin’s 1987 regular issues from Topps, Fleer, and Donruss became his official rookie cards. Larkin’s Sportsflics card, now considered his first card, sells for less than his 1987 cards.

Barry Larkin Cards

Barry Larkin Cards

There are probably more examples that readers can come up with on both sides of this argument but it is not too much of a stretch to say that in truth experienced collectors prefer a player’s first card over a player’s official rookie card, when the two cards are not one in the same.

Topps, What Were You Thinking?

Perhaps some of you are fans of the parallel set that have come out through the years, The Golds, Platinums, Silvers, Reds, Greens, etc. Although a rare few try to complete these sets, numerous collectors do try to complete, of their favourite player, what is known in the hobby as a rainbow set. That is, for the uninitiated, one each of the base card and all the parallels of their favourite player. This might be a fun pursuit, even if some of those parallel’s are 1/1 5/5 or 25/25s. But it could also be quite frustrating if the cards can not be found. But if the deed is accomplished you could have the only rainbow set of that player from that set in all the world.

Topps Chase Cards

Topps Chase Cards

But what happens when the parallel has 500-800 different cards? Would you try to collect all of them? How about if the border doesn’t change but instead they place a number on the front of the card to indicate a certain amount of a certain statistical digit the player has accomplished? Well that’s what Topps did with some of their sets back in 2006-2008. And the statistic was career home runs. Not satisfied with duplicating a card several hundreds of times for just one great player (Mickey Mantle) they decided to continue the nonsense with Barry Bonds, Alex Rodriguez and Josh Gibson. If that wasn’t enough, they expanded beyond the career home runs to include DiMaggio’s two hitting streaks. the more famous 56 game hitting streak he accomplished in the majors, and the less famous 61 game hit streak he accomplished while in the minors.

Topps Joe DiMaggio Hitting Streak Cards

Topps Joe DiMaggio Hitting Streak Cards

In order to get every one of these insert cards, which for all intents and purposes are exactly alike, you would need to find over 2000 cards. Imagine filling a binder with Mantle’s Home Run History cards, it would look something like this:

Topps Mickey Mantle Home Run History Insert Cards

Topps Mickey Mantle Home Run History Insert Cards

So the question remains: What was Topps thinking?

My only guess is that they were lazy people and thought us chimp-brains might not notice the stupidity of it all and run around pursuing these cards ad nauseam. Use your talents to better improve the cards, not repeat and repeat card after card so that opening packs becomes routine and boring. You should know better than that Topps, shame shame.

Using Mantle to Sell Jesus

I came across this yesterday and much to my surprise there is a new twist on bringing Jesus to the baseball fan. Put out by Good News Tracts in 2012 in association with the American Tract Society, I thought I saw every way Jesus was flogged to increase the Christian fold in modern North America, but I never thought they would use a dead ballplayer. Anyway I thought it was interesting…here’s the pamphlet:

Good News Tracts Pamphlet Side One

Good News Tracts Pamphlet Side One

Good News Tracts Pamphlet Side Two

Good News Tracts Pamphlet Side Two