I’ll get you a couple of dinners out of this … you like Wendy’s?

1980 Topps Rickey Henderson Rookie CardThanks Dad, thanks to all you Boomers. I knew you guys were ruining it, but heck, I was pocketing cash at the time myself, so who am I to complain. If you’ve read some of my past Inherited Values pieces you know I like to wax romantically about the purity of baseball card collecting when I was a kid, oh especially about 1979-85, and then interject some tale of how I soiled it through love of money. But man, I hadn’t realized it’d come to this!

I was talking with the father of a couple of the kids I’d grown up with recently and after his mother-in-law had passed away he was doing the house clearing ritual in advance of offering it for sale. He knows I’m an avid eBayer so of course he mentioned a bunch of antique items he thought would be worth a mint. As I kind of hem and hawed him along he let drop that he’d already let a few of the local antique shops sift through this stuff and he’d cashed in some, so right there I basically did a memory wipe because if there was any cash to be had out of these passed down possessions I was sure those cagey folks had found it. Then he mentioned baseball cards.

Oh, they didn’t come over from the house. They were his. Once he mentioned Mickey Mantle I zeroed in on him and had to at least see them. Well, major disappointment #1, they weren’t his cards, they were his kids, and far from the stockpile of 50’s treasures I’d imagined was instead a box crammed with the same damn cards I got my start with at shows back in the 80’s. Yeah, no Mantles. The oldest son is a few years older than me, and it showed inside this box as everything ranged between 1975-1981.

It was interesting to note that the older the card the poorer the condition, but actually everything from ’78 and up was much better than expected. The stuff from ’75? Well, I know I used to have the occasional card saved in my back pocket which would one way or another find the washing machine. It looked like these kids managed that trick every day throughout the summer of ’75 because that’s the kind of shape each and every card from that season appeared to be in.

So I randomly sorted through about 1,000 cards noting that at least they’d never been picked through before. “There’s lot of $2 and $3 cards in here, but those will never sell,” I told him. Now I haven’t handled baseball cards in a serious way since about 2003, and even then my prime hey day was about 10 years past. I dealt, and I dealt a lot between about 1985-1993. My re-entry to the hobby through eBay in 2000 allowed me to get reacquainted and realize that all those cards which formed the foundation of my youthful empire weren’t worth jack unless they’d been slabbed by PSA with a grade of 9 or higher.

But I assumed some of the good stuff was at least still somewhat in demand.

I stopped my sorting at a 1979 Topps Ozzie Smith rookie. I said to my pal’s Dad, “That’s a good card.” I took a deep breathe and said, “Now this used to be an $80 card back when I did this. In this condition it’d be worth about $40-$45. I’d imagine you could still get at least $20-$25 for it.” Then as I sorted through this late 70’s bounty I started pulling all the cards of George Brett, Robin Yount, Nolan Ryan and the big rookies. Besides Ozzie I spotted Paul Molitor, Andre Dawson, a halfway decent Rickey Henderson and a Yount rookie from that washed out group of ’75’s, but back in the day it was a $175-$200 card NM, I figured even beat it had to be worth something.

1978 Topps Paul Molitor Rookie Card
A pair of Molitor rookie cards. Good stuff, no?

And so I said, “There’s enough here where I could probably get you a couple of dinners out of this. You know, some decent pocket money.”

Now even though I’ve been dealing pretty much exclusively in vintage movie collectibles and magazine back issues for the past 7 years or so, I did have a clue of what had happened to the baseball card market–after all, I saw it begin to collapse and that fall was largely responsible for me finding something else that I loved to sell. So I told him, “You know, the shame of it is these cards are 30 years old now and they were worth more, a lot more, 20 years ago. You know, when you were a kid your mother threw your cards away. That’s why they’re still worth something. But you saved your kids cards and so did everyone else. Honestly, I don’t know what they’re worth but it’s probably not going to be more 20 years from now.”

I cringed giving this speech. It felt like I was BSing him, but I knew I wasn’t.

“Can you sell them for me?”

Hooked. Of course, I can sell anything. “Sure,” said the big shot.

“You can keep half.”

Cool. I pulled about 35 cards and walked away figuring we had to be looking at $75-$100 each. The only work involved was scanning them, which took under an hour. I composed the listings in less than an hour too. I grade tough, but I’ve been grading my whole life so I graded quick. The first shoe dropped as I was listing them.

Originally I thought I’d put them all in one lot, start it at $9.99 on eBay and watch it get tons of bids. Then I thought, well, maybe I’ll do a little more work, list them all as singles and eke the most possible money out of them that I can. So I checked eBay’s completed items to see what the same cards were actually selling for.

Beans! They’re junk! Little more than worthless! They were so cheap that I had to resist spending a couple of hundred dollars and just putting my boyhood collection together for myself. A couple of dinners I told him, gawd, I was thinking steaks, he’s going to be lucky to get a few burgers out of this deal.

Lot of Nolan Ryan cards 1976-1980
Apparently not anymore it's not.

I split them into lots, mostly by player, with one mixed lot of the leftovers. I wound up with 9 lots, each with a $9.99 opening bid. Even after seeing how little they were selling for I figured at least 7 of the 9 lots would sell and 2 or 3 of them should get bid up … hopefully by a few increments.

Well, as of this writing we’re waiting for late action. I listed the lots on Sunday, and finally today (Tuesday) the Paul Molitor lot received a bid (2 mid-grade rookies and 1 similar second year card). One of the other lots has a few watchers. The rest? Nada.

I’m left laughing nervously at what this poor guy is going to say if I wind up handing him a 5 dollar bill and saying, “Here’s your cut.”

Here’s a fun article from Slate in 2006 relating a similar experience. I tried to check an online price guide tonight to see if they still had the nerve to say these were worth anything and what I discovered is that all of the online price guides charge a subscription fee. Nice, at least they’re (presumably) making a little money. Tuff Stuff, which I was never really a fan of, does have up a pdf with their guide from June ’09 which leads me to believe somebody still thinks there’s some value in these late 70’s cards, just apparently not the people who are willing to pay hard cash for them.

I have mixed feelings about this collapse. Part of me is happy to see supply and demand bring about a return to reality and create a marketplace where I could if so inclined put together most of my childhood collection for a few hundred dollars. That’s nice and it’s the kind of thing I do every so often (like the box of late 70’s Funk & Wagnalls Animal Encyclopedias that I haven’t looked at since I bought but feel real good about knowing that I have again!). But there’s another part of me that knows I’d still be working for the man if I didn’t start my teen-aged baseball card business and get hooked by the entrepreneurial spirit those early days instilled in me. Then again, I guess if a kid wants to make a buck today there are alternatives.

Here are the apparently ill-fated 9 baseball card auctions, ending on eBay this coming Sunday night, March 28.