The era of the speculator is over, and even "collecting for fun and profit" isn't all that profitable. When the fun is gone -- and given Topps' choices, it's going fast -- why buy?
Today, collecting baseball cards other than for the pleasure of doing so is utterly pointless. That's not a revelation to most of you -- you probably stopped collecting in the mid-90's or even earlier, when the major players diluted the market, foil-covered lenticular cards popping up on everything from breakfast sausage to Mootown Snackers. As the value of cards plummeted, you wisely turned your attention to other endeavors like chasing crushes, playing video games, and acquiring an education, living your life unfettered by the wax-packs and teeth-clinging chewing gum that once bound you.
Yet, for some, myself included, it has been hard to let go. Even though I know there's about as much value in spending $3.00 on a pack of 2013 Topps as there is arguing politics on social media or watching a Pauly Shore movie, I have been fighting the urge to head to Tim's Baseball Card Shop to pick up a couple of packs from the 2013 set, which were released this week. I've been collecting cards for about 15 years too long, knowing for at least the last seven years that I should stop. Nevertheless, until last season I continued to buy them. I'd impulse-buy a pack in the checkout line at Target, and on Opening Day I'd grab a ceremonial pack at the ballpark or snag vintage packs on eBay to rip as a matter of tradition. I wasn't spending a lot of money on cards, or even investing in full sets, but something kept drawing me back to the habit. It's probably just an extension of the parts of my brain that were once addicted to cigarettes: Sometimes familiarity and comfort trump logic. But other than the packs I bought before the 2012 season started, I mostly stayed away from the cards for the last year, caving just once for a pack of Allen & Ginters on a bad day.
There's a certain longing in giving up a familiar hobby, but late Topps has given me plenty of reasons to stay away. First by badly botching the 2012 set, and now adding a final nail in the form of the 2013 set.
From the beginning, Topps was the main player in the card industry, but by the mid 1980s competitors like Fleer and Donruss proved they could make the same product, and in some cases, they could make it better. The competition was actually a good thing for Topps, which has always struggled to consistently produce high-quality cards, because it meant they had to focus on improving and diversifying their product to stay competitive. In 1989, Upper Deck entered the market as well. Improvements in technology meant better cards, and more of them -- 81 billion cards a year, or "325 cards for every man, woman, and child in the United States." The problem, however, was that each brand was essentially offering the same product -- players' faces on scraps of cardboard -- so they relied heavily on novelty cards (the aforementioned foil cards and the like) and capitalizing on niche markets to make money. This meant dozens of different packs and collections and partnerships with companies like Nabisco and McDonald's to push their cards. At the same time, the glut of cards was both fed by and invited speculators, and ultimately relied upon them to keep the party going.
At one time, there was value in collecting cards and complete sets, not just in speculating on their future value, but because there was an established pattern of mint cards yielding returns. Perhaps the average kid just wanted to play with their cards, trade them, and stick them in their bike-wheel spokes, but there was a sect who were serious about collecting, opening every pack hoping to find something of value to add to their collection. The time and money spent could be justified as both entertainment and an investment. The crash of the baseball card bubble in 1994 (both the World Series and card speculators were murdered by the player strike) seemingly put a permanent end to the latter rationale. With the market completely saturated and the value and quality of cards in rapid decline, the MLBPA intervened and decided that only Topps and Upper Deck could produce cards. In 2009, Topps became the official baseball card of MLB, the first such designee in over 30 years.
Monopolies are bad things in most industries and the baseball-card industry is no exception. The sale of cards and other memorabilia has dwindled over the last several years. This isn't surprising given the poor economy, but Topps' sales are suffering for reasons that won't be cured by an uptick in the GDP. Collectors aren't buying new cards, unless it's to grab a full set for the archives. Pricing is no longer kid-friendly: Kids used to rip packs for 55 cents -- that's not a throwback to your dad's era; they were in that price range well into the 1990s -- but now at $2.99 or even $3.50 for a pack, it's an expensive hobby for the young (when the cost of ten packs roughly equals that of a new console video game, the price of entry seems severe).
What's left is the in-betweeners who aren't looking to collect cards systematically, but love the comfort and familiarity of ripping a pack on a whim. In recent years, Topps has missed the mark on capturing the nostalgia market (that is, returning cards to their former place as a pleasant hobby) by releasing bastardized versions of their cards, degrading their product aesthetically when that was their last remaining appeal to the consumer.
The minds of collectors of baseball cards, cuckoo clocks, and stamps aren't all that different, nor are they complicated. Still, Topps doesn't seem to grasp that the very thing that ties people to their product are the traditions, the feelings, that the nostalgia-oriented collector (as opposed to speculator) had about cards in the first place. I had forgotten all about baseball cards until I saw a stand at a mall during the 2002 holidays. Before I knew it, I was elbow deep in bins, digging through cards, looking at faces familiar from both television and the old cards themselves. As I flipped through the stacks, I remembered the collection of Big Red Machine cards my dad kept in the top drawer of his bureau. I saw a Fred McGriff card and recalled that I once traded that same card for a Roberto Alomar, just like the Blue Jays and Padres did with the actual players in 1990. I stopped digging and headed for the checkout when I found the Chris Sabo card I had coveted years before I wore training bras and makeup.
In the years that followed that reawakening I kept going, adding cards from the eras I remembered and the ones I wanted to learn about. The 2012 cards were so terrible they put an end to that. Most collectors have a favorite series based on aesthetics (my favorite are the 1975 Topps), but despite dramatic improvements in graphic design over the years, the quality of the cards has declined. The 2012 cards were exceedingly poor, largely due to the quality of photos chosen and atrocious editing. Some photos were taken through the netting behind home plate, even though Topps has unfettered access since they are the official cardmakers. The cropping was often poor and the images bizarre. Alfredo Simon's card suggests a giant body with a little turtlehead on top. Other players were photoshopped beyond recognition: Alex Avila's card was doctored to the point that he looked like a virtual reality character rather than a real man in pads. Worst of all, in an already fragile market, attempts to be cutesy, like Skip Schumaker's card -- simply a picture of the player's foot with the Rally Squirrel scampering by -- seemed almost intentionally divisive, appealing to those who prefer campy antics over tradition.
The 2013 cards look a little better, but Topps broke a tradition in the 2013 Set that will further alienate those, if anyone is still paying attention, who buy out of nostalgia: They abandoned the traditional numbering system. To take a step back for a moment, in the pre-monopoly period, each card company had their own system for numbering. These were used in part to distinguish key cards in the set. Fleer organized by team. Donruss had Diamond Kings and Rated Rookies. Topps had their super-secret Illuminati-hierarchy formula, in which they assigned a number to each card that in many cases reflected their estimation of the player's worth.
The actual formula used, and some would argue there isn't one, has never been discussed publicly, but there's enough evidence to suggest that for 40-plus years, Topps was not just ordering players, but ranking them. Josh Wilker eloquently addressed the subject in his book Cardboard Gods:
I owed this feeling of solidarity in part to Topp's practice of numbering their cards in such a way as to sign a four-level hierarchy of gods. If the number of a card ended in anything but a 0 or a 5, the player on that card resided on the bottom level of the hierarchy, a level so broad it included almost everyone -- all the steady, colorless regulars and flawed reserves, all the has-beens and never-weres, all the green big-eyed hopefuls and graying squint-eyed hanger-ons. Owchinko, Terpko, Heaverlo, Rapp, Nicosia, Barlow, Nahrodny, Knapp. One level up included players who cards ended in 5; these players had made an All-Star Game or two, perhaps, or were just a couple decent if unspectacular years removed from a Rookie of the Year award, or had recently vied for, but not won, a batting crown. McRae, Wise, Hendrick, Tanana. Rising still higher, players whose card numbers ended in 0 had been to a few All-Star Games and seemed likely to be going to a few more before they were done. Madlock, Blue, Cey. And at the very top of this steep mountain were the players whose card numbers ended in 00. These were the superstars, among the best to ever play the game. There were only a handful of these players in every set.
Most collectors would agree with Wilker's assessment -- the best players ended in "00", the next best ended in "0", the third tier ended in "5", and the average players filled in the rest. While some collectors are adamant there has never been a consistent numbering system in place, you can look at virtually any checklist from the series' 1951 inception to 2012 and see that players like Johnny Bench, Jim Rice, Rod Carew, and Don Mattingly usually ended in "00." There were some seasons, especially in the early 2000s, where that tradition had seemingly been abandoned, but in 2012, Josh Hamilton and Giancarlo Stanton ended in "00" and it seemed like things were back on track.
This season, Topps is using a numbering system that's dramatically different than any other season's scheme. Card #1 belongs to Bryce Harper, and there is no card #7. The "00" cards belong to Scott Downs, Mike Moustakas, and Daniel Murphy, clearly a departure from long-standing tradition. As for the rest of the cards, there is nothing secret about how Topps arranged them: The majority are ordered by jersey number, so Ryan Braun is card #8, Dustin Pedroia is #15, Joey Votto is #19, and so on. For numbers that duplicate, as most of them do, Topps has ranked them by performance, so Clayton Kershaw is #22, Andrew McCutchen is #122, and Jason Heyward is #222. But even this breaks down, as Alex Gonzalez, a non-star who spent most of the year on the disabled list and wore #11, is #322.
The traditional hierarchy may seem inconsequential, but it provided a platform for organizing and trading cards for years. Because of it, I lost my Dave Winfield, a #5 in the 1992 set, to a neighborhood bully for a David Segui card, #477 in the same series. The bully didn't know much about baseball, he didn't even care about cards, but he knew that one with a lower number was more valuable. Joe Posnanski recently wrote about the Topps numbering system, finding he could assign fairly accurate values to some of the best players in the sets based on the numbering system. Most importantly, when, like most kids, I put them in binders, my dad would sort out all of the "00" cards of the set -- Cal Ripken, Jr., Jose Canseco, Don Mattingly, Lenny Dykstra, Vince Coleman, Paul Molitor, and Ruben Sierra -- and put them in a separate spot so they wouldn't get damaged. The problem with the lack of consistency isn't just that it rocks the boat of nostalgia, but it eliminates a common language that existed from year to year, even if no one fully understood the system.
Given the disappointments of 2012, I told myself I wouldn't care about the 2013 set, but I want Topps to get things right for posterity's sake. The heyday of collecting is in the past, but that doesn't diminish the importance of cards as one of the few consistent artifacts of the game. Perhaps that's placing too much importance on something so disposable, but the reality is that cards are the yearbook of the baseball world, a window to the past and a common language for comparisons across generations, the WAR of collectibles. Without consistency and familiarity they lose all appeal because they are no longer relatable. Now that the system for numbering is broken down, I may someday have to explain to my currently hypothetical children when they inherit my collection of cards (one which includes my own and my father's, that Scott Downs was not the Johnny Bench of his era, even though they have the same Topps number. Or, perhaps I just won't mention the numbering convention at all, since it will no longer obtain, and that will be one more bit of mystery and excitement that these cards no longer have, one more element of fancy that made them something more than pictures on pulp. In a world of ever-faster electronic images, games, noise, constant activity, these static, two-dimensional images needed every bit of magic they could still muster.
Perhaps baseball cards are obsolete. Yet, it is impossible to imagine the game without them. Topps may only accidentally have become a chronicler of the game's time and history, but if they're going to continue in that role, they're going to have to try a little harder than this.