People have collected sports cards for 135 years. The first set of baseball cards was released in 1886 by the Goodwin Tobacco Company. A Honus Wagner card from that set sold for $3.25 million last year.
Over the decades, other companies began minting cards for basketball, hockey, and football. But baseball remained supreme in the collector world. Topps and Bowman notably produced some of the most valuable baseball cards of the modern age.
Jim Mead remembers the glory days of the 1980s and ’90s. He opened the Baseball Shop in Orleans in 1988, specializing in baseball cards.
“I would say the ’90s was the peak,” Mead said. “Everything has had its ups and downs, but there’s always new stars to pick it up.”
In the ’90s, young baseball stars like Barry Bonds, Ken Griffey Jr., Sammy Sosa, Mark McGuire, and Alex Rodriguez revitalized and brought excitement to the game. Young fans began buying cards in hopes of collecting some of these new stars.
That’s when Mead enjoyed his job the most. He said it was fun watching people young and old come into the shop to buy up the packs or ask for certain cards.
“I started collecting when I was a kid and I only did three years,” he said. “Right at the beginning with the 1952, ’53, and ’54 sets.” A “set” is a collection of all the cards a company released in one year.
Mead said card collecting began to decline in 2000. “They were making too many cards,” he said. “Instead of two or three sets of baseball cards, there were 15 or 20 sets. It was driving the younger collectors out, but the higher investors got into it. That’s when packs went from $1 in the ’80s or ’90s to $125 a pack in the 2000s.”
The young baseball stars and fans of the ’90s grew older. The new generation either couldn’t afford a pack and or didn’t find the same allure in card collecting.
Mead sold his shop in 2006, and it eventually closed for good. Mead didn’t entirely lose faith, though.
“I knew baseball cards were going to come back,” he said, “but I didn’t quite know when.”
When the pandemic hit a year ago, people found new hobbies or picked up old ones they could do at home. Collecting sports cards came back.
“People went up in the attic and realized, ‘Oh, jeez, there are the cards,’ ” Mead said. “I went in my closet. I figured, I got to do something.”
The pandemic-fueled market for baseball cards old and new has exploded. The Honus Wagner “holy grail” card mentioned above has now been surpassed. The Chicago Tribune reported that an autographed 2009 Mike Trout rookie card sold online for $3.9 million in August 2020. A 1952 Mickey Mantle card in mint condition sold for a record $5.2 million in January 2021.
Mead, with the help of his daughter, figured out how to value his cards and buy more to finish some of his old sets. He said he currently owns about 40,000 baseball, basketball, hockey, and football cards.
In the summer of 2019, Dapper Labs, a tech company based in Vancouver, signed a deal with the National Basketball Association to develop a website called NBA Top Shot. The site, using blockchain technology, creates highlight clips, known as “moments,” of NBA players that are sold in packs on the website, just as sports cards would be sold in packs at a store. The blockchain technology makes it virtually impossible for anyone to recreate the highlight clip.
Top Shot packs are released on the site, where users must get in a randomized queue and buy them with credit cards or cryptocurrency, if they’re lucky. The packs come in tiers. The rarer the pack, the more expensive.
The caliber of the player and the rarity of the moment determine what people are willing to pay. Prices range from $10 to hundreds of thousands of dollars.
It’s a new concept that’s hard for many people to wrap their heads around. Still, Top Shot has become popular among fans and collectors in just the last couple of months. In February, a LeBron James dunk moment sold for $208,000 to an investor group.
Wellfleet resident Crash Pechukas-Simonian heard of the fad in January on social media and from his father.
“Having grown up going to the baseball card shop, I was skeptical about these NBA moments that exist solely on the internet,” he said. “However, I’ve been won over. Top Shot is an entertaining and addictive way to own your favorite NBA moments, and it’s still so early in its growth.”
The 25-year-old is happy to be in on what he considers the ground floor.
“If anyone reading this is looking to purchase an Anderson Varejao dunk for the fair price of $5,000, please contact me,” he said.
Eastham’s Rory Voke, 26, also sees the potential in digital collectibles.
“The value fans see in the moments, combined with people trying to invest for a new type of profit, fuels interest and a sustainable market,” Voke said. “Personally, I feel like I’m first in line to collect the first Pokémon or baseball cards being minted, and we all know how that turned out for those lucky few.”
Mead thinks digital collectibles have promise.
“I would say it will probably work out in the long run,” he said. “They may have to tweak it. These guys sit down for quite a while and think of ways to sell the ‘cards.’ ”
The evolution of sports trading cards is moving fast. Mead, who lives in Dennis now, likes to look back on his Orleans shop days.
“You couldn’t make it with just the shop now,” he said. “You’d have to be online and retail, if not online only. It was great to be getting up in the morning, getting coffee, going to the post office and having a job that was your hobby.”