Baseball cards: Been there, done that, check it off the list

At first glance it looked like one of those happy-ending stories wherein some regular guy catches lightning in a bottle. The headline read, “Man finds 1955 Mickey Mantle card in pack, is offered $50,000.”

Ultimately, though, that wasn’t the deal. The guy was attending a national convention of card collectors, and had paid a $500 entry fee for a spot in the “draw order” of the opening of a pack of cards from 1955. In what was effectively a high-priced raffle, each entrant “won” the card that appeared in the order corresponding to the number issued to them when they entered.

Oh. Never mind, then.

The real surprise was that there’s still someone out there willing to drop 50 grand on a baseball card. I thought they milked that cow dry in the 1980s, after the Happy Days/American Graffiti nostalgia wave had become a feature of our society and souvenir trading card shops sprang up like pigweed.

The market for baseball cards has long-since oversaturated. Individual cards and sets of cards once thought highly valuable depreciated quickly, and the trading card revival faded. What’s left is a small network of well-heeled fanatics vying to reel in the few remaining Moby Dicks in circulation.

Among all sports trading memorabilia, baseball cards are still the highest valued. The prized Honus Wagner card has a distinct, early-1900s feel to it: blank stare, bad haircut, collared jersey buttoned to the top, text at the bottom reading only, “Wagner, Pittsburgh.” That card sold at auction for more than $3 million.

For the record, the most expensive Green Bay Packers trading card is Bart Starr’s 1959 card, valued at just over $18,000.

Oddly, the sixth-most valuable trading card is that of “Slow Joe” Doyle, a pitcher for the Yankees in the early 1900s. “Slow Joe” isn’t the best nickname for a pitcher. It leaves the impression that he didn’t throw hard or move quickly, or wasn’t very bright.

There are only seven of those cards left in the world today, which is the reason for the $329,000 price tag. Someone will pay that fat sum for the right to say, “There are only seven of these cards in the world today.” A cynical peek at the back of Slow Joe’s card, revealing his 22-21 career record, says seven is plenty.

People who never throw anything away are hoarders. Organize and label your junk, and you’re a collector. Apart from things that might have hidden value like coins and stamps, people also collect unusual stuff, like hotel do-not-disturb doorknob signs.

These can have some amusement value, especially in hotels overseas where English translators haven’t nailed all the idioms. I still have one from a Prague hotel that reads, “Keep Me Sleep.”

The problem I had as a kid collecting baseball cards was that there seemed to be no end point or objective to the “game.” The card I always hoped to find underneath that rectangular slice of bubble gum-scented drywall was the checklist card, on which you could mark off all the cards as you got them and eventually be done with it.

Still, it would’ve been nice to know back then what would be valuable today.

Having 20-20 clairvoyance would have helped collectors in 1918, when a printing error turned a 24-cent postage stamp into a fortune. The U.S. Postal Service printed the Curtiss JN-4 aircraft upside down on the first few 100-stamp sheets. A single one of those “inverted Jenny” stamps sold for a million dollars in 1989.

Also in 1989, a different error — this one committed by a lazy editor — jacked up the value of a collectible. Billy Ripken’s baseball card from that year pictured him in his Baltimore Orioles uniform, holding a bat on his right shoulder. Printed legibly in black marker on the knob of the bat was a two-word profanity.

His card topped out at more than $300 that year — higher than that of his Hall of Fame brother — but in the wake of the ordeal he lost face.

Veteran sportswriter Gary Seymour’s column appears weekly in the Leader. He can be contacted at sports@wolfrivermedia.com.