If you're somewhere from thirtysomething to fiftysomething, you probably did baseball cards until you discovered Mad magazine -- around the age of 12.
In those days, the vocabulary of cards was limited to "got 'im/don't got 'im." You opened your card pack, sorted the cards quickly into two piles, swapped the duplicates (or clipped one to the rear of your bike with a clothespin) and put the new ones in your collection, in rubber-banded piles in a shoe box. Cards of favorite players found their way into pockets or were thumbtacked to a place of honor on the wall or bulletin board. Trading was usually card-for-card, and, of course, the star players commanded more cards in trade. For the most part, it was nickel and dime (packs were 5 cents at the supermarket checkout), kid stuff.
Sports collecting has become big business, and cards dominate. They're ubiquitous, and not only children are buying.
In 1956, Topps was the only company issuing baseball cards on a national basis (Bowman stopped after the 1955 season). It was joined by Fleer and Donruss in 1981, Sportflics in 1986, Score in 1988, Upper Deck in 1989 and Classic Baseball this year. And Topps is issuing a set under the Bowman label. Some police departments have issued cards in conjunction with anti-drug programs; colleges have issued cards of their teams, and there are a host of other local issues.
Because so many collections from the 1950s and '60s were thrown away (and because sets were assembled pack by pack), complete sets and the individual cards are not as plentiful as those of more recent vintage.
"Mothers have been getting a bad rap," says Dave Bevans of All Star Cards in Baltimore. "If mothers had not thrown those cards away, they would have no value today."
A card doesn't have to be older than some of the youngest collectors to be valuable. Rookie cards of star players have risen dramatically in price, not always for obvious reasons. Tom Blair of Jay's Sports Connection in Towson said Jose Canseco's rookie card (1986 Donruss) went from $13 to $50 in 1988 (his 40-40 season), has gone as high as $200 and seems to have settled in at $125-$135. Joe Bosley of The Old Ball Game in Reisterstown said the Cal Ripken rookie card (1982 Topps) has more than doubled this year -- even when Ripken was hitting .215 -- from $10-$12 to $25-$30; he said people may be buying the card in anticipation of Ripken's breaking Lou Gehrig's streak for consecutive games.
Until six years ago, Scott Michael Stamps in Pikesville was a stamp and coin store. Then baseball cards replaced stamps.
"My customers kept asking me to get into baseball cards," says Scott Michael.
The growth in the collectibles market has resulted in the formation this summer of a national dealers' organization, Sports Collectibles Association. It will be establishing industry standards and a code of ethics. Among those making large start-up donations were several large dealers (including Alan Rosen, "Mr. Mint," who was featured recently in Sports Illustrated), Optigraphics Corporation (maker of Score and Sportflics) and the industry's major chroniclers (Baseball Hobby News, Beckett Publications, Krause Publications and Tuff Stuff).
Clip-and-save department (for those who may be too embarrassed to ask in front of a horde of under-12 collectors), the brave new vocabulary of baseball cards:
Wax pack/foil pack: the basic unit of purchase, a pack with a wax (or foil for Upper Deck cards) cover, usually contains 15-17 cards. (Only the Topps packs have gum.)
Cello pack: 30-35 cards (two wax/foil packs' worth) packed in clear plastic so some cards are visible.
Wax box/foil box: 36 or 48 wax/foil packs.
Rack pack: three wax/foil packs.
Rack box: 24 rack packs.
Case: 20 wax/foil packs or 16 sets.
Factory set: every card in the set, may be collated, may be factory-sealed.
Rookie card: first card issued of a player in a regular set, not necessarily issued in his rookie year.
First card: first appearance of a player on the card of a particular manufacturer, can be in an update set.
Common: card of non-star.
Error: When a mistake on a card is corrected in a later printing, a card with the mistake commands a premium; if the error is not corrected, the card has no added value. Ben McDonald's Upper Deck card this year was originally issued with a "rookie" logo; the later, "correct" McDonald card goes for $5-$7, while the earlier, "error" card commands $30-$45 and at one time was selling for $150. On the other hand, Jim Gantner's 1987 Topps card was printed with the negative reversed, so the lettering on his jersey and cap is backward, but because Topps never reprinted the Gantner card, it has no premium value.
Update/traded set: issued late in the season with rookies and marginal players who made the team and traded players with their proper teams.