MANY OF TODAY'S baseball card collectors touch their treasures with clean hands -- smudged borders can hurt resale value. They attend weekend sales and consult price guides. They judge players by the worth of their cards. They lament the lost potential of the thousands upon thousands of cards that were condemned to coax rhythms from the spokes of bicycle wheels.
Those who remember the pleasures of flipping cards with friends and the ease of shoe-box storage complain that the life has gone out of card collecting.
"Some people try to suggest that the monetary aspect of the hobby has taken the fun out of it, but I don't think that's the case at all," says Steve Ellingboe, publisher of Sports Collectors Digest, the weekly magazine aimed at serious collectors and dealers.
In fact, it can be a lot of fun to think about the baseball cards that are selling for more than $100,000. Tomorrow and Saturday the New York auction house of Sotheby's, better known for selling Van Goghs and Picassos, will offer its first sale devoted entirely to sports memorabilia. Collectors will bid on more than 800 lots from the James Copeland Collection, a collection of cards, pins, pendants, signed baseballs, pennants and other memorabilia dating from 1869 to the 1980s. Presale estimates for lots in the collection -- described as one of the most important in the United States -- range from $500 to $300,000.
Ellingboe says the auction will be the single most important sale in the history of sports memorabilia collecting.
Among the items to be auctioned:
* A complete set of commemorative baseball bats given by Hillerich and Bradsby, makers of Louisville Slugger, to members of World Series teams from 1935 to 1988: $60,000-$80,000.
* A 1952 Mickey Mantle Topps baseball card, described as the most popular and famous modern era baseball card: $12,000- $15,000.
* A complete set of 1952 Topps cards: $40,000-$60,000.
* A St. Louis Browns pendant from a set that was presented to each world championship team player in 1886 by the city of St. Louis: $50,000-$75,000.
* A baseball signed by all players of 1931 world champion Yankees, including Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig: $4,000-$6,000.
* A collection of 151 World Series press pins from 1911-1988: $250,000-$300,000.
For many collectors, the highlight of the sale is a Honus Wagner T-206 cigarette card, a 1910 multicolor portrait of the legendary Pittsburgh Pirate shortstop that carries an advertisement for Piedmont cigarettes on its back. Few of these cards exist because Wagner, who was opposed to smoking, requested the withdrawal of his name from the card. Its presale estimate is $125,000-$150,000.
"This is the most famous card in our hobby and this is the nicest example of it known," Ellingboe says. "Its price will be one indicator of how the economy is going to affect the prices. In a strong economy, I think that the Wagner estimate price would be low. In most cases, though I think the estimates are pretty accurate.
Local baseball card dealers agree that Sotheby's sales prices will affect theirs as well. Tom Blair, manager of Jay's Sports Connection in Towson, says business has been good despite the recession.
"You see some people who have lost faith in the stock market and put their faith in this type of collecting," he says.
You might consider baseball cards as a comfortable currency, the kind a lot of Americans grew up with. Ellingboe, 44, began collecting long before he went to work for Sports Collectors Digest.
"Now I collect mostly post-war baseball cards; stuff from the '50s and '60s. Most of the stuff I've been buying in recent years is
stuff I had as a kid and foolishly threw out. That's what makes the cards that survive so valuable: Most of us did throw them out."
Sotheby's estimates that the complete set of 1959 Bazooka cards in the Copeland Collection, for instance, is worth $6,000- $7,000.
Cards from the 1980s have increased in value, too. The 1986 Topps set, which sold for $20, is now worth $45, Blair says.
Ten years ago, there were fewer than 200 baseball card shops in the United States, now there may be as many as 10,000, Ellingboe guesses.
The appetite for a specific category of sports memorabilia often varies according to the region. Greg Brumfield, owner of Collectors Choice in Laurel, says a Brooks Robinson card can sell for hundreds of dollars locally while a uniform worn by the third baseman can bring thousands.
In case you can't get up to New York for the big auction this weekend, consider visiting a local baseball card show. The following list comes from Beckett Baseball Card Monthly:
* Quality Inn, York Road, Towson. Show is from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Admission is $1, free to those younger than 7. Details: 301-339-5380.
* Interstate Baseball Card Benefit Show at St. Isaac Jogues Church, 9215 Old Harford Road. Show is from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Admission is $1. Details: 301-522-0199.
* Westminster High School, 1225 Washington Road. Show is from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Admission is $1, free to those younger than 8. Details: 301-833-3043.
* Pikesville Hilton Inn, 1726 Reisterstown Road. Show is from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Admission is $1.50, free to those younger than 8. Details: 301-922-8893.