Since I returned to the hobby at the end of 2003 and learned about all the new developments that had occurred since I left in 1985, I saw that there were a lot more people who were into cards for the investment rather than to celebrate nostalgia or their love of the game. I would have imagined the glut in the 1990’s that greatly devalued cards would have discouraged this, but it is true nonetheless. Some of these “collectors” treat their cards almost like precious gemstones or rare artifacts, and they treasure them for their condition and financial value above all else.

Now I consider myself a member of the opposite group. I collect cards for what they portray, and what they remind me of from either my own personal history or the history of the sport they depict. They take me back to my youth when I’d hang out with my buddies and we’d go through stacks of cards while muttering “got it, got it, need it, got it, need it, got it…” Or when I watch old film of games from past decades, I know the players from their cards that I got when they were current stars.

I like my cards to be in good shape, but I define this to be “without observable major defect”. A little corner ding or wax spot just makes a card more authentic, at least if it’s a vintage year. Now, of course, current cards (from the past decade or two) should be pack fresh and pristine to the eye, but I would say that anything beyond a casual look is overkill.

Now here comes professional grading. The idea is that you pay a fee of around six to twenty plus dollars to ship your cards to a company who will assess their condition (using high power magnifiers) based on their own custom scale and then permanently seal them into awkward plastic cases so they will never be handled again. Then the value of the cards instantly increases by several orders of magnitude from what even a pristine “raw” specimen would have been worth. The whole process is a gamble, though, because you may end up with a much lower grade than you estimated when you sent them in, and only the highest few grades really bring the big payoffs.

Uh… no thanks.

Now I will say that grading does facilitate selling cards sight unseen, which happens a lot more these days. To have a card certified by an objective observer to be in a certain condition offers a buyer a nice guarantee that what he’s getting really is what was described. But I don’t think this corporate intervention should artificially inflate the values involved.

It’s bad enough these days that the price of a wax box or even a pack takes cards out of collectors’ hands unless they have a heap of disposable income. Now you’re telling me to seal my best cards into thick plastic prisons so that even the good cards that I can afford I can’t touch any more? I mean, I don’t handle my ’55 Ted Williams on a weekly basis, but I wouldn’t seal it in a museum case and stand five feet away from it for the rest of my life. And then you say that the ’69 Hank Aaron I got on eBay for $9.50 (my first card purchase ever on there) that books for $30-50 in the real world could either be $125-200 or even an incredible $1200-2000 but could just as likely end up at the same $30-50 after all the effort? Yeah, I’ll pass.

I’ve even seen dealers advertising a vintage common card at four bucks, and then list the same card PSA grade 9 at $259! Dealers are people who sell cards to make a profit, so I can’t blame them for trying, but gimme a break. A common card has no business being in the three digit range unless the year starts with something lower than 19, or the card is rarer than a Cubs World Series win. Yet right now on eBay you can find a Gem Mint 10 specimen of 1977 Bill Laxton of the Seattle Mariners Topps card for $75. This is a ten cent card of a guy that pitched for five years for that many teams and was 3-10 lifetime in a total of 120 appearances. Good luck with that one.

But OK, to each his own. There are enough cards to go around to everyone who wants them. If you’re in it for the money, then go for it. There’s space in the hobby shops for both of us.

There is still a rift between collectors and investors, though. And now the rift has become the parting of the seas, with Wayne Gretzky is skating on the ice in the middle. The whole Beckett-gate firestorm revealed an extreme faction of investors who are taking the whole thing a little too seriously. Not only are they in favor of isolating cards from the outside world, but they were infuriated when it was revealed that people actually may touch the cards before they’re encased! What’s the next step, deductions for the presence of DNA residue? Or cards that are undervalued because they’ve been exposed to light? Is there going to be a website that tracks cards from the factory to the climate controlled shops to the special vaults of investors? (they could call it CardFax!). I guess the ultimate for these extremists would be cards that are mechanically produced, encased, and never actually leave the factory. But I’ve never seen e-Topps cards valued in the four digit range, have you?

-Greg Armentrout