The Self-Destruction of the Card Industry

I recall waiting in line for a Marlins game in 2008 and talking to a die hard Yankees fan. One of the subjects that came up was Mickey Mantle. The man, in his early 50’s, told me he owned over 20 Mickey Mantle autographs which he picked up throughout the 80’s at card shows.

He told me that back then you could find just about any broken down slugger needing to pay his bills at events signing away for hours at a time. Also, it didn’t cost an arm and a leg to get a signature. Sure, maybe your favorite player wouldn’t be in the greatest of spirits (he told me Mantle never once looked up, ever) but nothing takes away the memory of seeing one of your treasured baseball cards signed by one of the all-time greats. No cut signature necessary.

A month later, a hobby shop in Pembroke Pines, Florida announced on the radio that they were hosting an exclusive signing with Marlins superstar, Hanley Ramirez. I was thrilled and jumped on the phone to see how much and when. The guy on the other end told me it was $55 dollars for flat items and more for bats, etc.

As you can imagine, I politely thanked him and forgot all about it. This year I got Hanley to sign both a bat and a baseball card and didn’t pay a dime for it. Funny thing is, his beautiful signature which only comes out when being paid was nothing more than an ugly scribble.

Today, the card industry is self-destructing before our very own eyes. Upper Deck is dealing with massive layoffs in key departments, while U.D & Topps lost their basketball license to an outsider. Donruss, once a respected name in the Hobby is going through one legal hurdle after another and is currently fighting with Major League Baseball for releasing unlicensed cards that pushed the envelope just a bit too far.

Jump on YouTube and watch a few videos. You will find collectors young and old opening up boxes of product from as low as $50 dollars to as high as over $2,000 and complaining, not caring about their “hit”, or simply tossing cards on the floor or table in order to get to a little piece of cut up jersey or a sticker autograph.

A company, Razor, put out a $2,500 per pack item only to find out that one or more of the autographs were not authentic. Beckett Media, “The #1 Source in Collecting”, along with other enablers of such products, did everything they possibly could to sweep it under the rug. Without hesitation, Brian Grey of Razor has announced his latest baseball product, titled ‘Razor Distinction’, which he was quoted as saying, “It will unquestionably be the highest end, high quality prospect set ever made…”.

It seems that all companies care about today is pumping out one “high-end” release after another and have forgotten why kids collected baseball cards to begin with. No, it wasn’t to “invest” or to see what card they could throw on eBay first. Kids collected baseball cards for the appeal of the design and to flip through cards of their favorite players.

When you have to choose between $500 dollar boxes of Exquisite, $400 dollar boxes of National Treasures, and/or $2,000 dollar boxes of Oval Office, something is clearly wrong. I came into this hobby hoping for the fun it once brought me as a child and young adult but seeing the “behind the scenes” workings has seriously proven to me that this is a sinking ship that might not have a way to save itself.

My advice to the reader of Wax Heaven is to put down that box of Exquisite basketball and grab 2008-’09 Skybox. Drop that box of National Treasures box full of sticker autographs and pick up T-51 Murad to see what collecting is all about, and put down that Razor product and pay your mortgage before you end up with another signature done by an auto pen.

There is still some good left in this Hobby but the powers that be will continue to push the big money products because it’s what sells, despite the fact that it’s almost always impossible to break even and more than likely you will end up walking from that card shop feeling a slight sting of stupidity as you realize you just flushed $500 dollars of your hard-earned cash for a bunch of shiny cardboard, two tiny “game-used” relics, and a few sticker autographs of guys who may never amount to anything other than a Minor League All-Star team.

As for the card below, it’s a 1986 Topps Traded Jose Canseco rookie card which was signed by Jose in 1987 at a card shop in Florida for a measly $5 dollars. Keep in mind by November of 1987 which is the date of the signing, Jose had already won a major award (ROY) and had put together his second straight 30 HR/100 RBI season.

There was a time you could pick up a superstar’s autograph for $5 dollars.

I’d give anything to return to those days.



  1. I agree with you entirely Mario. It’s because of you I’ve dug out my pinnacle sets and I see better quality then I do with some of the stuff being made today. Yes, it may be overproduced but it’s pretty nice to build a Dufex set of cards.

  2. Also, you could also send a card out through the mail. All it costs is a return SASE, a few cards, and a HANDWRITTEN letter of appreciation. Over the years I’ve had much success and I can’t afford to be going to the big ballparks all the time so it’s worth the hand cramps of writing.

  3. Not everyone is struggling to pay bills. Big dollar products bring big dollar gamblers into the hobby, and that’s a GOOD THING for all involved.

    Yeah, they can spend $500 on a pack of Exquisite and not get their money back, but who cares? They don’t, so why should you?

    If you’re a collector, you should be happy that these guys spend their money gambling like this because key cards of your favorite guys end up on eBay for pennies on the dollar. Chasing after the big rookies in 04-05 meant that a whole hell of a lot of product was busted and while everyone else was pissed that their “hit” was Bernard Robinson, I have been sopping them up for years and have a player collection that would make jaws drop. And I spent next to nothing on it.

    Everyone loves to complain, but there’s no reason to be upset about big dollar products. You like what you like, others like what they like.

  4. I think your situation with Hanley is a little different than is the case with most collectors. You seemingly have great connections and access to players. For most people, paying $55 to get Hanley’s signature in person isn’t that bad. In fact, it’s almost a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

    Last year Tim Lincecum was signing at a local shop in the SF Bay Area. I think the cost was like $25 for any item. The damn tickets for the event sold out.

  5. that’s nothing! justin verlander, who went 11-17 last season, was signing at a show last month for 70 FREAKING DOLLARS!!!!

  6. that’s a sweet card, Mario! you’ve outlined exactly how i’m collecting these days. i’m picking up boxes of affordable 2002-03 hockey product whose design i’ve rediscovered and appreciate now. it’s always been about the design of the base set for me. even modern inserts just seem like a waste of good base cards.

  7. Couple of comments…first of all, it’s not just sports-card companies that are self-destucting….there are plenty of companies in other industries (car manufacturers, airlines, rental car companies, most of Wall Street) that are managed just as poorly.

    That said, the implosion of the sports card industry can largely be traced to the poor quality of management. Few industry executives have any business education or any experience outside the industry. Richard McWilliam was (if memory serves me correctly) a real estate agent before becoming involved with Upper Deck. Joe Orlando (head of PSA) was a nondescript lawyer. Many other industry execs were dealers or collectors with no real business background. Add it all up, and you get the mess we have today.

    The good news is that there are still plenty of great cards and sets from past years out there to collect. I’m working on 1961 Fleer Basketball, 1962 Topps Football, and 1969 Topps Baseball Team Poster sets. Future projects will include the 1964 Philly FB set and the 1976 Topps baseball set, as well as ripping a 1984 Topps BB rack box I recently bought for $60. And you can still buy boxes of fun 80’s products like Fleer Star Stickers, Donruss Action All-Stars, Topps 5’x7’s and Topps Big for less than $10/box, and 1990-1993 Upper Deck boxes with gorgeous photography for less than $20/box.

    So if you are in the hobby simply to have fun and enjoy your collection you can still do it…

  8. Well I think people returning to the hobby seriously need advice especially if you’re on a normal “man down the street” budget. For me, I look for deals online for low end hobby box, put the set together and trade away inserts or hits I don need for cards I want. Let the investors chase the big hits and scream about the BVs. My Griffey collection is still budding and about to hit 100 cards. I know its probably a joke to some collectors but I know I get more excitement getting a 90s base Griffey card that I don own than a plainly designed sticker autographed rookie card of a nobody. I look forward to seeing box break vids where ppl actually comment on whether they like the cards or not instead of shuffling through everything just so they can finish their vids under 10mins and show off their “mojos”. Speaking of box break vids, Dave from fielders choice recently put up 4 vids of 3 boxes of 09 topps heritage and I enjoyed every single moment of it. Nice.

  9. Thomas is correct, there are alot of people out there who gladly shell out the $500+/pack or box. And I’m also more than willing and very comfortable with the fact that I’ll probably be able to pick up their hit on ebay for $20. The card companies will keep pushing the limit with prices as long as people continue to purchase things. As a collector you just have to make up your mind what you enjoy collecting and pursue it as long as it makes you happy and you still have fun with it.

  10. Name me one business that isn’t having problems this year.

    I don’t think that sports cards have a bright future ahead of them, but whatever future they do have needs that high-end component. Kids don’t want the cheap cards of yesterday. They want their autographs, scraps of fabric & serial numbered hits.

    If you don’t make the product your market wants, you won’t have much luck selling them anything.

  11. I think if people stopped paying the high prices for stuff, promoters’ declining sales would reduce the price that athletes can charge. I like to look at big show ads and see what I could get for my hypothetical purchase. Players like Reggie Bush charge enough that you could get at least two HOFers for the same amount

  12. I don’t have a problem with people paying whatever they want for a pack/box of cards. I have a problem when the items INSIDE the boxes are fakes. The self-destruction of the card industry has nothing to do with the economy. It’s about lying cheats using autopens to create fake high-end product. And the fact that most people seem to be ignoring it.

  13. The sports card industry will survive, but it’s clearly in state of flux and change right now. In today’s world, not too many companies these aren’t in that same situation.

    I would much rather pay for an autograph of a player than chase his signature on a card. Personally, I think it’s more fun to take your kids to a player signing, get the item you want signed, sometimes get a picture, and get to shake the hand of the player. To me, $55 is better spent that way than gambling on a pack of cards or trying to be the high bidder on eBay.

  14. As Wax Heavens-Man on the Street I have to add my two cents. Last Friday I watched several folks opened the new 2008 UD Exquisite Football. I also saw a bunch of aggravated folks. These guys were paying $525 per pack (or box, if you want to call it that) and I did not see one single box thats cards would be close to that in value.
    I go to the shop each Friday. I usually bust one or more boxes of new product. However, last week I did not get into the Exquisite busting. I have never, nor will I ever in the future purchase Exquisite.
    I know you guys have seen my breaks of National Treasures here on Wax Heaven. I do occasionally open a National Treasures box, but they are always 2006 or 2007. Those are about half the price of the new Treasures and when the price of the 2008 drops, I will take a chance on those.
    I enjoy opening different kinds of product. However, even the Man on the Street has a limit and I will not pay that price for Exquisite.

    Later Gang,
    Submarine Shane- The Man on the Street

  15. I totally agree with what you said. I live in the Detroit area and it’s true about Verlander….$70 for his autograph! He doesn’t sign at the games or even at away games where it seems you can get a lot of good autos. My wife and I always walk away with a bunch. Keep up the good work.

  16. When I was a young kid I worked at a card shop or a few years. I have several thousand cards that I’ve hung onto from the late 80’s and early 90’s. Since then I have not stepped foot in a card shop… until last week.

    I now have 3 sons and the oldest is just getting into cards so I thought it would be fun to get re-introduced to something I enjoyed so much as a kid. Back then the only cards that were created where the “base set” and the highest valued cards were the good players and the occasional error card. If you wanted an autograph card you would have to go get the player to autograph it.

    Coming back to the hobby after essentially missing everything that has happened in over 15 years it’s amazing to see the changes. My first observation is “wow, there’s a lot of products out there!” I don’t know how Beckett and everyone else keeps up with all the different lines and editions, however I was quick to notice that the cool side of that is there are many different price points and much more options then when I was a kid.

    The second observation I had was how awesome the new cards looked. I had never seen the Allen & Ginter cards before or seen the Heritage cards from Topps. I love that you can get an autograph card with a game used jersey swatch out of a pack of cards, let alone a bat scrap or baseball piece.

    However, these products definitely for the most part are not worth the value that you are paying for the cards unless you are one of the very lucky ones to get the super special card with the super special player.

    So I’ve asked myself in this last week if I want to do baseball card collecting or not, it certainly will not be a “worthwhile investment” from a purely financial point of view but as an adult I like the unique card designs and variety that I can get and for my sons it will be a fun and different way to enjoy the game of baseball (or football etc.) that we don’t get just watching it on TV or playing little league.

    However, I will not be buying the super high end cards and I won’t be looking at it as an investment. I will only be buying cards to enjoy the cards themselves. Look at the stats, reading the interesting statements on the back and using the cards to further my interest in major league baseball.

  17. I remember when I was I think around 12 or 13, my dad and I went to the National in Atlantic City and they had all the 500 home run hitters (living ones) and 3000 hit guys all signing autos. If you wanted autographs of all of them it was $100 for the home run guys and I think like 80 for the 3000 hit guys. This was like 1983 or 1984. But somewhere at my parents house is that bat. With Mantle, Mays, Robinson, Killebrew, Aaron, Reggie (who just passed 500), McCovey, Williams, Banks, Rose, Yaz, Brock and Kaline and including the bat I am pretty sure it was $200 total. Can you imagine that now a days?

  18. In a nutshell, everyone who has commented is correct. The new products coming out are almost like high tech stocks, worth $100 a share one day and 50 cents the next. You can buy vintage cards for steady value but it won’t go up or down sharply like a Brien Taylor rookie card (or whomever the “hot” rookie is at the moment). There is a need for the high-end cards, but I do agree that the card companies lust for money has clouded their judgement on how many different high end products vs. the demand for them. If you’re lucky to have a few extra bucks, buying individual cards on E-Bay of your favorite player will cost you tons LESS than buying a few boxes or cases of a product and not getting the “hit” that will cover your costs. Buying a box on E-bay is even a bit of an adventure. More than likely, the person selling has already got the case “hit” and is trying to cut his/her losses by selling the remaining boxes. It used to be a hobby that anyone could get into, but now I wouldn’t recommend anyone to get in unless they have done it in the past or knows somebody they TRUST who’s in it now.

  19. That was a great article Mario. I agree with many of the points listed. I recently started collecting again after about 10 years and was amazed to see how much things have changed. I mean, who doesn’t like a game-used or autograph card but I know I can’t afford $500 a pack or higher for the “guaranteed Hit.” I still can appreciate the old school cards (which are early to mid 90s for me). That is one reason I really enjoy your blog. You still have the appreciation for what collecting cards is all about (which is why I sent you that Flair pack- very nice cards).

    I finally completed my base set of Topps Mayo football, which I was very excited about after buying way too many blasters and a couple hobby boxes. But I am glad to know I am not the only one who appreciates regular old base cards without having to buy a dual cut auto patch short print numbered to whatever card for a ton of money.

  20. Wow, i’m up to 10 autographs of Jose, 8 of them are certified, & were signed in front of me, but I always still get excitied when I see his authentic auto. Pretty cool too, I never saw the traded rookie autographed! lol Thanks for making it available!

  21. Pretty sad though, i have 551 different cards, & only 10 are autographed!!! But I make up for it with the rest of his stuff!

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