Hello to all of the readers of Wax Heaven. My name is Dave, and I used to run Fielder’s Choice Baseball Card Blog before I retired from blogging a few months ago. I was fortunate enough to be able to attend two days of The National in Cleveland on Friday and Saturday, and I’m here to share my perspective of the event. This was my first time at The National, and my take on may be a little different from people who have attended multiple times in the past.
Let’s start at the beginning. I knew about The National back when I collected cards as a kid, and I read a lot about it on various blogs after last year’s event in Chicago. About a year ago, I heard that it was coming to Cleveland in 2009, and I immediately knew that I would be there. Luckily, one of my wife’s best friends lives in a Cleveland suburb, so it was easy to convince her to take a trip up there from North Carolina. In addition, I have family in Rochester and Buffalo, NY. Buffalo and Cleveland are only a three-hour car trip apart. We eventually planned a whirlwind 8-day vacation that started in Toronto (where I saw my favorite baseball team, the Rays, stage the greatest comeback in franchise history), and continued to Niagara Falls, Buffalo, Rochester, and then Cleveland. While my wife spent time with her friend, I would attend The National.
Earlier this year, I was absolutely floored when I saw the list of athletes who would be signing autographs at The National. There were several Baseball Hall of Famers like Ernie Banks, Tom Seaver, Bob Feller, and Whitey Ford. Saturday featured what seemed like half of the entire Football Hall of Fame, including Joe Montana, Troy Aikman, Barry Sanders, Earl Campbell, Gale Sayers, and Jim Brown. But all of these legends were not what captured my attention the most. You see, I have been a huge Buffalo Bills fan since the day I was born – yes, my mom has pictures of me as a baby wearing Bills shirts – and seven of the nine Bills Hall of Famers would be at the show! I knew right away that I would be spending a great amount of time (and money) at the autograph pavilion.
Because I knew that I’d be spending most of Saturday getting autographs, I decided to attend The National on Friday too. That way, I’d get to see everything that I wanted to see without feeling rushed. On Friday, I woke up with a feeling of excitement, and after spending time with my wife in the morning, I drove to the International Exposition Center (better known as the I-X Center) near the Cleveland airport.
As I approached the I-X Center, I had two first impressions. One, the building is HUGE. I’m not good at estimating the size of places, but from both the outside and the inside of the building, it appeared that you could probably fit the entire population of Cleveland into the place. Second, I learned that I would need to pay $8 for parking. Seriously. As if the $18 entrance fee (or $15 if you bought your ticket online in advance) was not high enough. But I had no choice and paid the fee. After reading about past Nationals, I was half expecting to see a mob scene at the I-X Center. So I was surprised to find that there were plenty of available parking spaces, and when I entered the building, there was only one person ahead of me in the line for tickets.
So that brings me to the topic that has been written about more than any other regarding this year’s National, the attendance. First, I should point out that it seemed that the crowd was much larger on Saturday than on Friday. Second, because the building was so enormous, even a large crowd would naturally seem diminished. As I walked into the show on Friday, there were certainly many people there, but it wasn’t anything close to crowded. Since this was my first National, I have no idea how it compared to past events, but I honestly thought that there’d be more people there on Friday.
Anyway, as I entered, and I took my first look at row after row after row of tables selling cards and memorabilia, I was in awe. There was just so much to do and see, that it was almost overwhelming. I should point out that my main goal was to observe, rather than to buy a lot. I already knew that I’d be spending a lot on the Bills autographs, and I couldn’t afford to blow a lot of money on cards too. One of the things that I was most curious about was the corporate booths, so I headed over to them first.
The first one that I saw was Upper Deck, and I was surprised that there wasn’t that much going on there. Upper Deck did have a nice display of autographed memorabilia and a huge pair of LeBron James shoes, and a wrapper redemption program – meaning that if you bought at least five packs of an Upper Deck product at the show and opened them at the booth, you’d get five redemption cards. Panini had the same deal at their booth. I thought that there might be Upper Deck reps actively engaged in conversations with collectors about what they liked and disliked about their products, but there was nothing like that. The reps who were there didn’t even have nametags, so I couldn’t really tell who was important and who wasn’t.
My next stop was the Panini booth and it was very similar to Upper Deck, except without the memorabilia. They did have a big wheel that you could spin to win free cards, and a wrapper redemption program. On Saturday, I bought five packs of Donruss Classics football cards from Blowout Cards and opened them at the Panini booth. I pulled a nice Donald Brown auto from one of my packs, and wound up getting promo cards of Chris “Beanie” Wells and Derrick Rose in my redemption pack. On a side note, I was impressed by Classics after opening my five packs, and I heard that a lot of other collectors were getting nice hits from the product. The base cards are pretty nice too. If you’re looking to collect a football card product in 2009, Classics wouldn’t be a bad choice.
As others have noted, Topps wasn’t there, but Tristar and Razor were, along with many grading companies including PSA and Beckett. I stayed as far away from Razor’s booth as I could. I didn’t want Brian Gray to recognize me and try to argue about the critical comments that I have made about his company’s products. He’s done that several times through email, and I was at the show to have fun, not to argue with anyone. I was very impressed with PSA’s display. They had a huge case filled with high grade (PSA 8 and 9) T206 cards of Hall of Famers (but no Honus Wagner). It was an incredible sight to see in person, and they were giving away some very cool free T206 posters too. Both PSA and Beckett were accepting grading submissions at the show.
So that brings me to Beckett. I tried to stay away from their booth too, but I did walk by it a few times. Besides their grading service, I didn’t see much there besides some issues of their price guides being sold. I did recognize Chris Olds walking around, and surprisingly, there weren’t any donuts in his vicinity. Right in front of Beckett was Brian Kong’s booth. Brian Kong was there and I got to talk to him for a few minutes. He was a very nice guy, and appreciated my compliments about his sketch cards. He was selling several sketch cards and the original artwork for the Allen & Ginter inserts that he did this year. I asked about the prices for Evan Longoria and David Price. Both were in the thousands, and I politely passed on them.
Among the other companies in attendance, I was surprisingly impressed by Tristar. They sponsored the autograph pavilion, and it was run very smoothly. They were also selling photos, football helmets, footballs, baseballs, and other items to have autographed, and they had a deal where if you bought a box of their TNA wrestling cards, you could get an autograph from Kurt Angle (one of my old favorites) for “free”. I was tempted but didn’t want to pay $50 for wrestling cards that I’d probably throw away.
After checking out the corporate booths, I made it around to at least look at most of the tables on Friday. The selection was absolutely amazing. Any collector would be able to find something that they liked. There were a ton of vintage cards, many new cards too, some amazing “hits”, packs, boxes, and supplies. I found myself stopping to check out many great tobacco cards, 1930s Goudeys, and 1950s Topps and Bowman cards that were all way out of my price range, but amazing to look at in person. The National is definitely worth going to just to check out what’s there, even if you don’t even bring your wallet with you. I didn’t buy any cards on Friday, but I did pick up some supplies that I needed. Most of what I saw around the show was priced reasonably, and the dealers were more than willing to bargain and sell for fair prices. There were seemingly hundreds of dealers, and I ended up wishing that I had more time to check out every single table.
In addition to cards, I was amazed at all of the autographed memorabilia being sold. Balls, helmets, jerseys, photos – autographed by living and deceased legends – were all over the place. I couldn’t help but wonder how much of it was legit, and how anyone would know if it was legit. For me, only in-person autographs and certified autographs on cards are worth owning.
In my opinion, if you do go to The National to buy, it’s best to go with an open mind, and just browse for things that interest you, rather than going to look for specific things. Honestly, you’d have a hard time trying to find a specific card that you’re looking for because the show is so huge, and you’d be better off sticking to eBay. But you’re bound to find many impressive items that you’d like to have for the right price.
Another impressive thing about The National was an abundance of reasonably priced hobby boxes. Almost all of the big name online dealers were there, including Dave & Adam’s, Blowout Cards, Atlanta Sports Cards, and Pittsburgh Sports Cards. Due to the competition there, the boxes were priced to sell and they were all willing to negotiate on the price. On Saturday, I decided to buy a box of 2009 Allen & Ginter, and was able to get one for $74 with no tax at Blowout Cards. Most of the other dealers told me that they didn’t charge tax if you paid in cash, but they would charge tax if you paid with a credit card. Since I didn’t have much cash on me, using a credit card was my only option. Fortunately, Blowout didn’t charge tax even with a credit card, and that’s why I bought from them.
I was very impressed by the guys at Blowout. As soon as I stopped by their display, one of their reps approached me and asked what I collected and where I was from. Since Blowout is located in Virginia, and I’m in NC, he let me know that I’d be able to get anything that I order from their web site the very next day. He also gave me a coupon for 10% off a purchase of $99 or more from their site. This was in stark contrast the other hobby box dealers, who just sat back behind their tables and waited for customers to approach them with questions. As a result, Blowout will now be my first choice for any future hobby boxes that I purchase. They also handed out a bunch of free t-shirts and hats that I saw many people walking around with. I don’t think anyone at the show was better prepared to win new customers than Blowout.
Before I left on Friday, I bought my autograph tickets from the Tristar booth, and then found the lowest price on a full size, authentic Bills helmet that I could find at the show. As I mentioned earlier, seven Bills Hall of Famers would be there on Saturday – Jim Kelly, Bruce Smith, Thurman Thomas, Marv Levy, James Lofton, Billy Shaw, and Joe DeLamielleure. Only 90-year old owner Ralph Wilson and disgraced murderer O.J. Simpson were missing. I wasn’t sure if I would buy autograph tickets for all of them due to the high cost (especially for Jim Kelly and Bruce Smith), but I finally decided to go all out, and buy tickets for all seven of them. I figured that I’d never have another chance to get all of their autographs on one item, and if I skipped Kelly or Smith, I’d always think about how much better it would be with their autographs. The cost came to over $400, mainly due to Kelly and Smith being $120 each.
I woke up Saturday morning as excited as a kid on Christmas morning. I hurriedly got ready and drove down to the I-X Center with my Bills helmet in hand. From the moment I drove into the parking lot, it was obvious that the crowd was much larger on Saturday than it was on Friday, which was to be expected. There was a huge mass of people at the autograph pavilion. The autograph pavilion was run very smoothly. Basically, each ticket was numbered, and the earlier you bought the ticket (you could buy them online starting months ago), the lower your number would be, and the better your place in the autograph line would be. But even though I only bought my autograph tickets the day before, I didn’t have to wait more than 15-20 minutes for anyone.
I quickly noticed that all of the athletes were willing to pose for photos after signing, which surprised me because you could also buy a “photo” ticket for about the same price as an autograph ticket. I didn’t buy any photo tickets, but I did ask guys next to me in line to take a picture of me with each player on my camera, and each player happily posed next to me. So my advice would be to just buy an autograph ticket, and get both an autograph and your picture taken with the player, rather than wasting money on a photo ticket. It wouldn’t hurt to bring a spouse to take the pictures either.
The first autograph that I got that day was legendary coach Marv Levy. When I got to the front of the line, I approached a table where Marv was sitting next to a guy who was working there. The guy had about 10 different markers. I asked for a thick silver marker, and he handed it to Marv, and I told him where to sign the helmet. Even though he’s 84 years old and very hard of hearing, he comprehended what I was saying, and he signed and posed for a photo. After Marv Levy, I was absolutely thrilled to get autographs from two of my childhood heroes, Jim Kelly and Bruce Smith. I got to tell Jim how great he was and I got to congratulate Bruce on his 2009 Hall of Fame induction. Both were very friendly to me and all of the fans.
It was a lot of fun talking to many other Bills fans in the lines at the autograph pavilion, and see the items that they were having signed. There were also a lot of people that just wanted to get autographs of Hall of Famers from all teams. There were many incredibly impressive items that I saw. The best was a huge framed print that had been autographed by more than 100 Football Hall of Famers over many years. After getting Levy, Kelly, and Smith’s autographs on my helmet, I took a quick break for lunch.
While in line for a slice of pizza, I looked around the floor, and out of the corner of my eye, I saw a guy with a “Beckett Sucks” shirt, who I immediately recognized as Rob from Voice of the Collector. I got out of line and chased him down. Rob and I had a great conversation, and it was awesome to meet another great blogger. Mario from Wax Heaven is also a member of the exclusive club of bloggers that I’ve met in person (I met him in Florida in March).
After lunch, I added the autographs of Thurman Thomas, Billy Shaw, James Lofton, and Joe DeLamielleure to my helmet. Everyone signed using the same type of marker and signed where I asked them to. The helmet looks incredible, and it’s definitely something that I’ll keep forever and pass down to my kids some day. I saved some room for future Hall of Famer Andre Reed, and a couple others who might make the Hall eventually. Another cool thing is that everyone except Kelly and Smith could do free inscriptions. You had to pay an additional $30 for Kelly and Smith to add an inscription, which I didn’t think was worth it. So Kelly just added his #12 and Smith added his #78 to their signatures. However, Thurman Thomas inscribed “HOF ’07” and “91 MVP” for me, Levy did “HOF ’01”, Lofton “HOF ’03”, DeLamielleure “HOF ’03” and “Electric Co.” (the nickname of the Bills offensive line in the 1970s), and Shaw inscribed “HOF ’99” and “64+65 AFL Champs”. My dad was thrilled to hear about the “64+65 AFL Champs” inscription because those championships occurred when he was a kid, and those are the only two major league championships that a Buffalo team has ever won.
After getting all of the autographs, I bought my Allen & Ginter box from Blowout, and then decided that I needed to buy at least one single card before I left the show. I settled on a Harmon Killebrew on-card autograph from 2000 Upper Deck Legendary Signatures for $10. I’m slowly building a collection of Baseball Hall of Famer autographed cards, and Killebrew makes a nice addition at a great price.
When it was all said and done, The National was a great experience, and I’d recommend that every collector try to attend at least once in their lives. Whether you’re a card collector, an autograph collector, or both, you’ll definitely find a lot of amazing stuff, and meet some great people from the hobby. As I said earlier, I don’t know how this year’s National compared to past events, but I thoroughly enjoyed it. Hopefully the organizers will find better ways to market it – I was surprised that I didn’t see any billboards or advertisements anywhere to promote the show. Lower admission prices and parking prices would be nice too. There were definitely a ton of people there on Saturday, but the huge facility could have accommodated even more. The organizers should do everything that they can do maximize the number of people who attend. Because The National is such a spectacular event, the more people who attend, the better the future of our hobby will be.
Next year’s National will be in Baltimore, and it just so happens that my dad lives in Baltimore, so I have a free place to stay. You can bet that I’ll be there at the 2010 National – maybe I’ll see you there!