Chase the Base?

Author: Todd Uncommon

Contained in responses to a “state of the hobby” thread today on SCU, the discussion largely turned again towards whether the hobby would do better to market directly to kids, or to just assume that someone older always buys the cards.  Is it true that kids today don’t buy them with their own money, and might get them only in some sort of trickle-down effect of collectibles?

It is very hard not to extrapolate personal experience as a kid too far into the present. The target market for cards had always been kids, at least until 1989. I think it is safe to say that Upper Deck’s debut with premium cards at premium prices started the end of the kid-budget era.

In 1981, whatever money I got as a kid–allowance, small job, gifts, recycling proceeds, even found change–easily would pay for a fistful of card packs at the counter of my local supermarket or drug store. 25, 35 or 40 cents didn’t take long to add up to buy just one.

Back when 30¢ could get you 15 best friends (and a sticker!). For a while. Maybe.

Today, “retail” options are pretty much limited to discount mega-chains like Target and Walmart, and that same fistful of packs basically come prepackaged in a blaster for $20. Even accounting for inflation, those prices (for arguably less desirable product than hobby edition) are out of reach for any frequency on a kid’s budget, so I am convinced that it is more often some adult’s money that really is the revenue source.

I have to give credit to the card makers for actually trying to make lower-cost products in an attempt to get closer to kids’ budgets: Upper Deck Victory, First Edition, Topps Total, Opening Day, etc. to name a few.  As much of a nostalgic note as it strikes with me to have 99 cent pack options on the store shelves, there is also one inescapable truth. Nobody wants these products.

Why?  Well, the allure of pricier brands is strong, and their lottery-style hits are glitzier than those from these budget brands, even if the cheaper sets have them at all.  Add the fact that with some of these lower cost products, you really can see the quality reduction to meet that price point. UD First Edition is an awful product; it’s basically the standard set, but with the attractive life in it sucked out so it could be sent back in time and sold into Cold War-era Bulgaria.

In trying to think as a kid, I can see why they might spend their three bucks on one pack of Yu-Gi-Oh! or M:TG with a guaranteed rare / shiny / powerful card in the mix, compared to three packs of stodgy, limp looking cardboard.

Hi! Magicians and clowns use me for flash paper at birthday parties!

Topps Total sometimes felt like it was printed on notebook paper, the cards were so thin.  Who wants these when somebody’s richer friends are getting at least flagship to high-priced and shiny cards from their mom, dad, or designated guardian?

I think the secret is not in finding a cheaper price for kids to afford.  What needs to happen, and I don’t know if it’s even possible at this point, is to make base cards desirable again.  Let’s face it, base cards are basically packing material for wide distribution of the hits these days.  Decoy support.  No better than gum, stickers, puzzle pieces, team logo holograms, or lenticular trivia cards used to be.

Now that overall populations of hits like autos and relics are in a glut, to the extent that you can get 4/$10 at your local card shop, the status of the base cards, even in the priciest of wax boxes, has fallen even further.

What "mojo hitz" looked like when your uncle was a boy.

To use my frame of reference as a kid in the 80s, finding the ’81 Fleer Fernand(o), the ’84 Topps Mattingly, or the ’85 Topps Gooden in a  40 cent pack *was* the hit.  Sure, that aspect of getting a lottery hit was present, even back then.  However, today, the lottery ticket appeal is actively marketed, rather than being a market effect of its own accord based on player or team popularity.

The last great base card?

Is making base cards the new chase cards even possible? I think the last time base cards were desirable on their own was 1990 Leaf.  If you got a 1990 Leaf Frank Thomas, you were doing really well.  Since then, chase cards, inserts, parallels, autos, and relics have all come and gone as gimmicks, taking our eyes off the mark of collecting “base” cards just because we like them, not because of what we think the inserts might be worth to someone else.



  1. I think it’s time to stop comparing cards of today to how they used to be. Nothing else has stayed the same over the past 20 years, why should baseball cards??

    Creative designs will drive base cards, not scarcity. People don’t collect them now because they’re boring and use lazy designs and rehashed photos. Why should I chase base cards in a 2010 set that use the same pictures as cards in 09 and 08 sets?

  2. I remember trading my Leaf Frank Thomas for a whole box of Topps. I think that may have been the last box I busted for twenty years. The card companies should focus on attracting the collectors that left the hobby in the early ’90’s and the other kids that used to collect and grew up and now have the money to spend.

  3. I think there should be sets that are cheaper for kids, and then high end stuff geared towards us “adults”. I thought UDx had a step in the right direction, $30 a box, shiny insets in each pack and base cards with alot going on in terms of the design. The problem now is though, that cards have to compete with stuff like X-Box and Blu-Ray and action figures that fight by themselves. It’s tough to make cardboard do that…

  4. There are a number of collectors out that that are truly collectors who appreciate a solidly designed based card or a base card of their favorite player, but their is also and always will be the “prospector” who buys simply based on the money they will make. Auto’d and jersey cards are more attractive to those “collectors” due to the inflated prices arbitrarily assigned by book value/price guides.

  5. As a kid that can afford this kind of higher end stuff, I feel as if the only people who care about base cards are the set collectors. But, I still feel great when I pull a Yankee or rookie card, even just as a base card. Most adults however I assume, could probably care less. I think the main problem here is the price, I don’t care about base when I buy a $20 pack of Sweet Spot or a $15 pack of Stadium Club, nobody cares at that price. There’s got to be a way to make the hobby affordable again.

  6. I couldn’t agree more. Base cards are set aside these days in favour of the hits.
    I have noticed that base cards from high price products can be purchased cheap. I happen to be a set builder. I do enjoy the inserts as they oftem are a subset but I have no use for the memorabilia cards and sticker autograph cards. To me they are just that. Autographed stickers stuck to a card.

  7. As I have mentioned in other Blogs, the value of the cards has shifted from the collector to the manufacturer. Remember every Mickey Mantle that was sold in 1952 was bought for a penny. In the 1980s as you mentioned you could get hits for for 40 cents. The manufacturer decide they wanted a piece in the esculating value of the cards. The began selling more expenses packs (5, 10 100 dollars) that were yielding cards that were 1/4 the values of the packs. Most cards lost value as soon as you opened the pack and the Hits (auto and mem) may have been intially hot but they rapidly lose value (like a new card – get a beckett from 5 years ago and look how most prices dropped – Heck Beckett does not even publish values of cards from 5 years ago).

    2010 Bowman are the first cards in about 25 years that the value of cards inside the packs may exceed the price and that is basically because of Strasberg and Topps exclusive license it has been a perfect storm the hobby had not seen in a long time.

  8. Seriously, do kids even collect baseball cards anymore? When I was in school in the 80’s and 90’s, all of my friends collected and I would bring cards to school to trade. I don’t see that anymore. As much as I hate to say it, football seems to be the cool sport these days, and Yu-gi-oh is the trading card of choice.

    If we want kids to collect baseball cards again, we need cards that kids can do something with. Why would a kid drop $20 for useless cardboard that none of their friends collect? Kids collect Yu-gi-oh because they can battle their friends with the cards. Topps Attax looks to me like a step in the right direction for getting kids back into the hobby.

    A second thing that needs to happen is parents need to actively promote baseball to their kids. Take them to games, play catch, take them to the batting cage, play baseball video games with them… these are all things that my dad did for me when I was a kid and it helped me to enjoy collecting baseball cards.

    It’s not as simple as providing base cards at affordable prices. Baseball needs to become cool again, and collecting baseball cards needs to become fun again.

  9. On my opinion past cards are good enough as well as today. There are no comparison between the two because they both have different era’s. One is part of the history and one is the present and soon will come the future. I am wondering now what was the future card looks like.. hmmmm.. been wondering much i guess.

  10. Thinking about it a bit further, the one thing I do see kids (guessing age ranges from 9 to 17, give or take) do, is play gaming cards. Whenever I walk by a board / table game shop in a mall, or happen upon one attached to an independent bookstore (like Auntie’s books / Uncle’s games in the Northwest), there is a group of kids playing some kind of card game at a bunch of tables either inside or in front of the store. Sometimes they’re tournaments, and other times just a weekly gaming day. It seems they are usually playing Yu-Gi-Oh!, Bakugan, M:TG, and the occasional Pokemon holdouts.

    Compare that to the rarity of traffic in general in the card shops I go to, much less how much traffic they get for anyone under 20. If there’s a way to get younger folks engaged in sports cards again, then the right combination of factors in a collectible card game might be successful.

  11. plain and simple, the reason kids don’t collect, is money, period. You cannot compare the 80’s and early 90’s with today. A pack of cards was 25 cents in 1987 when I started, then it went to 1.00 to 2.50 to where it is today and for what basically base cards. The era’s were different as well though 88 you had 3 sets and in 89 5 that’s it folks, easy simple and affordable, with today how many releases and how much, hits or no hits, plain and simple, it’s all card board, but for kids it’s easier to just buy something that has more life than just sitting on a shelf.

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