Opinion: Child's play that might have brought in millions of dollars

Vintage baseball cards have fluctuated in value over the years, but some can be worth millions of dollars.

Vintage baseball cards have fluctuated in value over the years, but some can be worth millions of dollars.

File photo

The tranquil memories of my carefree trading-card collecting were disrupted this past April when the intense bidding for Tom Brady’s rookie card led to an eventual sale for $2.25 million. I never considered the financial value of trading cards, nor did other youthful participants in my locale appear to do so. The realization carried me back to my primary-school years, prompting musings about that version of child’s play.

Our youthful trio of collectors developed a routine. Most Saturday mornings and sometimes after school, we would meet in the nearby “triangle,” a three-sided weedy patch where a side road divided when entering a highway. We meandered over a half-mile up the hilly country road to a popular convenience store, bringing all the coins we could muster — in my case from a 25-cent weekly allowance, occasionally increased when my mother responded to a last-minute plea for a few more nickels.

Once inside, we greeted the two young men in charge, whom I’m calling the Slater brothers — smiling and mischievous, especially Paul, whose chubby frame jiggled with mirth while guiding the obscenity-laden banter. If an adult entered, the first of us to notice barked out our primal warning — “Not today.”

Such distractions in check, we turned to business, buying cheap bubble-gum packs containing several baseball cards. An amiable competition usually broke out, with the brothers initiating it by giving each of us a bonus pack; we retaliated by buying another, and they responded again, invariably winning out.

Besides purchasing cards, a youthful collector could trade or compete for them. At recess, several of us would engage in that era’s version of “flipping cards,” with the winner in a two- or three-boy challenge being the one getting closest to the side of the school building. If two contestants’ flips ended upright against the wall, they tied as “leaners,” requiring replay.

The activity occurred soon after Major League Baseball’s racial integration, with only a scattering of Black and Hispanic players appearing on cards. While never getting Jackie Robinson’s or Joe DiMaggio’s, I eventually received Babe Ruth’s, even then a big deal. There were many requests to trade multiple cards for it, but I opted out.

Our playing-card activity spanned three years. After sixth grade, I entered a school with a demanding academic program that ended such childhood activities as leisurely walks to the convenience store. The collection, about 650 cards, stayed in rubber-banded packets inside a crowded open trunk in a corner of my bedroom and was abandoned and largely forgotten when one of my brothers occupied the room upon my departure for college.

Decades later, a writer indicated that since childhood he had saved hundreds of baseball cards. He explained, “[S]omewhere in my mind lies the assumption — childish but still deeply held — that decades from now I’ll be able to sell the contents of that box for a modest fortune.” Why didn’t my contemporaries and I share such misconceptions?

While our collections served as a pleasant childhood pastime, the cards were neither particularly attractive nor effectively informative about the players, not proving very popular. Then in 1952, just as we quit collecting, Sy Berger, the Topps Company’s marketing chief, created a design that revolutionized baseball cards and provided a dazzling standard for competitors to emulate, later extending the model to include football, basketball and hockey pros. A journalist noted that Topps featured “colorful, up-close photographs of the players, facsimile autographs, team logos, hard-to-come-by statistics and mini-biographies.”

Berger indicated that for over a decade, the business had focused on selling gum. “Never, in a million years, did any of us think that baseball card collecting would become such a big part of American culture.” Suddenly the Topps leadership shifted the priority. Berger concluded, “The cards became the thing.”

Over time, trading cards’ popularity has fluctuated. During the pandemic, Tom Brady’s has hardly been the only card skyrocketing in value. Finding income abruptly reduced, sports fans have turned in record numbers to dealing in trading cards to make money, with seven of the 10 most expensive sold at that time.

Nowadays it seems likely that sports enthusiasts, including the celebrated, will continue to recognize trading cards’ worth, often happily holding on to them. When LeBron James read on Instagram that his rookie card sold for $1.8 million, he replied, “Guess who has a couple of those exact ones too[?]” A reporter suggested that if James ever found himself financially challenged, the cards could prove invaluable.

Chris Doob is an emeritus professor of sociology at Southern Connecticut State University and the author of a variety of books involving sociology and sports.