Sometimes it’s best to just keep it simple.
Card collecting was pretty straight forward in the late 1980’s. Maybe not bicycle spoke 1950’s simplistic, but pretty basic. Every spring, fresh new wax boxes would show up at your local Ben Franklin’s or local drugstore, maybe multiple brands if you were lucky. Most of us could con mom or dad into spending 50 cents at the counter for a pack of cards. For those lucky enough to live in town (I was not one of these) you might even be able to ride your bike down to the store and spend what money you had saved up for some cards and candy (the importance of candy in the life of kids aged 5 to 12 cannot be understated).
Topps was easy to spot in that familiar wrapper, just with a different color each year. There was no controversy over what would be on the set checklist, because we already knew. No autograph lists to scour, no parallels to account for. The only redemption you had to worry about was saving enough wrappers to send in for a T-shirt. In most cases, we didn’t even have to worry about what players were in what series because most brands only had one series of packs. Just grab a handful, ride home, rip, and trade. Topps knew how to keep it simple. Oh, how times have changed.
That’s not to say that everything was better back then (purists would argue this). Choices were obviously much more limited, and there were few surprises. With the exception of glossy Tiffany editions, there wouldn’t be a market for “premium” sets until the early 90’s. This was an exciting time for the hobby and I still remember with great fondness the excitement that sets like 1990 Leaf and 91 Stadium Club brought with them. For the first time, collectors didn’t know what to expect. New product offerings were devoured upon release with the anticipation of finding the next “big thing”.
Unfortunately, as most of you know you can indeed have too much of a good thing, and the relentless barrage of new products led to a market cleanse of sorts; the Beckett Price Guide started taking on the thickness of a phone directory and collectors needed them not for card pricing but simply as a reference to keep from drowning in the sea of mediocrity that was flooding the hobby. This would ultimately culminate in the card market crash, and the result is the single licensed manufacturer monopoly that we have today. You might think a single license would “keep it simple,” but quite the opposite has happened. One thing that hasn’t changed is the anticipation of new releases, and more recently, confusion surrounding set checklists.
There have been various gimmicks over the years including the 2007 Jeter/Mantle/G.W.Bush card and the Strasburg million card giveaway card in 2010, but the chaos really kicked into high gear with the release of the 2012 Bryce Harper Series 2 SP. We’ve gone from worrying whether your favorite set would have a Ken Griffey Jr. RC in the base set or traded set, to whether your favorite rookie will have an attainable base card or not. This year is no different with the announcement of action variation cards for Ronald Acuña Jr. and Gleyber Torres being inserted in 2018 Topps Series 2.
There has been much debate about the practice of what many perceive as “gimmicking” rookie cards simply to boost sales on Series 2 which is historically a low buzz product. Topps Heritage, a favorite among set collectors and vintage enthusiasts also routinely includes multiple SP high number cards in their sets each year, to the chagrin of many “hardcore” collectors who may not have the budget to hunt down every tough to find card. Meanwhile, on the other end of the spectrum we have people spending $25,000 on a briefcase who think this whole debate is silly. The fact that I just wrote that last sentence means the hobby is at minimum healthier than it has been in a long time, right? But are these escalating prices and success sustainable? That’s the million dollar question.
I’m not here to argue one way or the other, as I can see both sides of the argument to a degree. But one thing that can’t be argued is the phenomenal success of the 2011 Update Mike Trout RC. The loaded set has quickly become the equivalent of 86 Topps Traded for this generation, and is a great example of how cards don’t have to be SP’ed to be a hit with collectors or retain value. As the autograph market becomes more and more saturated, many collectors may flock to the base RC as an affordable refuge from high end boxes, and also for grading opportunities.
The one thing in my mind that would throw a wrench into all this is the resurgence of SSP flagship rookie cards. If you have to look up a Wikipedia article just to figure out whether you have a true RC or not, maybe we’re overthinking things a bit. Or maybe I just like to keep it simple.
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