Friday, August 7, 2009

Win for Topps is a Win for the Kid in All of Us

It was the summer of 1984. I was 9 years old at the time. My buddy, Mike and I were in Walgreens one Sunday afternoon, with his mother. She took us there to buy some baseball cards. Cards back then cost $.35 a pack. You got 15 Topps baseball cards and a stale piece of gum. Mike and I bought 10 packs of cards each and went back to his house to open them up. We sat on his bedroom floor and ripped open the packs. We read through the cards the same way fantasy geeks (myself included) read through their fantasy line-ups today. Tim Raines, Will Clark, Jack Clark, Cal Ripken, Bill Madlock. Then Mike and I got our respective crowned jewels. He opened a pack that had the Darryl Strawberry rookie card, and I opened a pack with the Don Mattingly rookie card. We were both so excited. These two cards were the prized possessions in the 1984 Topps set.

A couple days later, my excitement was tempered somewhat. I had picked up a copy of Beckett Baseball Card Monthly - a magazine that gave out the values of each baseball card. I quickly thumbed to the page that listed the 1984 Topps cards. Mike's Strawberry rookie card was worth $35 (with an up arrow next to it, signifying that this card was on the rise and would continue to gain in value). My Mattingly rookie card was only worth $12 (with no arrow next to it). I was confused and frustrated. I kept thumbing through the magazine in search of an answer. Listed on a couple pages prior, I found my answer. There was a Donruss 1984 set. The Don Mattingly rookie card in the Donruss set was worth $85 according to the Beckett magazine. That was the first time I realized that cards were no longer just cards anymore. This had become big business. The second time I realized this was a week later, when I went to a baseball card store in Coral Square Mall with my father and went to buy a pack of 1984 Donruss cards....and they were $3.75. My father bought me a couple packs. I didn't get the Mattingly card I was looking for, and left the card store very disappointed.

Over the course of the next four years, Topps, Donruss, and another card company - Fleer, began to saturate the market with cards. Not only did we now have 3 different card companies, but Topps began producing what was called a Topps Traded series and Fleer produced the Fleer Update series. It became cloudy as to which cards were the most valuable and increasingly frustrating for a child. Then, in 1989, baseball cards would be changed forever.....and not for the good. A new company, Upper Deck premiered. And their premier card in their first year was the Ken Griffey, Jr. rookie card. This card vaulted as high as $250 in value and put Upper Deck on the map as a legitimate card company. Over the next twenty years, Upper Deck and Topps continued to try to one-up each other in the card business by putting out "special series" cards and everything possible under the sun to out-do the other. The one positive that came out of this was that Donruss and Fleer (and some of the other fly by night cards) went away. But this war between Topps and Upper Deck led to a flooding of the market that killed the card industry. Card values plummeted and the frustration over all the different types of cards to get led to kids turning to collecting other things.

On Wednesday, however, I felt like I got a piece of my youth back. MLB signed an exclusive deal with Topps to produce its baseball cards. It is a multi year deal that should make collecting baseball cards a lot easier and a lot more fun again. Kudos to Michael Eisner (CEO of Disney, who purchased Topps in 2007) for getting this done. I don't know if cards can ever get back to where they were in the 1970s and 1980s, but if they are going to, this was exactly what needed to happen in order to get it done.

Topps has been very innovative over the years. Recently, they jumped into UFC trading cards, and that end of the business has taken off with the growing popularity of the UFC. And now, if Topps can use their new exclusivity with MLB to resurrect the baseball card business from the dead, a new generation of sports fans may very well have something worth collecting. This old collector has high hopes for this deal. Oh and Mike, no I won't trade you my Mattingly card for your Strawberry card now.

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