From Left Field: The cardboard jungle

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By The Staff

By Jimmie Earls

Sun Sports Writer

As I was recently unpacking after moving into my new house in Springfield, I ran across a baseball card binder full of my Cincinnati Reds team sets. I’ve collected Reds cards since 1973 and have witnessed a big change in the trading card industry over the past 35 years.

When I was a kid, they were simply called trading cards; the term “collector” never entered our minds. We made deals for cards we wanted, and the value of that card was determined by what you were willing to give in trade. No cash ever changed hands, and we never even heard of a Beckett guide.

I never paid more than 15 cents for a single pack of cards in my life when I was young. Back in those days, there was only one company – Topps. Other companies tried to compete, but Topps pretty much had a monopoly on the industry.

What I love about my card collection is its history. I can look at Bill Plummer’s 1976 Topps card and remember exactly what was going on when I first pulled it from a wax pack. The back of my 1977 Tony Perez card still smells like the piece of bubblegum that rested against it in the pack. It's a piece of nostalgia that brings back a wave of memories. I acquired my 1973 Johnny Bench card by trading for it, not by paying a king's ransom to some guy who kept all his cards locked in a glass display case.

I stopped buying packs of cards in 1978. I didn’t start buying again until 1991, when the hobby was evolving into a collector’s market rather than one for hobbyists. During the 1980s, the price of wax packs escalated from cents per pack to dollars per pack, especially now that the four major companies (Topps, Fleer, Donruss and Upper Deck) were inserting autographed chase cards into packs, their version of Willy Wonka’s “golden ticket.”

Out of protest, I stopped buying packs again in the mid-90s. I couldn’t handle how greedy the hobby had become. It lost its innocence, its purity, its fun.

Thanks to a little Internet company called eBay, I discovered an economical and practical way to get my Cincinnati Reds baseball card fix. Several sellers were offering team sets for sale. For roughly five dollar plus shipping, I could get every Reds card from a particular company for a specific year, instead of spending that money on five packs and being lucky to get even one Reds card.

A single pack of Topps 2008 regular series baseball cards will set you back $1.99 plus tax. I recently bought the complete Reds team set from the 2008 Topps series for $3.85 on eBay. That's less than the cost of buying two packs retail. And out of that amount, $2.40 was for shipping! I got a complete team set for less than the price of one pack of cards.

While I was in a local store the other day, I decided to try several Topps products to see how far the industry has come. I bought four packs of cards and my total with tax came to just over $10. I immediately had the feeling that I had been mugged. Ten dollars for four packs of baseball cards? Did anyone get the license plate of that bus?

Pack #1, priced at $1.99, was from Topps' 2008 regular issue base set. This pack contained 10 cards, not one of them a Cincinnati Reds card.

Pack #2, priced at $2.99, was from Topps’ 2008 Heritage series and contained eight cards plus a sealed stick of bubble gum. This series features current players on cards that resemble vintage Topps cards from the 1950s. I really love the feel and design of this series, but the price is too high for my liking. There were no Reds cards in this pack either. I ended up buying the team set on eBay for $2.99 plus $2.95 shipping.

*Topps has once again started printing single print (SP) cards, meaning there are less of these cards on the market. My 2008 Heritage team set did not include Adam Dunn or Ryan Freel but I did end up buying each on eBay for roughly $5 each, which is still less than buying four packs for a complete team set.

Pack #3, priced at $1.99, was from Topps’ 2008 Opening Day series and included six cards plus a stick of gum. The design of this series is similar to the regular series, only using a red card front instead of white. Finally, I pulled an Adam Dunn card from a pack!

The fourth and final pack, priced at $2.99, was a rack pack from Topps’ 2007 regular series. The rack pack contained 22 cards plus a stick of bubble gum. I’m not crazy about the 2007 card design, which consists of boring black cards with silver lettering. Again, not a single Reds card out of 22 cards in this pack.

In the end, my $10 got me one Adam Dunn Reds card. And as much as I like Adam Dunn, I feel like I was ripped off.

Sadly, the collectors' market has ruined the hobby for kids over the past couple of decades. Kids open packs using protective gloves and handle cards like they were made of nitroglycerin. The cards go from the pack into a top loader card protector or a binder page. Where’s the fun in the hobby these days?

Sure, my card collection isn’t perfect. There are several cards with rounded corners, some with wax stains and some that have yellowed over the decades, but I wouldn’t trade these cards for their versions in mint condition because I have no history with the mint cards.

I still pull my cards out of their protective pages now and then and read the fun facts or cartoons on the back. I’m not out to make a fast buck or two by finding the hottest card on the market and extorting money from someone for a piece of glossy cardboard.

My Reds cards have been with me season after season, and like myself, have seen better times. But I wouldn’t trade them for a single mint 1952 Topps Mickey Mantle.

Well, on second thought…