This 'GM' Has All the Stars, If Only He Could Find Them

Eat your heart out, Jack McKeon. I have to tell you about a trade I once made.

Sitting on the curb in front of the old homestead on Osborn Road in Lansing, Mich., I shifted a golf ball-sized chaw of bubble gum from one cheek to the other and put together a package the other "general manager" did not have the sense to refuse.

I surrendered Reno Bertoia, Wayne Belardi, Jim Brideweser, Jim Delsing, Ernie Oravetz and maybe even Steve Boros, pleading all the while what a sacrifice it was. In exchange, I received Willie Mays.

Now don't tell me I must be kidding. This was serious stuff. These were baseball cards.

Those were innocent days, when packages with a few cards and a slab of gum sold for 5 at the soda fountain. Neither the cards nor the gum were greatly appreciated by fourth- and fifth-grade teachers.

I graduated from cigar boxes to shoe boxes as my collection grew, shunting the old ones aside at about this time each year. After all, they would be out-dated by the approaching season.

Like most youngsters, I thought myself a serious collector. Not an investor. A collector.

Times have changed. I am sure there are youngsters today who collect as haphazardly as I collected, but baseball cards have gone the way of baseball.

This is business, baby.

A publication called Baseball Hobby News landed in the sports department this week. I looked through 80 pages of stories and advertising and came away with the conclusion that collecting baseball cards has become as much of a hobby as buying stock options or bidding on hog futures.

This tabloid is published in San Diego, but definitely national in scope. Being the local heroes did not cause the Padres to get any favors when it comes to the hard and fast world of baseball card cash. After all, this is the national pastime--and a national marketplace.

Indeed, one of the articles in the March issue was an analysis of which players 29 and under figure to put together the best career statistics. Why? If I understand correctly, their baseball cards will someday be more valuable.

Take this look at Garry Templeton, who has 1,452 hits at the age of 29: "Tempy will probably get 2,500 career hits, superb for a shortstop. For a 1977 rookie who most dealers are virtually giving away, he is a bargain."

For some reason I can't fathom, baseball cards from a player's rookie year are more valuable than the ensuing years--assuming the player himself becomes more valuable, and successful, in ensuing years.

For example, I found an advertisement offering Templeton's 1977 card for $1.75. I flipped a page and found that I could buy 800--that's right--1984 Templeton cards for $8. That same advertisement offered 800 of Carmelo Martinez's 1984 cards for $100. Why? Because he was a rookie.

This is what I call betting on futures. This is what I call optioning future commodities.

This is not what I call "hobby."

I wish, for example, that I had invested one cent each on 1,000 Steve Garvey cards when he was a rookie in 1971. Those cards, at a current $39.95 each, would be worth $39,950. Garv can earn that much spending an afternoon doing a commercial, but it's not a bad return on an investment.

Rookie cards for Rich Gossage (1973, $4.25), Graig Nettles (1969, $4.50) and Tony Gwynn (1983, $4) cost about the same, but guess which one is the best investment. If I am reading these commodities tables correctly, Gwynn is young enough--and good enough--to substantially increase the value of that all-important rookie card.

Before I understood the consequence of a rookie card's value, I had been astonished to see that a 1985 Ozzie Guillen card was worth 95 cents and a 1985 LaMarr Hoyt was worth a mere 20 cents. I wondered if this was in some less-than-subtle way a suggestion from the nation's card collectors that McKeon had made a bum deal. Guillen, of course, was a rookie.

Another dealer offered a complete line of 1986 bubble gum cards. Not a complete set, but rather a complete line.

The highest individual prices were for Dwight Gooden and Vince Coleman, at $1.15 each. Gwynn was the highest-priced Padre at 20 cents, followed by Garvey at 15 cents and Lance McCullers at 5 cents. Anyone else could be had for 3 cents or less. McCullers was at a premium because he is technically a rookie.

Apparently, mistakes are as valuable as selected rookies or future Hall of Famers. These collectors jump on mistakes like Gwynn jumps on hanging curve balls. These people must have some vulture in them.

Cards with either blank backs or blank fronts seem to have premium value. I wonder if a card which is blank on both sides is worth twice as much?

One of the bubble gum companies apparently committed an E-5 on a Graig Nettles card in 1981. An advertisement said: "C. Nettles, '81, wax pack box, 38 pack per box, $11.50 per box." Don't ask me exactly what it is you get for $11.50, but I guarantee you Graig is spelled Craig.

A 1974 Washington set also caught my eye. This collectors' item included 15 players and was advertised for $65. This particular set has value because Ray Kroc bought those same players, and a few others, for $10 million and kept them in San Diego. Thus, a gum company issued a set of Washington Whatevers who never played a game in Washington.

I don't have a Washington Whatever set, nor do I have a Craig Nettles or a blank front Tony Gwynn or Steve Garvey. In fact, I don't have any card issued in the last 25 years.

That's right. All of my cards are that old. I am sure I have a 1953 Willie Mays ($398) and a 1954 Ted Williams ($594) and maybe even a 1952 Mickey Mantle ($2,280). I was such an outstanding general manager, I know I have them.


I just hope my parents don't think I am being anti-social when I disappear into their attic the next time I visit. I know those cards are there. I didn't give up Reno Bertoia, Wayne Belardi, Jim Brideweser, Jim Delsing, Ernie Oravetz and maybe even Steve Boros for nothing.

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