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Baseball Cards: Innocence Has Grounded Out

<i> Miller is a Times staff writer</i>

As a kid, I collected baseball cards, those cardboard staples of American boyhood. This hobby fit somewhere between playing with Lincoln Logs and secretly stockpiling Playboy magazines.

What aging baseball fan can’t recall the midsummer’s delight of exchanging a nickel for a pack, eager hands ripping the wrapper off to see if you got a favorite player, and then popping that brittle pink bubble gum into your mouth?

You held that color picture of your hero in hand. Bat cocked. Poised in the windup. Crouched in the field (OK, so they were hardly action shots). Check out those statistics on the back (yes, Sandy Koufax did strike out 306 batters in 1963). And, sometimes, there was something extra, like a trivia question. Rub the card with a penny to get the answer.

Today, there is nothing trivial about baseball cards, which have become the home run commodity of the 1980s. This decade they have outperformed all other comparable investments, including corporate bonds, common stocks, stamps and coins, according to an analysis by two finance professors recently published in Money magazine.

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Baseball cards?

Indeed. Prices for complete annual sets have skyrocketed 35% a year since 1981; a single rare memento sold for $110,000; insurance policies are written for vault-secure collections; popular cards have been counterfeited, and, in the words of one card pro, “Condition is king.”

A popular poster at the proliferating shows where cards are bought and sold depicts a woman tossing out a box of old cards. It’s titled: “The Great American Tragedy.”

Trading in this memorabilia has become the sport of hard-core investors. The national pastime has teamed up with the national obsession and, if you have the cash, you too can swing for the financial fences.

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In my day, buying the cards was like tossing out the first ball. Then it was time to play with them. We traded ‘em. Flipped ‘em. Slipped ‘em into bicycle spokes.

The adolescent collector of the 1980s would sooner sacrifice his MTV or VCR than subject his cards to such abuse.

Kids today treat their goods like museum pieces. Cards are placed in protective plastic envelopes and held in loose-leaf notebooks. That’s if they are opened at all: Some investors buy packs or whole sets of a year’s cards and never unseal them.

In another reversal, today’s young hobbyist does not focus on collecting favorite players or teams. He is more likely to follow the game so he can discover future stars and hoard their cards as a hedge against inflation. The soaring price of a player’s card adds luster to his stardom, especially if you’ve got a material investment in his career.

I can’t help but feel that something is being lost amid all this gain, even as a beneficiary whose 1960s cards are now highly valued. The bottom line has pinch hit for the fan’s love of the lore; innocence is out.

I recently told an avid 11-year-old hobbyist that when I was his age, I wasn’t satisfied just to collect the cards. At my father’s suggestion, I sent them to players I admired and asked them to grace the cards with an autograph. How exciting it was to come home from school and check the mailbox for those coveted replies.

Mickey Mantle (twice), Bob Gibson, Roger Maris, Yogi Berra, Casey Stengel, Whitey Ford and Koufax came through. I felt a personal tie to these heroes of the diamond; they had held my card and left their mark.

Nearly two decades later, I thought my friend would savor this experience too, so I wrote to four of today’s stars and told them about a young fan who would love to have their autograph.

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Only later did I learn that this too has become big business. Players charge upward of $10 per signature at baseball card shows. In fact, Jose Canseco, the Oakland slugger, reported late to spring training because he was out cashing in on his John Hancock, an example of how incredibly upside down the sports world has become.

I got only one response. The Official Don Mattingly Fan Club informed me that for $12.95 I could receive an official membership certificate and card, a quarterly newsletter and a “full color, 8x10 signature photo” of the Yankee star. I’ll bet the autograph is stamped on.

I think I’ll pass.


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