A Publishing Home Run Was in the Cards for Baseball Collector Couple : Magazine: Baseball Hobby News has grown from a small newspaper to a monthly with a circulation of 73,000.

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Twelve years ago, Vivian and Frank Barning came to the conclusion that, as long as they had to go to work every day, they might as well enjoy it.

The Barnings didn't immediately quit the jobs they had, but they didn't wait long. Three months after getting Baseball Hobby News off the ground, their hobby became their business.

A big business it is, too. With Vivian, 43, as publisher and Frank, 48, as editor, the San Diego-based publication has burgeoned from a 16-page newspaper to a 138-page oversize magazine with a slick, full-color cover and a monthly circulation of 73,000. With the January issue, it became available on magazine racks throughout the country.

Published out of the couple's Kearny Mesa offices, Baseball Hobby News--which sells for $2.95 per issue or $19.95 per year--has a full-time staff of six, including the Barnings, and 16 contributing writers spread across the country.

Before making the leap into business, Vivian taught school and Frank was a sportswriter and sports public relations man.

They lived at the time in Glen Cove, N. Y., and if Vivian hadn't spotted a small ad in the Sporting News, they might be there still.

"It was 1975," she said. "I saw this ad about a baseball card show coming up, and we had both been collectors as preteens. For some reason, we had stopped completely, so Frank wanted no part of it. He said that stuff was all in the past.

"Well, I insisted. I said, 'We're going.' And I literally dragged him to that show. Frank's expectations were that there would be 20 tables of weird-looking guys selling cards, but there were actually over 100 tables of a vast array of materials. We even saw one buyer with a trunk full of cards.

"It was amazing. Before long, I could see Frank's attitude changing."

"I fell in love with the memories," Frank recalled. "I hadn't seen this stuff since the '50s. We became collectors."

The Barnings got so serious about collecting that before long, they were selling cards out of their home and at shows.

"We began selling cards in '76," Frank said. "After we started the publication (three years later), the card business supported us while it wasn't making money."

The Barnings kicked around the idea of putting out a hobby-oriented paper for some time before taking the big step.

"There were a couple of publications on sports collecting at the time," Frank said, "but I could see possibilities in entering the field.

"I had a background in sportswriting and sports PR, and a lot of people were getting into collecting cards, but they were making mistakes. They would pay three times as much as a card was worth, or they would trade cards for cards of lesser value. There were no price guides then."

He figured there was a market for a publication establishing what was a good investment and what wasn't.

Still, the project was no more than a topic for discussion until Vivian swung into action again.

"After a couple of months of kicking the thing around, I told Frank to put up or shut up," she said. "I told him to do it or stop talking about it. He said, 'Are you serious?' The next thing you knew, we were making plans."

Baseball Hobby News made its debut as a newspaper in March, 1979, with a 24-page issue. It slipped to 16 pages before beginning the growth that led to the switch last fall to the magazine field.

"Our goal was to entertain and to educate," Frank said. "Everybody else was in it just to sell ads. We had about 40% editorial content, and we've kept it that way."

Before launching the venture, Frank, an alumnus of Hofstra University in Hempstead, N. Y., wrote sports for the Albany Times-Union, Newsday and the Long Island Press; served as sports information director at C. W. Post and Hofstra; worked in the NCAA statistics bureau in New York, and served as public relations director for the Long Island Board of Realtors. Vivian, a graduate of New York State College at Cortland, was a middle-school teacher in Glen Cove and nearby Deer Park.

All of that was put behind them.

"We were making money almost instantly," Frank said. "Actually, our first profit was in August of '79, which was our sixth issue, but we had left our jobs in June. We could see it was going to succeed.

"The way we felt about it, we brought journalism to card-collecting publications for the first time. People would see the difference--that we were more professional and had information as well as ads. We like to think we gave collecting more credibility.

"As time went on and business continued to improve, our financial success enabled us to move here. That was in 1982."

Why to San Diego?

"Why not?" Frank said. "We like the weather."

Not surprisingly, considering the tremendous growth of the baseball card business, several competitive publications have sprung up in recent years. The others put such heavy stress on guides to card prices that the Barnings have been forced to add them to their magazine.

"We would go to a card show and people would invariably ask if our publication had a price guide," Frank said. "When we said no, 80% of the people would walk away.

"Because of that, we began focusing on card prices in the January issue. We didn't want to do it because it isn't journalism, but it's what people want. If you don't give them what they want, you don't sell."

Although their publication, which is printed in Gardena, obviously stresses baseball, the Barnings also run articles on football, basketball and hockey cards.

"We try to reflect everything that's going on in the sports card industry," Frank said.

For 25 years, Topps monopolized the baseball card market. It started in 1951 and went full-scale the following year. Its No. 1 card in 1952, that of Andy Pafko, is priced as high as $1,200 in mint condition. Bowman had put out cards since 1948, but bowed out with its 1955 set.

After that, it wasn't until 1981, when Fleer and Donruss came along, that Topps encountered any national competition. Score followed in 1988 and Upper Deck in 1989. Donruss introduced the Leaf label in Canada in 1985 and in the United States in 1990, and Topps revived the Bowman name in 1989.

Though Topps has dominated the baseball card market, Frank has his own preference.

"Upper Deck is the Cadillac of baseball cards," he said of the company, which is in the process of building its new manufacturing plant and headquarters in Carlsbad.

Upper Deck is "classy. We've been very critical of Topps over the years for its lack of creativity. This hasn't made us very popular with Topps, but we have made the decision to tell our readers what's going on. In spite of not improving its product, Topps continues to be the biggest seller."

Baseball card shops have sprung up all over in recent years, but the business has also spread to drugstores, variety stores and even antique shops.

"This makes the hobby that much more popular," Frank said. "You aren't going to stumble into a card shop, but you might get started in one of those other places."

The Barnings consider the size of Baseball Hobby News--10 1/4 by 13 1/4 inches as opposed to the conventional 8 by 11--to be an advantage.

"Distributors say it's the coming size in magazines," Frank said. "It's more readable and visible, and you can lay out your packages more attractively."

Vivian added: "It stands out above the rest on the newsstands. Rolling Stone is the same size, and it has been a circulation leader for a long time."

Baseball Hobby News has a national distribution of 73,000, and the Barnings have hopes it will reach 250,000 within two years as it benefits from national distribution and newsstand exposure.

"We made the newsstand move for the same reason we started the publication in the first place," Vivian said. "We feel that everybody interested in baseball is a potential collector, and this exposes the hobby to as many people as possible."

As the publisher, Vivian outranks her husband. What accounted for the decision to make her the boss?

"There are very few women in top positions in industry," she said. "When we started the publication, it wasn't an accident that I was made the publisher. We did it to make them take me seriously.

"Clients will tell Frank what they wanted, and he'll say, 'No, she makes the decisions.' It's a male-dominated hobby, and since we're partners, he wanted people to deal with me on a businesslike basis."

Asked to define the basic division of duties, Frank said, "She handles advertising, and I'm the editor, but she proofreads everything, and she's awesome."

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