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Bottom line: Collecting cards is on the rise again

Posted: Sunday, July 18, 2004

Some of my favorite afternoons growing up were when my dad and I would leave my football or baseball practices and head home.

Don't get me wrong; I loved practice. But on the way home I knew I would be able to stop by the old 7-Eleven convenience store at the corner of Belair and Columbia roads and get a few packs of sports cards.

Back then it was just a thrill to pluck down a dollar for four packs of Topps football or baseball cards and try to get a card of your favorite players.

With me it was former Steeler quarterback Terry Bradshaw, or some of the great Pittsburgh Pirates like Willie Stargell or Dave Parker.

I was a card-collecting addict.

I would often spend nights sorting through my cards as if I'd never seen them. I would always try to memorize the stats of the best players.

I was meticulous about my collection. The star cards had to be arranged in alphabetical order, while the commons were separated by teams.

By the time I was 12 or 13, I was saving money to buy my friends' entire collections.

I also started attending shows in Atlanta and anywhere else I could persuade my parents to take me.

Back then it was easy. In the '70s there was only one company producing cards; Topps ruled the card industry in those days.

Slowly other companies formed.

In 1981, Donruss and Fleer popped up. At that time I thought it was terrific; the more the merrier. Then in 1989, Bowman started to produce cards again. Bowman produced cards in the late '40s and early '50s, and another company got in the game.

Upper Deck was the first company to really push the envelope and create a high-end product.

Aided by the popularity of a 19-year-old Ken Griffey Jr. - the first card in the inaugural set - Upper Deck soared.

By the early '90s each of these companies began to produce several brands, and the industry's supply began to outweigh the demand.

In 1992, I sold my entire collection, which included 14 different Mickey Mantles (the king of all sports-card personalities) and more than 1 million cards.

For 10 years, I did not collect cards, but in 2002 I got the urge to buy again.

I quickly realized the industry had completely changed.

There were so many brands that it would be impossible to collect everything, unless you had Shaquille O'Neal-type money, and even then it would be tough.

Also, companies looking for a way to get through the problems of the 1994 baseball strike had a stroke of genius.

Companies began to encase memorabilia pieces like jersey swatches, bats, bases and batting gloves inside randomly inserted cards. Also, they signed the leagues and players to autograph deals and the signed cards were then inserted into packs.

In 1990, Upper deck introduced the idea of using a chance at an autographed card to sell their product.

However, back then it was one player who signed only 2,500 copies. So the odds of pulling a signature were slim.

Today some packs guarantee autographed cards, and it is not just current players.

Card companies now buy vintage items of some of the best athletes of all time to slice them up, put them in cards and entice people to buy their products.

Playoff/Donruss Corp. paid more than $250,000 for a home, pin-stripe Babe Ruth jersey. They then produced some amazing memorabilia cards with swatches from the jersey.

Now, all of these new ideas and the modern technology cost the companies a pretty penny. This means the 25-cent pack is a thing of the past.

Currently, packs usually range from $1.25 to $8 each. This season Upper Deck introduced the world's most expensive pack: Upper Deck Exquisite Basketball, which retails at most hobby stores for $500 per pack.

If you think that sounds expensive, well, I'd agree.

But the card industry is like playing the lottery, and sometimes you can get lucky.

Just ask Rick Mirigian, a 27-year-old concert promoter from Fresno, Cal. In June, Nirigian walked in to Mossette's Sports Cards & Collectibles and plunked down $1,500 for three packs of Exquisite.

Inside one of the packs was the find of a lifetime. There was a card containing the NBA logo patch from the uniforms of Kobe Bryant and LeBron James. The card was numbered 1 of 1. That's right; only one of these cards was in existence.

Mirigian quickly put the card up for sale on eBay. The card sold for an eye-popping $62,100, and that could be eclipsed soon.

According to Upper Deck, they also produced a Michael Jordan/LeBron James 1 of 1 NBA patch card.

Of course, not everyone is going to pull a $62,000 card.

But the art of card collecting is hot again. The companies have the high-end products, but they also produce less expensive products to keep the young collectors involved.

With innovative card companies and online auction Web sites, it appears the sports card industry is as healthy as ever.



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