Baseball Cards Still Swinging For Some Fans, Collectors

Rick Gregg
November 19, 2018 - 9:05 pm

Peter G. Aiken-USA TODAY Sports

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ROSEMONT (WBBM NEWSRADIO) -- As Jamie Zabel surveyed the second floor of the Donald E. Stephens convention center during the Chicago Sports Spectacular, he couldn’t help but smile about the health of the sports card industry.

“It is alive and well, I think that’s for sure,” he said.

Zabel, a dealer from Ankeny, Iowa, had set up shop in the southeast corner of the facility, away from some of the main booths and the autograph signings. But he was still in the middle of the action.

“The new rookie class has really helped baseball, as well as basketball. Prism has made a big comeback. And then football, you know, with Topps not having a license for basketball or football anymore, Prism is really driving the market with that. It seems to be going really well.”

The card industry took a major hit in the late-1990s and early 2000s. Some dealers blame the baseball strike of 1994 or the steroids scandals in baseball. Some blame a glut of card companies producing so many cards that the market simply became flooded, depressing prices all around. Zabel sees it a bit differently.

“It isn’t just about trading with your friends anymore, like it was in the early ‘90s when we were kids, or the late ‘80s,” he says. “The new push is the autographed, game-used, refractor stuff. The big hit.”

Compiling an entire set of cards has become nearly impossible. For example, the 2018 Topps Baseball ‘base’ set is 702 cards. But each of those cards also has one or more short-print variations -- a different picture, a different cardstock, different coloring, or even (in some cases) a completely different player. That makes the thrill of the chase more exciting for dealers like Zabel and their customers, including his own nine-year-old daughter.

“She’s opening some packs right now over there, and she’s just super excited to get Kris Bryant, or Anthony Rizzo, or a Cub to jump out at her. That’s really exciting.”

His advice for wading through the many options?  Don’t worry about future value.

“Buy something that’s cool,” Zabel said. “There’s some pretty cheap inserts that look awesome. Like, I’ve got the Jon Lester ‘pink’ over there for example. Buy who [you] like, and have some good eye appeal to it as well.”