Less Than Mint

In recent years, one of the Twin Cities’ most dedicated and entertaining Twins Bloggers has been Mr. John Bonnes, also known as Twins Geek. For the past three years, I’ve had the pleasure to write for John’s print contribution to Minnesota baseball, Gameday, sold outside the Metrodome. Here is my most recent article, from the May issue:

Despite baseball’s resistance to change between the white lines, the game beyond the field spins and dances with all the celerity of a Pat Neshek slider. A few weeks back (and likely for the first time since a childhood pal, my brother, and myself, disbanded our makeshift “Card Shop” in my parent’s basement back in 1990) I walked into a local gas station and felt the sudden urge to pick up a pack of baseball cards. I held no discernible reason for doing so; rather it just seemed like something to add some flavor to a winter’s day.

Despite thoroughly riffling amidst the candy isle there were no packs of cards were to be found. True, several classic confections were in their rightful place (e.g., Charleston Chew, Baby Ruth, Mike & Ike, candy rings and necklaces), which left me with something of a hollow reflection that echoed, “Maybe Sugar simply outweighs Nostalgia . . ..”

Over the ensuing days, the echo stuck with me much like a chunk of one of those candy rings within a molar. The voice was persistent enough to propel me to investigate the matter further, by phoning an old card contact of mine: local expert Bob Krawetz.

Krawetz is the longtime proprietor of The Ninth Inning (www.ninthinning.com), his sports card business that today mainly works with a very select clientele base. In the business for nearly twenty-five years, Kravetz has experienced first-hand the recent history of an American institution whose behavior and tumult make the aforementioned Neshek slider look like an underhand beach ball tossed by a second-grader.

Krawetz and I soon met at his St. Paul offices where, amidst his unique version of organized card piles, we discussed the recent history of cards, comparing the burgeoning business of my youth to a modern day that has seen gas stations replace wax packs with something to stick in your ear when you talk on the phone.

“In the 80’s, it was hard not to make money with cards. You had to be stupid not to make money,” Krawetz explains with the same earnest enthusiasm I remember from our prior meeting, which occurred a few years back when I tried -- and failed -- to sell him my shoebox of moderately-conditioned cards. “It was like the Wild West. Anything went.”

And it was at precisely this moment in time that I recalled my own introductions to the hobby, recalling when my father would take my brother and me to sprawling card shows at the Thunderbird Motel in Bloomington.

“Shows were the way to conduct business then, to meet people,” Krawetz marries my memory. “And the aisles were so crowded, you couldn’t move. People were fighting to buy your cards. In addition, at that time, cards were a very regional business. If a certain type of card was hard to find, or if Topps didn’t issue a card in a certain area of the country -- there just weren’t any. So, if you did have them, they’d sell like crazy.”

His words to my memory -- those shows were packed, kids and adults were hustling one another like crazy, cash money was everywhere and every dude I knew had a price guide. But slowly, as the proverbial Egg grew larger, the Goose (and surely some purity of the hobby itself) was being methodically stripped of breath.

“1988 was the first time that people realized how mass-produced some of these new cards were,” Krawetz continues. “That may have been the worst year ever for baseball cards, from looking at a manufacturer’s standpoint. There weren’t a lot of great rookie players, there was nothing. And they made a phenomenal amount of cards.

“Then, in the early 90’s, the business started sliding,” Krawetz says. “Supply and demand just hit a peak with the new cards. Everybody had nice cards. It wasn’t like the vintage cards where collectors just wanted a card and didn’t care if it was in nice shape or not. Well, the new cards, everybody just saved them because they saw what was happening with quality vintage cards, and these new cards were always nice. All of a sudden, nobody wanted to buy them. Prices were dropping. It was unbelievable. You couldn’t give them away. Cases that had been selling for $350 were now selling for $50. And it seemed like every company had 8, 9, 10 products for every sport, and with inserts and all this stuff to get you to buy cards because they were losing business. The companies had to find a way to get people to buy cards.”

As the 90’s continued and meshed into the new millennium, the world of sports cards became more confusing and convoluted. Overstock reigned, shops began closing (including Krawetz’ walk-in location in St. Paul), and shows slowed. A recent report in the Philadelphia Inquirer stated that the baseball card business went from a billion dollar industry in 1995 to $120 million today, an annual decline of about 15 percent over the last decade. And while it may seem convenient to paint a broad economic U.S. slowdown over the scenario, the report goes on to remind that “nearly everything about baseball’s finances -- T.V. revenues, jersey sales, team values -- has exploded.”

But like just the turn of a baseball card, the numbers behind the smiling faces state the fact of the season (or the business) that was, as the Inquirer’s report continued: “Sixty percent of all baseball cards ever issued were released from 1999 to 2005. That’s counting the entire history of baseball cards, which date from 1867.”

And while M.L.B. and the Players’ Association have no doubt recognized these numbers, as evidenced in 2006 when they agreed to license only Topps and Upper Deck to produce baseball cards, a bizarre inverse-effect on the economics of the card game has taken hold. Supply is now down, but prices have gone way up. Known as the “Super Premium Market,” card companies, according to a 2007 piece in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, have recently suggested respective retail prices of $350 (Topps’ “Paradigm” line), $500 (Donruss’ “National Treasures” football line), and $600 (Upper Deck “Exquisite” football) for “packs” of cards, that generally are sold in wooden boxes.

How the heck is a kid supposed to buy that!?

“With new cards, it’s always been about money,” Krawetz comments with a tinge of solemnity. “Unfortunately, from the mid-80’s up. And I think that was the intent by the card companies, too… Kids have been conditioned to buy cards based on what they were worth - not on who the players were. In my estimation, it’s not been about the love of the game, but rather the love of the cards -- the love of the dollar…The card business had been geared toward kids until too much money got involved. And kids don’t have the money.”

Adding to the “de-youthinization” of the hobby is also a vast de-personalization. The incomparable convenience of online transacting has replaced much of the once-buoyant interpersonal interaction of the card business. Krawetz says while he once did about 30 card shows annually, today he does “maybe ten” around the country.

“With the advent of the Internet, card shows just got slaughtered,” Krawetz comments. “eBay, for instance, has made it a national market - it’s not regional anymore. Something that may have seemed hard to get at one time, all of a sudden isn’t hard to find anymore.”

And unless you’re among the chosen few jockeying for, say, the 1909 Honus Wagner T206 (recently purchased for $2.8 million), the bidding wars online aren’t firing the missiles you may think.

“It’s affected the prices,” Krawetz adds. “The prices on a lot of it has gone down. eBay has probably lowered even the price of vintage cards by 35%.”

Krawetz and I continue for awhile longer, my Dictaphone capturing my own recollections of the card world at this point: the value to a young mind of immersing oneself in baseball statistics, the hours spent with my brother and father ambling the aisles of the Thunderbird Motel, and, perhaps most importantly -- the real life, sobering experience of what it’s like to get ripped off. Yeah -- I probably got ripped off handfuls of times in my youth. But today, looking back, I know I learned something from that: a little something about how adults transact, a little something about personalities both sound and untoward, and surely something about the importance of protecting what’s mine.

“If you’re in this business today, and you don’t look at your business everyday, you’re gonna be gone. Because it changes that fast now,” Krawetz concludes on cards, with perhaps an unspoken sentiment of the velocity of modern day. “And you have to be on top of it to change with it -- or you’re history.”

I leave his office and think about the shoebox in a closet in my parent’s house. I have long planned to present the contents of that box to my kids someday. I walk to my car and consider that perhaps kids of tomorrow may not even know what baseball cards really mean. Heck, they’re not exactly “interactive,” they’re not necessarily built to be handled all that much, and there’s no place to plug them in. Yet, those little pieces of cardboard hold more potential energy than any kid could possibly consider.

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