CRANSTON, R.I. — The current crop of young, talented major leaguers has ignited a bull market in new baseball cards, with speculators hoping the next Mickey Mantle will be found among names like Joyner, Clemens or Mattingly.
As a result, dealers say, new cards that once sold for pennies can now be worth $1 or more. Cards featuring first basemen Wally Joyner of the Angels and Don Mattingly of the New York Yankees bring as much as $2.50.
Older baseball cards have been valuable collectors' items for years. A 1952 Mantle card, for example, is worth up to $3,300, said John Zoglio, owner of Park Avenue Baseball Cards.
Dealers at three baseball card shops clustered in this quiet city near Providence say investors who hope today's cards will someday be worth that much have virtually taken over the market for new cards.
"People will buy maybe 100 cards of one player for $25--25 cents per card--figuring maybe it will be worth $1 in three to four months," said Philip A. Wexler, owner of the Home Run Shop.
"It's sort of like buying a penny stock and hoping it will become another IBM," said David Ledversis, owner of Arlington Card Co.
Even minor league players now have their own cards, Ledversis said. Sets of cards are available featuring teams such as the Pawtucket Red Sox, the Columbus Clippers and the Maine Guides.
As baseball card collecting becomes more of a business, some collectors worry that it may no longer be the fun, inexpensive hobby it once was.
"They're getting to the point where the new stuff is too expensive for young kids to get into the hobby," said Gerard S. Riley, 61, a collector from Cranston.
A nickel once bought a package of cards, complete with a stick of chewing gum. Now, a package of cards costs anywhere from 40 to 75 cents--and two of the three major card companies no longer include gum in the package, although true collectors say that's not much of a loss.
"I throw it out. I hate the gum," said George DesRoches, 20, of Providence. "The gum, to me, is such a waste."
Card collecting is still popular, however, and shops often are filled with young and old fans arguing about, for example, whether a 1981 Tim Raines card is worth more than a 1984 Wade Boggs.
"My main circle of friends that I hang out with was created through the card shops," DesRoches said. "We all have very different interests, but because of the card shops, we're the closest friends in the world."
The high prices drawn by some baseball cards has led many people to clean out their attics, looking for a blue chip among the dusty faces of old players. But don't start planning to spend the money just yet, dealers warn.
"Nine hundred ninety-nine out of 1,000 cards are just worth a penny or two," Ledversis said. "There are 700 cards in a box, but there's only one Mattingly, only one Boggs. Most of the cards are players who only play for a year or two."
And for a card to have any value, it must be in near-perfect condition, with no rounded corners, creases or stains, he said.
The age of a card and the caliber of the player also are important, Wexler said.
"I look for condition, age and superstars," he said.
A player's triumphs and troubles, on or off the field, can all affect the value of his card.
"Mike Schmidt is popular right now because he hit his 500th home run," Ledversis said, rferring to the third baseman of the Philadelphia Phillies.
But cards depicting New York Mets pitcher Dwight Gooden, who entered a drug treatment center on April 2, "dropped drastically," he said.
"Anytime a player gets in trouble like that, the interest declines," he said. "But he's a young guy and if he comes back, it will go back up."
What of Bill Buckner, the Red Sox first baseman who muffed a ground ball and cost his team the World Series last fall?
"Kids still buy his card," Ledversis said.
"I think he'll be back up there," Wexler said. "Buckner is playing better than he was."