Jerry Williams could only shake his head with wonder. "I can't believe what's going on," he said. "I've seen a guy do 20 grand in a two-day show. In a big show, a couple-million dollars can change hands."
Williams was talking baseball, but not the kind of baseball that kids used to talk about with their buddies in their suburban bedrooms or in small-town cafes on the dusty main streets of America.
No, Williams, 50, was talking about baseball cards, or more precisely, the business of baseball cards. Once the penny-ante domain of youngsters who loved bubble gum and coveted the Mickey Mantles but threw out the Carl Sawatskis, baseball-card collecting is now the increasingly big-bucks province of adults who may or may not love the game but who certainly love the green.
Green, as in cash.
"In the last couple years," Williams said at a recent all-day card show in Buena Park (one of two shows going on in the county that weekend), at which he was one of about 65 dealers, "so many speculators have come in. Prices went up exorbitantly. It's a business. It's not a hobby anymore."
Experts say the biggest dealers in the country can reap six-figure incomes from the card business. But incomes vary widely, depending on the number and quality of dealers' cards and the overhead they run up in their business. Most dealers, they say, still are hobbyists who sell cards either to supplement their income or to make enough money to buy other cards.
Make no mistake--it is a cash-only business. "I don't take anything the IRS can trace," one dealer said at a recent show.
Orange County, blessed with population, yuppie buying power and proximity to three major league baseball teams, is one of the nation's acknowledged hotbeds of baseball-card collecting. One Los Angeles County baseball card dealer says he has 6,000 Orange County residents on his mailing list.
When Jay McCracken was 8, he knew every member of the 1948 Philadelphia Phillies. But so did every other member of his fourth-grade class in nearby Atlantic City, N. J. Like a lot of little boys, McCracken fell in love with baseball.
At 48, the love affair continues, but McCracken has parlayed that love and knowledge into some spare-time cash. The western general sales manager for a division of the Nestle Food Corp., McCracken says: "At a weekend show, I'll probably bring in between $500 to $700 a show."
McCracken, a resident of Orange, has a large personal card collection with sentimental value, but in the last couple of years he has bolstered his supply of marketable cards. Like the investor who studies market trends before buying stock, McCracken studies baseball.
"If I can find the stars of 1989 or 1990 priced at 5 or 10 cents apiece, I'll buy a couple hundred of them," he said. "I was able to buy 300 Eric Davises at a nickel each in 1985. Then he became a superstar. I sold 100 of them for $150 and sold another 100 for $300, and now I'm selling them for $10 apiece . . . so, I guessed right (on Davis). I'm not going to say I guess right every time."
Like most in the business, McCracken is amazed at the return on cards that originally cost but a pittance. "Rookie cards (have) always carried a bit of a premium," he said, "but a couple years ago, they just took off. The Pete Rose rookie card, which was about '63, that's a $500 card in mint condition. The '65 (Steve) Carlton, that's worth $100 and $150. I've got several of the (Mike) Schmidt rookies and that book at $165 now."
All of which leads McCracken to conclude: "The best thing a father can do for a child is buy a Topps set (one of the companies that prints cards) and put them in the closet and don't let the child play with it."
Jack Petruzzelli is a Fullerton police detective with a soft spot for baseball. With three partners, he promotes three card shows a year, including their 20th annual Labor Day extravaganza this year. The first show was held in the home of Gavin Riley, one of Petruzzelli's partners, and attracted 13 people. Last year's three-day show at the Disneyland Hotel drew 10,000. Petruzzelli says he promotes the shows--where dealers buy table space from the promoters--primarily to provide money to "support my habit," which is buying baseball cards.
A die-hard baseball fan, Petruzzelli decries the increased commercialism of card-collecting.
"It hasn't happened yet, but it's on the way to ruining the whole hobby," he said. Asked if he isn't a guilty party because he promotes shows, he said, "If it wouldn't be me, it would be somebody else. You've got people just in the hobby in the last couple years, and all they're trying to do is make a quick buck. . . . The true collectors have an appreciation for the game. There are a lot of people like myself--I still like opening up the books and reading the back of the stupid cards. I'm 39, and I still like reading the back of baseball cards."