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Playing Hardball : The Kids' Game of Collecting Baseball Cards Is Now a Passion for Major League Investors

September 08, 1988|ALAN C. MILLER | Times Staff Writer

For 12 years, Andy Simko collected baseball cards for sport. He started in 1976 with nostalgic old cards of the New York Yankees he admired from the '50s and '60s, such as Roger Maris, Yogi Berra and Phil Rizzuto. He bought 27 Mickey Mantle 1961 All-Star cards, nine of them autographed.

But Simko, a 42-year-old Simi Valley resident, watched with dismay as a sudden influx of baseball card collectors and investors in the 1980s sent prices as high as one of Mantle's upper-deck home runs. He said he "lost the boy's delight" amid the growing role of price guides and cards' conditions, as commercialism started to pinch-hit for the fan's love of the lore.

In June, with the birth of his son, John Michael, Simko was back in the game. But the score had changed: Now he's in it for the investment, striking out in search of older cards and autographed photos to expand a collection already so valuable that it's secured in a vault.

"Down the road, when the boy attends college and decides to get married and says he needs some help, I'll take the cards out and say, 'Son, they're your cards. Do what you have to do,' " Simko said. "If they're worth X dollars today, they'll be worth X times 18 then."

Such is the world of big-bucks baseball cards, where a single rare memento has sold for a record $110,000; prices for complete annual sets have skyrocketed 35% a year since 1981; insurance policies are written for collections; counterfeiting is a pitfall and, in the words of one pro, "condition is king."

The national pastime, in short, has joined forces with the national obsession. And, if you have the cash, you, too, can swing for the financial fences.

Cards Not Handled

Long gone are the days when kids flipped 'em or slipped 'em into bicycle spokes and mothers routinely tossed out cardboard boxes full of them, a scene poignantly depicted in a popular poster titled "The Great American Tragedy." They aren't even handled anymore. Today's cards are earmarked for protective plastic binders to prevent bent corners or creases--if the box or pack is opened at all.

"Even kids who collect for the love of the game would never do anything to damage that card," said Dan Schmider, who once traded credit at his Simi Valley baseball card store for a Pontiac Firebird. "It's not a kids' game anymore."

This nationwide baseball card craze has struck the San Fernando Valley area with the force of a Nolan Ryan fastball. Four new shops have opened in the last year, to hawk baseball cards and other sports memorabilia. Owners of established shops, such as Max Himmelstein of Valley Baseball Card Shop in Tarzana, are drawing sellout crowds as no-nonsense adult buyers increasingly rub shoulders with the traditional adolescent hobbyist.

An estimated 100,000 serious investors and millions of youthful collectors nationwide are pouring more than $200 million annually into baseball cards, autographs and assorted collectibles, according to Sports Illustrated magazine. They will take home more than 5 billion new and old cards this year alone.

3,500 Retail Stores

There are an estimated 10,000 dealers nationwide, including 3,500 retail stores, and dozens of weekly swap meets and card shows to fuel a cardboard feeding frenzy that even some of its beneficiaries say is a little crazy and may well be nearing a peak.

"This might be the golden years of growth for the business," said Himmelstein, the venerable dean of Valley dealers. "Prices in the last year or two have doubled for certain cards."

Most new cards are purchased one of two ways: in packages of 15 for 40 cents or in complete sets of all 792 cards issued that year by one company for prices starting at $17 to $20 and increasing during the season. Only Topps includes the hard stick of pink bubble gum that, for earlier generations of collectors, was inextricably linked to the cards themselves; other companies offer pieces of a baseball jigsaw puzzle and baseball stickers.

The value of individual cards tends to correspond with the success and fame of the player. Prices fluctuate from year to year and during the season; with few exceptions, only the cards of stars tend to command prices rising to three, four or five figures.

In essence, the investor buys stock in a player's career; the card's value will rise or fall with the player's batting average, won-lost record and celebrity status. Thus, the fan can test his knowledge with dollars-and-sense stakes.

Take the Don Mattingly 1984 rookie card. The value of Mattingly's card has been boosted by his tremendous performances in each of his first four seasons and the high recognition he commands as a slugger for the New York Yankees. A player's rookie card--a major leaguer's first appearance in a regularly issued, nationally distributed card set--is his most valuable.

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