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Niche investors bullish on vintage baseball cards

Oh, if we baby boomers only knew then what we know now. We never would have clipped those baseball cards to our bicycle spokes with clothespins so they would make that cool, fluttering sound as we raced down sidewalks. We wouldn’t have stuffed them into our blue jeans pockets or thumbtacked them to our walls. And we certainly wouldn’t have allowed our mothers to toss them into the trash in an effort to declutter our rooms.

If we had a crystal ball that could have accurately gazed into the future, we would have treated those little pieces of cardboard like the mini-Picassos they’ve become. We would have had a nice little nest egg for retirement.

How were we to know that vintage baseball cards would become the rage among high-end niche investors? Never in a million years did we envision prominent auction houses taking bids on iconic cardboard images of Mickey Mantle and Willie Mays the way they would paintings by Rembrandt and Van Gogh.

At an auction in New York City two weeks ago, a Honus Wagner card printed and distributed in 1909 established a new record for trading cards when it sold for $3.12 million. That’s up from the $2.8 million that hockey legend Wayne Gretzky sold it for a few years ago. It’s also about 24 times more money than Wagner made during an illustrious 21-year career with the Pittsburgh Pirates in which he won eight batting titles. No wonder it’s called “the Mona Lisa of baseball cards.” There’s even an entire book devoted to it, titled “The Card,” by Michael O’Keeffe and Teri Thompson.

Back in Wagner’s day, baseball cards were distributed on the backs of cigarette packs. Legend has it that although the Hall of Fame shortstop was a smoker and a paid endorser of several tobacco products, he was concerned about the welfare of children and asked Piedmont Cigarettes to stop distributing his likeness. “He just didn’t want children to have to buy tobacco at a young age in order to get his cards,” Wagner’s granddaughter, Leslie Blair, said in a 1992 interview.

Despite the recall, not all of the Wagners from the so called T206 set were retrieved. No one knows how many of the cards still exist. Estimates range from 25 all the way up to 200. But none of the others in circulation are in the creaseless, vibrant-colored condition of the one recently auctioned off. Though there are scores of cards rarer than the Wagner T206, none of them has developed a similar mystique. Through the years, collectors and investors have hunted for it as if it were the Holy Grail.

Of course, the mere fact a little piece of cardboard would command this kind of money makes no sense whatsoever. But beauty is in the eye of the beholder and as O’Keeffe points out: “You are trying to apply logic to something that is about desire.”

While the Wagner T206 is the most desired, the 1952 Topps Mickey Mantle is the investment card that in recent years has been rising like one of the Mick’s signature upper-deck home runs. According to a recent story in the Wall Street Journal, the card has seen a 674 percent increase—from $63,859 to $494,000—in the past decade. It has easily outpaced gold (85.2 percent), the S&P Index (58.5 percent) and New York City housing prices (40 percent) during that span. Some investors have speculated that an online auction of a near-mint ’52 Topps Mantle next month could fetch a million dollars.

Certainly Mantle’s enduring popularity among boomers is at play here. It didn’t hurt that he played for the most storied franchise in sports—the New York Yankees—and came of age during an era when two-thirds of the country tuned into World Series telecasts. But the ’52 Topps Mantle wouldn’t have become a piece of American iconography without an unwitting assist from the late Sy Berger. The Topps Company Inc. employee designed the handsome-looking card. Unfortunately, it was part of a series that wasn’t released until after the card market for that year had petered out. The series wound up being ignored by consumers and was returned to Topps by the caseload.

Berger tried in vain to sell the surplus cards during the next several years. Finally, in an attempt to create more space in Topps’ cramped Brooklyn warehouses, he rented a barge and dumped the 300 to 500 cases of surplus cards into the Atlantic Ocean. By doing so, the Mantles that didn’t wind up on the ocean floor have become extremely coveted nearly 50 years since the slugger’s last at-bat. “The hold that Mantle had on people now in their 60s is amazing,” collector Jim Elliott told the Journal. “People cried when he died in 1995.”

But, as the story points out, Mantle’s power as a collectible extends far beyond those old enough to have seen him play. “The demographic sweet spot is 40 to 60 years old,” said Rob Rosen, vice president of Dallas-based Heritage Auctions, which is overseeing the upcoming auction of Mantle’s work-of-art card. “These are collectors motivated more by a fascination with the history of the game than nostalgia for their own childhood experiences.” 

Cards of other popular baby boomer ballplayers also are commanding big bucks, as evidenced by the $477,750 recently paid for a mint-condition Roberto Clemente rookie card and the $312,000 for a pristine Hank Aaron rookie. But it’s not just baseball cards or cards from yesteryear that are causing double-takes. A one-of-a-kind Upper Deck autographed card from basketball superstar LeBron James’ rookie season (2003-04) went for $312,000 two weeks ago.

For the most part, though, it’s vintage baseball cards that seem to intrigue investors most. They could have been the cards we baby boomers clipped to our bicycle spokes, tacked to our bedroom walls and allowed our mothers to throw away.

If only we had known.

Scott Pitoniak is the Rochester Business Journal sports columnist.

10/14/2016 (c) 2016 Rochester Business Journal. To obtain permission to reprint this article, call 585-546-8303 or email rbj@rbj.net.

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