Not in the cards
If the steroids scandal hits Hall of Fame balloting as hard as it’s hit the baseball card business, it’s unlikely Roger Clemens, Rafael Palmeiro, Barry Bonds or Sammy Sosa will be making travel arrangements to Cooperstown next summer. Instead they’ll fall in behind Mark McGwire, who’s yet to garner even 25 percent of the necessary votes in any of his six seasons of eligibility.
“The steroid thing has really been devastating to the baseball card market,” said Skip Price of Baseball Treasures on Main Street in Greenfield. “Before (steroids) a 1985 McGwire Topps rookie card was selling for about $250 in the price guide. Now I can’t even get $10 for him. This is across the board. Nobody is looking for Bonds, Sosa, Palmeiro … their value has plummeted. Clemens was exonerated (of charges he lied to Congress about using steroids) but I still haven’t had one person ask for a card of his.”
Baseball cards are like any futures commodity and business was booming in the early ‘90s, until it was hit by its own sort of recession. “The thinking was invest now and 20 years later your cards will be worth four times their value,” said Price. “It turned out to be the reverse. First the big stars all got investigated, then different card companies glutted the market. There were mini cards, big cards, holographic cards, probably 10 different brands until MLB gave Topps exclusive rights.”
Thirty years ago, Price had a kiosk inside the Hampshire Mall. A teacher by trade, he and his wife Denise enjoyed collecting and selling antique wind-up toys. That was it until the day a father and son appeared with two large storage boxes filled with baseball cards. “I grabbed a handful, and there was an Ernie Banks card, 1969. I’m from Chicago so I like Banks. I put all the cards back in the box except Banks and said, ‘What do you want for this?’ He said ‘Twenty.’ I told him I couldn’t pay $20 for a Banks card and he said, ‘No, for both boxes.’
“It was like drugs after that. It just blossomed. We had a little store in the basement, then we moved to Osgood Street, then to Federal Street, then to Fiske Avenue, and then Danny (Devine) who owns Brad’s Place offered me his space next door and we’ve been here 20 years.”
Rookies like Mike Trout, Bryce Harper and Stephen Strasburg have helped restore interest among fans. “A-Rod’s a little weak but Jeter, Pujols, Frank Thomas, Jim Thome, guys like that are keeping their value. I just sold a Yaz rookie card for $100. I probably paid $75 thinking I was gonna get $200, but what are ya gonna do? Some of my best sellers are Mickey Mantle cards. He just seems to be iconic. His 60s cards sell for between $350 and $800.”
An autographed baseball by Joe DiMaggio sells for $200 and a signed Derek Jeter ball goes for $125. Price has a hat that was autographed by Ted Williams for $200 and a dollar bill signed by Jimmy Foxx for $750.
Price kept his day job, teaching earth science at Frontier and currently geology and astronomy at GCC. “I could have made a living out of it but not anymore, unless you’re huge and have a website and live in a populated area. There used to be three stores in Northampton, two in Brattleboro and two in Keene. All but one is out of business.”
Consequently, said Price, “We’ve expanded to buy and sell other stuff. Anything antique … collectibles, political buttons, military pins, helmets, old tin toys, toy soldiers especially.”
On a shelf next to a few old cards is a small glass jar filled with gravel. It’s labeled “Authentic Gillette Stadium Dirt” and numbered 122nd out of 5,000 jars, meaning somebody spent a lot of time on his hands and knees keeping track of the dirt being taken from the perimeter of the Patriots gridiron. “They come up with the craziest stuff,” Price chuckled. “I’d sell it for $5 if I could get it.”
It’s indeed a fine line between fortune and fantasy. Like Bob Uecker’s 1965 card, of which the player-turned-broadcaster once joked, “I knew my career was over when it came out with no picture.”
Deerfield’s Jamin Hemenway watched Notre Dame punch its ticket to the national championship game by beating USC at L.A. Memorial Coliseum two weeks ago. “I was joined by Dylan Korpita and Nick Mulvaney, and am officially booked for the BCS national championship in Miami on Jan. 7. Now I just have to scrounge around for a ticket. Demand will be historic by all measure and it’s going to take all my experience of scrounging and scrapping to find one.”
The face value for a ticket is between $200 and $250, but the website of one typical secondary market wants from between $1,077 for an end zone seat in the upper deck to $3,426 for a Lower Level seat on the 50-yard line.
Squibbers: Between periods of last week’s Northeastern-UMass game at the Mullins Center, 3-year-old Brynna Fahey took a spin round the rink on the Zamboni, fearless as ever. ... Our man in Toronto Doug Stotz informs us that the MVP of the Grey Cup was “a former UNH nobody named Chad Kackert.” The 5-foot-8 Californian was actually the Wildcats’ second-leading rusher in 2009 and scored 21 TDs in four seasons. ... The I-AA championship (as it was called before it became the vague entity known as the FCS) will be played in Frisco, Texas, on Jan. 5 and nary a New England team is in the hunt. Not even the Northeast, for that matter. ... Two Bowling Green players, Alex Bayer and Matt Schilz, made the MAC’s All-Pain and All-Beer team, respectively. ... UMass hockey reportedly has its sights set on a goalie on the U.S. Under-18 team. That squad plays this afternoon at Merrimack College in North Andover. ... New England versus Washington on Feb. 3 would make for an interesting Super Bowl, Tom Brady against Robert Griffin III, the veteran gunslinger against the young upstart. ... Attendance for last week’s MAC championship game was 18,132 inside 70,000-seat Ford Field. Maybe UMass can put in a bid to host it next season at McGuirk.
Chip Ainsworth is an award-winning columnist who has penned his observations about sports for four decades in the Pioneer Valley.