There was a time in the 1980s when you could peruse the event calendar in just about any newspaper and find one or more convention spaces being taken up by sports memorabilia shows. Today such gatherings are far rarer. But the collectors are still out there, and the dream that tantalizes collectors is still alive: odds are that somewhere in a dusty attic, a few million-dollar cards are stashed away unbeknownst to their owners.
The baseball card show is not entirely dead, either. RK Sports Promotions will hold a sports card and collectible show on Tuesday, January 1, from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. at the Town Inn on Route 206 North in Bordentown. For more information, visit www.rksportspromotions.com.
Collector and dealer Bill Grober (who, full disclosure, takes out a classified ad in U.S. 1 to advertise his business) has been collecting baseball cards and other memorabilia since he was a kid growing up in New York in the 1960s. Back then baseball cards were disposable playthings, to be stuffed into bike spokes, traded with friends, used on a game called “flip,” and then thrown out by mothers. It is this abuse that made them valuable — only a relatively small number of specimens survived the crucible of children’s play.
Starting in the late 1970s, however, those baseball cards became valuable collectors’ items. Companies printed cards by the millions, and in their millions, children, aware of the potential value of their collections, saved their cards in unopened boxes or in plastic protectors.
“There was mass overproduction of baseball cards, particularly from 1985 to date,” Grober says. “Everyone jumped in and overnight, multiple hundreds of card companies were created. Not just Topps, not just Fleer, not just Donruss, not just Upper Deck, but literally another 50 or 100 companies jumped in and the presses were flooded with cards.”
By the 1990s the glut of sports cards could not be denied, and the market crashed, at least for non-vintage cards.
Grober says the murder of the industry had several other accomplices, including the steroid scandal. A Jose Canseco rookie card, for example, was worth $20 to $100 in its heyday, before his steroid abuse was discovered. Today it’s worth about 10 cents, as the slugger will never make it into the Hall of Fame.
Grober has continued dealing cards through all the ups and downs. He grew up in New York, where his father was a lawyer and his mother a writer. Every weekend he would take the train to the city to watch games and get autographs, eventually collecting thousands.
Grober earned a history and economics degree at the University of Arizona, partially funding his studies by selling most of his collection for $1,007. Grober still tortures himself by calculating that the current value of all those cards from the late 1960s — “a good time for baseball cards” — would be worth well into the six figures.
Today Grober buys other people’s collections and re-sells individual rare cards and other sports artifacts. With latter-day baseball cards being too common, collectors have turned to buying and selling almost anything that has ever been in a baseball stadium during a game, short of an empty popcorn bag: ticket stubs from important games, signed game balls, and worn jerseys are all coveted by collectors. Peripheral baseball-card-related items are also going for big money. Anything that would normally have been thrown away, like vintage wrappers, is valuable. (Grober says he is not aware of anyone collecting bubble gum from the cards … yet.)
Grober says some cards, particularly those from before mid-’70s, remain valuable. The holy grail of baseball cards remains the 1952 Topps Mickey Mantle rookie card. As with all cards, condition is everything: A beat-up example that had been stuck in the spokes of a Schwinn bike might fetch $7,000. A mint condition card from a never-opened pack could be $1.5 to $3 million. Later cards can still be valuable. A Rickey Henderson rookie card from 1980 could be worth $20 or $30, or several thousand if it was in mint condition.
The biggest deal Grober has ever done was to buy two baseballs from a collector for $9,000. They had both been signed by Babe Ruth and Mel Ott, and another had the signature of Ernie Banks added years later. Oddly, the additional signatures made the balls less valuable. Still, Grober sold them years later for $30,000.
“I never get one over on a collector,” he says. “I just tell them what I think I’m going to pay. I’ve had people ask me for $1,000, but I give them $4,000 because that’s what I’m willing to pay.”
Grober learned how to value memorabilia by experience. For years, Grober worked with famed dealer Alan “Mr. Mint” Rosen, who would travel to card shows and buy entire collections at a time. Rosen, a celebrity in the card collecting world, was often on TV and would go to shows where fans would line up by the hundreds to have their collections valued. Grober would buy collections from Rosen. “You gain experience in cards as you would in anything else, simply by handling stuff and knowing about a few concepts: supply and demand, and the condition of the card.”
Grober never made card dealing his full-time job. His main line of work is owning a temp agency, and he has also been involved in the community, serving as a township councilman in South Brunswick.
Rosen died in 2017 at age 70. And Grober can’t help but think that as people like Rosen fade away, so too will baseball card collecting. “What’s going to happen 10, 20, 30 years from now?” Grober says. “There might not be any baseball card or sports memorabilia industry. I could probably ask today’s teenagers who Mickey Mantle is and they wouldn’t have any idea. So I wonder if there will still be an industry once Boomers pass the torch.”