Selling Boomer nostalgia

I’ve been buying baseball cards since I was old enough to have a few pennies in my pocket. As I’m writing this I have a small stack of cards on my desk. In fact, that stack is what prompted this entry. More about that shortly.

I still remember when, as a little kid in 1957, I unwrapped a one-cent Topps baseball card package and discovered that I possessed my first Mickey Mantle card. I know this may sound screwy, but it was an electric moment, one that I vividly remember decades later.

I managed to acquire a Mantle card every summer from 1957 to 1961. That’s his 1958 card that’s pictured below.

It was because of Mantle that I became a New York Yankees fan. Somehow, he could kindle the dreams and stir the admiration of thousands of little kids in thousands of little towns across the U.S. He became an icon for the post-war Baby Boom generation.

But New York may as well have been a million miles from the small town in North Carolina where I grew up. I had no hope of ever seeing Mantle in person. What connected me to Mantle and the Yankees were words and pictures that fed my imagination: daily baseball box scores in the Salisbury Post and Charlotte Observer; Street and Smith’s Baseball Yearbook; the CBS Game of the Week on TV and, of course, the baseball cards that I bought during the summers.

In those days, baseball cards were basically just another toy for kids, and when my pals and I shared our collections, the cards that were exchanged showed signs of wear and tear.

All of that would change, however, when the oldest Boomers reached serious middle age. They wanted to recover those lost accessories of their childhoods, and they were willing to pay top dollar for them. And that’s when we Boomers, with our focus on status, image and money, pretty well ruined the simple pleasure of collecting baseball cards.

Starting in the late 1980s, buying baseball cards became like playing the stock market. A flurry of new companies such as Upper Deck began issuing cards that used slick action photos and designer graphics to appeal to the now-sophisticated Boomer tastes and fondness for expensive trinkets.

A futures market emerged. The cards of promising rookies became highly sought and highly priced because buyers thought these first cards would be worth small fortunes if and when the players were voted into the Hall of Fame.

Boomers who remembered frugal mothers scolding them for wasting money on baseball cards had erased that lingering guilt. You could actually believe you were making a smart investment when you bought $5 worth of cards because you might turn up, say, a 1989 Upper Deck Ken Griffey Jr. rookie card that supposedly was worth $120 at one point.

The surviving Topps cards from the 1950s and 1960s became like reliable blue chip stocks or prime real estate. You couldn’t go wrong buying those cards because it was like buying land – they weren’t making any more.

A highly detailed system evolved to grade the condition and set the prices of these older cards. A corner that had become slightly rounded from being handled could dramatically lower the value of a card.

But the baseball card market peaked in the mid-1990s and then declined. I stopped buying cards about 10 years ago. Apparently, a lot of other Boomers also stopped. And, apparently, the Topps marketers noticed that.

A few days ago I was browsing through a store in Norfolk and I noticed a box of Topps Heritage baseball cards with a throwback look. The box and wrappers were more or less duplicates of the Topps 1958 cards – the cards I eagerly paid a penny apiece for when I was a kid.

So I bought a couple of packs – $3.50 for a pack of eight – and discovered that the design is identical to those 1958 cards I fondly remembered. But as you can see from the Andy Pettitt card here, they were cards of today’s players. Pettitt's card is in that small stack that I mentioned at the top of this post.

It was fascinating. I was looking at contemporary players through the eyes of a kid. In my head at least, the guys on these throwback-design cards looked like the “real” baseball players of my childhood instead of the overpaid steroid-soaked prima donnas inhabiting the rosters of today’s Major League Baseball teams.

It was clever marketing by the Topps designers. I know I’m being manipulated, but it’s got me interested in baseball cards again. And that, no doubt, was the intent.

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