A small portion of the author’s baseball card collection.

by Hugh Gilmore

We all lived in the same Green Tree Run condo complex in Roxborough in those days – Chris, Mike, and I, together with our wives. Mike and I had newborn sons, Chris’s was due soon. This was the mid-90s.

We were young men, just beginning families, but still full of boyish high spirits (playing hoops at Houston playground, endless volleyball on the condo’s clubhouse grounds, couldn’t throw away a scrap of paper without trying for a jump shot).

During the days we all worked hard, Mike as a radiology resident, his wife, Fran, as a cell biologist, Chris as a computer engineer, his wife, Ruth, as a medical resident, and Janet and I, as teachers.

We guys assumed our sons would grow up to be sports fanatics, both as spectators and players – as we were. But for two of us, Mike and me, those ambitions had to be dampened down a bit as the children developed. My son, Andrew, developed retinopathy of the premature, and after several operations lost vision in his left eye and developed 20/70 in the other. Ball games were out. We couldn’t risk anything injuring his one good eye. Even when playing catch with a large, soft ball, his lack of three-dimensional vision caused him to get hit in the face a lot with the ball.

Mike’s son, Jason, developed a severe condition related to diabetes and did not enjoy the fuss and commotion of group sports. Chris’s son was still in the oven, and even then would be two to three years away from sports inculcation.

We all, being dads, took it for granted, though, that we’d introduce sports into their lives – you know: someone to cheer on our favorite college or professional teams and maybe even actually go to the games with us. I was teaching high school at the time. I asked my students their opinions.

Their consensus: A guy can still be popular or be part of the crowd even if he doesn’t play sports well (or not at all), as long as he seems interested in sports. He could become a sports geek, someone who knows the players’ names, team standings, history of the sport, statistics, and so on. OK, that sounded about right.

I knew a way to do all that, plus help the kid learn some things about investing: Let Andrew get interested in baseball cards. I loved baseball cards when I was growing up.

I went to see Carl, the math coach at the high school where I taught. He had a snappy little business going, selling baseball cards as investments. Every year, around February, he’d take orders. A complete, factory-sealed set of Topps, Fleers, Donruss, Upper Deck, or Score cards (around 850 separate cards), could be purchased through Carl, who had “connections,” for between $28 and $35. Their values were rising as we spoke, Carl claimed.

I bought a couple of each type, every year for a while. One box for Andrew to play with, read, and memorize – while he fell forever into hero worship – and one box to put away as an investment. Mike and Chris thought that sounded good for their sons too, so they asked me to buy some sets for them. Just think: complete sets from the year of your birth onward. Any idea what a set from the 1940s or 50s is worth today? Lots!

Within a few years we all had moved from our condos to buy our first homes, I to Chestnut Hill, Mike to Bucks County, Chris to Pittsburgh. As men so often do, we drifted into “occasional friend” status. As for the baseball cards: Andrew had made it clear that he had no interest in sports, even at the cardboard level. His heroes were musicians and funnymen. I had stopped buying cards. I don’t know about Mike or Chris.

Every once in a while, though, I thought about the cards sitting in the crawlspace of my house, boxed, labeled and never used. Oh well, I’d think, at least they’re making money for Andrew, for some special purchase he might want to make some day.

This weekend, out of curiosity, I went downstairs and fetched the boxes of sports cards (turns out there were hockey and football cards too) out of storage and piled them near my desk. I wanted to know what they’re worth now, 25 years later.

There are plenty of baseball card price guides available, but I decided to check eBay since I think it is the single most mercilessly accurate gauge of values. One-by-one, I checked them, all factory sealed and mint. Even the Rookie sets and the “Traded” sets. Worth: next to nothing. I paid $35 for a Topps set 25-years ago that is now worth about $7. At any given time about 10 sets are for sale on eBay, and this is a national auction. Imagine what a collectibles dealer would offer me if I hauled five, full, heavy boxes to his shop. I’d guess about a buck apiece.

What had happened? First, since the 1970s the sports card makers had been both overproducing and touting the cards as “investments.” Everybody fell for this fabulous marketing ploy which peaked by the end of the 1990s. (It still exists, but with an emphasis on collectible “rarities” – many of them spurious.) Second, the Internet and eBay arose as controllers of the “used” market. Everyone became a dealer. Today you could reproduce my collection for about a tenth of what I had paid for it. Turning it around: I lost 90 percent+ of the money I paid, not allowing for inflation.

Moral of the story: Wait till your kid is interested in something before you start pushing him to be something he or she is not. And: Buy things because you love them, not because you’re investing in their future worth. I’m speaking as a bookseller here, too.

Hugh Gilmore’s latest novel, “Last Night on the Gorilla Tour” is finally ready for sale and available through bookstores and Amazon.com in both paperback and Kindle eBook form.

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