Before the baseball strike, Charlie Cox’s ‘58 Mickey Mantle drew oohs from salivating card dealers. They reached for their wallets like gunslingers.
“They’d be waving hundred-dollar bills in my face,” Cox says.
Those were heady days for baseball card collectors - when America’s pastime wasn’t on the endangered species list.
Today, Mantle and other pinstriped legends cloistered in Cox’s shoebox are treated like uninvited guests at card shows.
“The bottom’s dropped out,” the Spokane man says. “I show them my ‘58s now and they say, ‘Not interested.”’
Bitter baseball fans across the country are saying the same thing.
Even with the strike ending and spring training in bloom, interest in major league trading cards - a tradition spanning more than a century - is going, going, almost gone.
All five of the nation’s baseball card factories have slashed production as foil-wrapped packs gather dust in stores.
Upper Deck, based in Carlsbad, Calif., reports orders are down 67 percent over last year for its regular packs, 75 percent below normal for its premium Collector’s Choice line. Meanwhile, other sports cards are selling well.
“People are fed up with baseball,” says company spokesman Rich Bradley. “But we’re hoping fans return when the players come back. Trading cards are a form of hero worship, but if you don’t see heroes being heroes you’re not going to pick up their cards.”
At shops like American Baseball on North Wall in Spokane, only “diehards” trickle in.
A year ago, baseball cards and assorted memorabilia filled an entire display case. Turnover was brisk. Sales accounted for about half of the store’s business.
Not any more.
Superstars Ken Griffey Jr., Cal Ripken Jr. and Frank Thomas now suffer the indignity of sharing a display case with hockey players.
“The strike killed us,” says employee Jerry Werre.
It’s the same story in Coeur d’Alene and in the Spokane Valley.
Before the players walked out, American Baseball Cards in the Valley drew 50 baseball devotees a day. Many would bring in their own cards. Deals would be struck over the counter. Only a handful bother to show up now.
The hottest selling baseball stuff? Bats and balls autographed by basketball star Michael Jordan, a frustrated ex-minor leaguer. Store manager Chuck Gaylord can only roll his eyes at the irony.
With the value of most baseball cards skidding, only a few active players have enough allure to command top dollar.
Griffey, the Seattle Mariners slugger, is one. The Upper Deck edition of his ‘89 rookie card is worth $80 and going up.
Fans still fork over a few bucks for old, unopened packs of ‘89 trading cards. They rip them open on the spot, hoping to strike gold. When Griffey’s smiling face doesn’t materialize, they dump the cards on the counter and leave.
Gaylord puts them in the trash. “No value,” he says.
Most dealers, however, predict a slow revival of interest in baseball cards. After all, the sport has survived scandals, the Great Depression and world wars.
Serious collectors are taking the strike-induced slide in stride.
“No one should be into this to make a lot of money. It’s not a smart investment at all,” says Jim Robison of Spokane.
Robison’s collection of 50,000 baseball cards began when he was a first-grader. The fever was such that at age 10, he skipped school to run to the store. He remembers this because he scored a prized Nolan Ryan card that day.
Now he’s 35 and still sneaking out to card shops. On Monday, he was treasure hunting at Baseball Cards North on Wellesley.
“It’s still fun,” he says, flipping through a pile. “No matter what happens, baseball isn’t going away.”
True, but a new generation of sports card collectors isn’t giving baseball a second glance. With the pre-teen set, the hottest sellers are basketball, football and hockey cards, dealers say.
Cox is disturbed by the trend.
He recently showed his baseball collection to his kids, hoping to pass on the hobby. He brought them to a Valley card shop, proudly escorted them to the baseball section.
One by one, the kids were lured away, pulled by some irresistible force.
“Michael Jordan!” one of them shrieked.
Cox could only shrug and reach for his wallet.