Baseball Card Shop Loses Fans, Edge
At Au Sports, a decline in desirable collectibles and the owner's death make the future uncertain for a childhood haunt.
I got my first baseball card when I was 6 years old. It was nothing special: a 1994 Score Card featuring White Sox outfielder George Bell. It is a common card worth maybe a nickel.
But it was the start of a hobby, better yet, an obsession. One that consumed me for the better part of 10 years, taking up hundreds of hours of free time and thousands of dollars from allowances and birthday gifts.
Baseball card history
Steve Gold opened his card store, Au Sports Memorabilia, 30 years ago in Skokie with his family. A collector since he was young, the store owner sells both trading cards and sports memorabilia.
Until the 1980s, baseball cards were only a novelty item. Children put them in their bicycle spokes to make noise and moms threw them out, without a thought, when their kids moved out of the house.
Then the rookie card craze came and mass production turned baseball cards from a simple collectible into a potential investment item.
Kids still pursued the hobby because it was a chance to learn about the game and connect with their idols.
"I see kids attracted to cards today for the same reasons I was," said Tom Robak, a customer of Au Sports since 1990. "It's an extension of the games they see on television and the ballplayers they see in person and at the games."
Before the Internet, baseball cards were a young baseball fan's encyclopedia. The back of each card showed a player's career stats--although none of the new-age sabermetrics--and some offered a scouting report.
The industry flourished and the advent of special insert cards, which often featured swatches of game-worn jerseys and pieces of game-used bats, provided a boost for the industry in the late 1990s. As attendance at baseball ballparks increased, so did sales of players' trading cards.
But years of steroids accusations followed and with it developed a distrust between fans and players. Mark McGwire's Topps rookie card from the mid-1980s, which was once worth more than $250 at its peak in 1998, now sells for a mere $10.
"I'd say steroids definitely had something to do with the drop," Scott Beatty said. "Once [Barry] Bonds' steroid situation came out, that disillusioned a lot of people and continued with every guy who followed up after that like [Roger] Clemens, [Sammy] Sosa and Manny Ramirez. That soured a lot of people on even wanting their cards."
As with most hobbies, the health of the card industry is largely dependent on the state of the economy. But there are still underlying issues from both card-producing companies and collectors.
In addition to the proliferation of premium products that have flooded the market and possibly priced many collectors out of the hobby, Beatty sees collectors gravitating only toward the top players and newest phenoms.
"It's the semi-stars, like Tom Glavine or John Smoltz, you used to be able to move them for a good price," Beatty said. "Now everyone just wants [Albert] Pujols, the hot rookie, like Stephen Strasburg."
So Au Sports has found other ways to make up for the lost revenue. The Internet, and specifically eBay, revolutionized the trading card business. Not only does it mean a bigger customer base, but a larger product line as well. Items that would have little appeal to the Chicago market, like vintage Kansas City Royals pennants, can now be sold to the highest bidder online.
Beatty helped Gold develop his shop's online presence starting in the late 1990s. As the industry has fallen off, online sales have become a vital part of stores' business.
"It would be tough considering what we sell," said Beatty when asked if they could stay in business without their store's website and auctions. "In an average week, online sales can match store sales."
What the future holds
The baseball card industry is at a crossroads. Major League Baseball has tightened control of its card licenses, making Topps the only official producer of its trading cards.
Beatty says the days of individual players dominating the market for a long duration are over, making baseball cards less valuable overall.
"I don't know that [baseball cards] are a great investment unless you're talking older cards," Beatty said. "The stuff prior to 1975 has still got a good market with [Mickey] Mantle, [Roberto] Clemente and [Sandy] Koufax. Those markets hold pretty strong."
Four weeks ago, Steve Gold passed away, losing his battle with non-Hodgkin's lymphoma. Beatty and Robak are keeping his store open for now as they look to make a long-term decision on what to do with Au Sports, which is currently located in Niles.
When I visited Beatty and Robak at Au Sports, I couldn't help but open a couple packs from the newly released 2010 Topps Update set. The first pack produced nothing significant. Sorry Bengie Molina, in the collector's world you are merely a common card. But the second pack was more fruitful, yielding a Strasburg rookie card.
Sixteen years after my first card and 30 years after Au Sports opened, it was still there for me. The chase of an elusive card. The thrill of opening up a fresh pack.
Baseball cards aren't going away anytime soon. And no matter what happens with Au Sports and the hundreds of other card shops around the nation, the chance to get that rare collectible will always remain.
"[The card industry] will continue; there will be a market for collectibles," Robak said. "What it's going to look like is yet to be known. But it'll still be there."