Story Time: Childhood Horrors of Selling Singles

The year was 1999. I was 13 years old, going into seventh grade, and baseball cards were my big thing.

The card shows at the local mall were always a delight to come to. I couldn’t wait for the 2-day weekend show to come. Raiding Joe Morgan’s dime boxes, seeing my old pals Connie and Cynthia sell their stuff, searching through the bins of late 1990s team sets (especially the 1996 SP set with the wood borders and foil backgrounds), and seeing what all else was there to make my collection more interesting.

While these mostly were great memories, there was one that continues to haunt me to this day.

The card: 1990 Leaf, Roger Clemens

Whose card: Mine

Book value (at the time): $3 (now it is $4)

Asking price: $1.50

Here’s the story of a sale gone disastrous …

I had accumulated plenty of cards for my collection by this point. Some of which bought with money my parents gave me. I had no way of making money as a 13-year-old, other than maybe helping out on my brother’s paper route, or keeping the change from a store run for my mom. Eventually at some point, I had to learn the art of selling things. The cards, obviously, were the perfect tool. Someone (probably my Dad) suggested to me that I take some of the cards that I don’t really “need,” put them in a binder, and show them to the dealers at the next card show and ask if they would like to buy any.

That seemed like an awesome idea. At the time, hardly any of my friends were into baseball cards the same way I was, so my best shot to sell them was at the show. Knowing that the big star cards were going to garner the most money, I took whatever mint-condition star cards that I wanted to part with, put them in separate album pages and into a binder to carry with me at the show.

My “big star cards” were what I would call your general, run-of-the-mill base cards from basic sets like Topps, Pinnacle and Upper Deck. Nowadays it’s more of a no-thrills selection, but a 1990 Leaf Roger Clemens base card was quite the thrill for this 13-year-old. 1990 Leaf was a popular set, and I figured I could get something out of it.

I assembled my cards, looked at the price book, put price stickers on each album page slot, and carried it to the show with me. The first go-around resulted in nothing. I did receive a good tip, though, that I had better chances of selling the cards if I asked for half-price from the book value. That was a little tough for me to swallow, but if that meant clearing the whole binder, I still would have made out with some good money to save for a “big ticket” purchase such as a new baseball glove.

Taking that early advice, I marked my cards down, took some out, put some new ones in, and tried again at the next show a few months later.

Many tables had single cards under glass cases, single cards laid out along the table, cards in boxes, boxes of packs along the tables, and each single card looked like it was priced right at book value.

I had a success! It wasn’t quite all that successful, but it felt great to actually sell cards and get … drum roll … $1 out of it. The money didn’t add up in my favor, but just to get the very first deal accomplished was worth whatever loss I was taking.

Excited after my first sale, I had several others take no interest, and that was fine – I still had a memory. It was all going great until I visited one table near the mall’s front entrance.

He had some singles on his table, priced at book value (which I memorized from constant reading of Beckett’s monthly price guides). Showed him the binder. He saw the 1990 Leaf Clemens. He must have known it was a premium set, and probably didn’t think I quite knew that. He asked me how much I wanted for the Clemens.

I looked at the sticker. “$1.50,” I said.

After some visual scoffing, his voice grew louder to where probably half of the mall heard it.

“I’M NOT PAYING NO F****** DOLLAR FIFTY FOR A ROGER CLEMENS!!!!”

I was embarrassed. I was scared. This guy had mentally ripped my collection to shreds. I took back the binder and wanted to run away, sit down and pout. Unfortunately, the nearest benches were in visual distance from the guy’s table, and the next bench was clear on the other end of the mall. I was beside myself. I thought if this guy was going to say something like that, he wouldn’t be the only one. The 13-year-old in me thought that all dealers thought alike.

I didn’t know what to think. I tried to think. I knew that my cards weren’t all that flashy. Certainly not a piece of Ken Griffey’s game jersey or a slice of Babe Ruth’s bat. I thought I had a good collection of baseball cards. At least that was what I was told – by friends and loved ones. As it turned out, I got lost in changing hobby world where people now were ripping open boxes to find these cuts and pieces of history, as they were new at the time. With what money I had, I couldn’t afford to buy Upper Deck, let alone any top-tier pack. Topps, Donruss, Pinnacle, Score and Collector’s Choice were my go-tos, because they were cheap.

As I was finding my way back to some tables, having regained some of my composure, I started looking at all of these singles, all priced at book value.

Then it hit me: What gave someone else the right to sell a card for book value, and I couldn’t do it for maybe 1/4 of it? What gave them the right to make more money off of a card than me, the person who originally had the card in the first place? Why was I to only sell my cards for coins when they were going to turn around and sell it for a couple of bucks? That felt like I was being used. The 13-year-old kid in me couldn’t grasp why this was happening. Why was I to make less money than them?

As newer, flashier cards became the rage (often featured in the monthly Becketts), and pack prices increased by a lot, it made my existing collection seem disappointing. I originally felt proud to gather the collection that I had, but if I was going to be treated like that, with cards that were memories of yesterday, I didn’t know what to do. I certainly didn’t have the money to be tearing open any packs of the flashier cards.

Even as young as 10 years old, I was fascinated that a baseball card could be worth money. Finding a $1 card in a $0.10 box meant another $0.90 to me. When I started finding cards worth much more than $2-3 dollars in Morgan’s boxes, the young kid in me thought I was going to flip them. I didn’t know what “flipping” even meant at that age.

Did I have to be an adult in order to make the full price out of a card? This whole thing baffled the bejesus out of me. I was confused. I didn’t know what to do. My cards were in mint, I knew how that process all worked.

That was really the downfall to my childhood card collecting awesomeness. When you weren’t allowed to make as much money as the adults were. I lingered around to try to get as many good cards as I could, but wound up quantifying a bunch of early junk wax – hoping that maybe in 20 years they would be worth something (HaHaHa!!)

When I realized that those cards weren’t going anywhere in value – the very first time I heard the phrase “junk wax” before – I slowly started becoming fascinated with vintage. The local card store had a $1 box of vintage cards, and the first two vintage cards I remember buying were from 1971 Topps, a Senators card (because who else my age had a SENATORS card!) and the Senators’ Frank Howard (after looking at the back of the card to see that he hit a lot of home runs, “He must be good,” I thought). The 1971 Frank Howard is one of my favorite cards, and kicked off a love for vintage collecting.

High school came, and I had developed a new passion. Plus, I had a job to make money. After that episode of selling the cards, I didn’t want to go through that again. I stopped buying new baseball cards on a regular basis. The cards just collected dust as I became an adult.

Flash forward to today …

I’ve been getting back into collecting in the last couple of years. However, the hobby has evolved RAPIDLY since my teenage days. Focusing on 20th century cards and players, I became lost in an era where cards had a thousand variations, even more game-used stuff and autographs, serial numbered cards to reflect scarcity, etc. The prices of boxes of cards were outrageous, and so were the packs. I didn’t believe that was an investment that I wanted to make in my life; I had other much more important things my money was to go for. That wasn’t my biggest surprise – It was the fact that people now were starting to fight over them in the store like it was Black Friday.

Hundreds of dollars. Thousands of dollars. Buying and selling online as if it were the New York Stock Exchange. Expensive and overwhelming for me. Wasn’t what I wanted to do. Hell, I don’t even know how to sell on eBay. Hell, I don’t even know how to play fantasy sports. I’d lose track of time and get more mentally lost than what I already am.

Still, I had these cards that have been in the binders since my teenage years. Sure, a few more have joined them. But could I EVER sell those cards in today’s shows? Not if people are going to constantly plop down Ben Franklins for a bunch of Wander Francos; I only had George Washingtons to give for the cards I wanted. Because of that, it’s like the bartender effect: The dealers are going to give all of their attention to the people who give they more money than the ones (like me) who don’t have much to spend.

Sometimes I ask myself, “Do I want to try one more time to sell some cards in binders to bring?”

Along the way, I’ve made “accident” purchases of cards that I already had. One of note is a 1968 Topps Elston Howard. I would take the better conditioned one, and assume that it is a 2 (fair) even though it’s probably a 3 or 4. 1950s and 1960s “poor” goes for 10% of book value, and 1970s and 1980s “poor” goes for 5%. At $6, the Elston Howard is probably $1 tops. I’m okay with that. Don’t know if any dealer is.

With money being made and transactioned around constantly, it gives me the impression that dealers are clamoring for money using every possible convincing sale trick in the book. Siphoning collectors like myself.

I felt irked at one recent card show simply because I wore a Blackhawks cap. I didn’t even see this dealer’s stuff on the table over from the one I was looking at until he said, “I got your Blackhawks, right here …” and then showing me a bunch of autographed pictures and telling me a price. Dude! Slow your horses! Just because you see me with a Blackhawks hat doesn’t mean I’m going to buy Blackhawks stuff! Chill! I know you want money, but come on, man! It’s probably great salesmanship, but it kind of creeped me out a little.

If I have anything to sell, it’s like I’m flipping pennies, or playing poker with quarters and dimes and nickels. Maybe I can flip that 1965 Topps Bill Mazeroski – the Pirates Hall of Famer with the famous 1960 home run – that I bought for $1, into $2.

But who’s going to remember who Bill Mazeroski is?

Maybe a kid doesn’t have a single Cal Ripken in his collection. I have a 1984 Fleer for sale, books for $10, I don’t even know what to sell it for. I don’t want to give the impression that I’m “ripping off” a kid, too.

A friend of mine does deals a lot, and absolutely insists that the buyer starts with naming the price. I can’t do that. I have flashbacks of that “f****** dollar fifty for a Roger Clemens” with even more of a fear since money means a lot more in the hobby than it did 22 years ago when I was 13.

It can be lonely being a coins guy in a dollars hobby.