What Happened to the Baseball Card?

jason-isringhausenThrough the 1990s, elementary school cafeterias across the country were pervaded with ambitious young children frantically flipping through multiple binders full of baseball cards. Many children also had the Beckett Baseball Price Guide, which listed the value of virtually every card and was often consulted during a trade to determine whether one was about to get ripped off.* Children became young economists in addition to sports fans, trading based on market value.

*One problem with the Beckett Price Guide is that it encouraged children to trade not based on their preferences but on some dubious market value. But frankly, for more than almost anyone, preferences really do matter for children. A Mets fan is going to get way more pleasure out of a Jason Isringhausen rookie card (this was my favorite card as a child) than a Yankees fan. The fact that this card may be fifty cents less in value than a Jimmy Key rookie card does not mean I shouldn’t have traded for it. Yet, Beckett sometimes would promote this non-pleasure maximizing behavior. (H/T to John S. for reminding me of this Beckett criticism.)

But, at some point in the late 90s, this changed. Children lost their fervor for baseball cards. Why the shift? Some common explanations are not very compelling. Some people point to the fact that Upper Deck (which may very well be on its last legs) started a trend of  “specialty cards” that were more expensive (e.g. $4.99 per pack instead of $0.99 per pack), and claim that this trend disincentivized purchases. This isn’t very convincing since Pokemon and Yu-Gi-Oh! (arguably the replacements for baseball cards) have specialty packs at very comparable prices. Moreover, presumably one of the reasons that Upper Deck chose to publish specialty packs (starting in the late 1980s) was that the market for baseball cards was so inelastic. Children were so committed to trading them that price changes wouldn’t lead to large behavioral changes.

David Jaimeson, in a very interesting (if too brief) historical article for Slate, states that the 1994 strike was a major cause in the decline of sales of baseball cards. Yet, the decline continued well after 1994, and you would expect somewhat of a rebound (or at the very least, a plateau) when baseball started being played again rather than a prolonged decline if the strike  were a major explanation.

I think that there are two main reasons for the decline in the collapse of the baseball card market:

  1. Pokemon, Yu-Gi-Oh!, and Magic Cards were better targeted for children. First, people are more likely to buy cards in something they have some sort of outside interest in. Pokemon, for instance, was originally a video game, and only after that did the franchise develop cards. Given the expansion and improvement of the videogame market for children, videogames became an increasingly significant source of childhood play. The extent to which children watched or listened to baseball dwarfed compared to the extent that children played videogames. And, the fact is Pokemon was tailored for children, with cute-looking fictional characters with stories and statistics. For many children, “Attack” and “Speed” statistics are more appealing than Earned-Run-Average (I like to think that I still would prefer the latter as a young child, though).  Moreover, the new wave of children’s cards was designed for playing games. Yes, the cards did have monetary value and were traded like baseball cards, but they also were designed for competition. And children like competition and games. Baseball cards’ value, on the other hand, was almost purely based on trading and scarcity. Since trading was such an important component of baseball card collection, once a critical mass of children did not collect cards—and therefore children did not have sufficient trading partners—it became very difficult to revitalize the industry.
  2. This reason is related to the demise of baseball cards more generally, and less related specifically to why children stopped trading them. Nevertheless, it’s relevant. Cards were overproduced in the 1990s. Upper Deck, Donruss, and Topps were publishing a ridiculous amount of cards and the Beckett guide was ballooning. Yet, much of the value of baseball cards came not from any inherent characteristic in the card itself but from its scarcity. This baseball card bubble meant fewer cards were scarce and the value to be gained from trade decreased, making trade less appealing. Moreover, the lower value of the newer cards meant that adult collectors (more driven by monetary concerns than children) would be less likely to attend card conventions and continue seriously collecting new cards. Older cards still had/have value, but the newer overproduced cards lost much of their value. This bursting of the baseball card bubble, then, certainly contributed to a decline in baseball card sales. (One interesting, if unlikely, possibility is that baseball cards will once again become scarce due to this bear market causing collection of new cards to become valuable again.)

As a baseball fan, I do think this decline is a disappointing development. Baseball cards got me (and I’m sure many others) interested in statistics, baseball history, and, indirectly, economics. Nonetheless, markets change and the baseball card bubble has collapsed for perfectly legitimate reasons, even if this leads to an outcome that doesn’t suit my preferences.

However, let me be clear: My Jason Isringhausen rookie card is NOT for sale.

3 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by Mike on August 14, 2009 at 9:39 AM

    Nice post. I remember when I traded my soul for a 1994 Topps Finest Danny Tartabull Refractor.

    Focusing on the line, “The extent to which children watched or listened to baseball dwarfed compared to the extent that children played videogames,” maybe the real reason baseball cards have stopped becoming popular is because America’s youth keeps getting lazier and lazier. Today, obesity is at its highest level ever in children. This obese youth have replaced outdoor recreational activities with PS3 and Warcraft. When kids play baseball they love pretending to be their baseball heroes (Jay Buhner was my favorite to emulate). So getting cards of those players actually meant something. Maybe when kids start burning cals again by participating in America’s Pastime we’ll see baseball card sales rise.

    Reply

  2. Posted by doc on August 17, 2009 at 6:03 PM

    Here’s what happened – instead of it being a fun thing to buy and look at it, it became a valuable commodity that was bought, boxed up, and saved in the basement, mostly by immature adults. Ironically, they lost there value because so many people were doing that. Secondly, the internet killed interest in the cards. They were the quickest way of finding out a player’s stats, but not anymore. Lastly, kids don’t ride bikes anymore. They were great to clip on so they hit the spokes and made that cool sound.

    Good article, Josh. And by the way, the stale bubblegum is hardly missed.

    Reply

  3. Posted by Doc on August 19, 2009 at 7:13 PM

    Check out this week’s Sports Illustrated which has a similar article.

    Reply

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