Baseball card collecting is not what it used to be.
Grading, which is the term collectors use to rate card quality, rarity, and the Internet have changed the face of the industry.
"With the advent of the Internet, people can get anything they're looking for," said Scott Parham, manager at Classic Collectibles Inc.
Collectors can find most cards they want on auction at Web sites such as eBay.com, Amazon.com, Yahoo.com and Beckett.com. On July 15th, a 1909 Honus Wagner baseball card was sold for $1.1 million on eBay.com. These online services have contributed largely to the declining need for card shops.
In the early 1990s there were several card shops in Augusta and Aiken. Today there are just three, including Mike and J.J.'s Cards in Aiken.
"We just both like cards," said co-owner Mike Steele. "We're both sports nuts. I've been collecting since '54, and I think J.J. started in '55. In the '80s, everybody was trying to get into sports cards. There was a lot of investing going on."
According to Steele, card companies produced a high volume of cards in the late '80s and early '90s, causing values to decrease. Compounded by the Major League Baseball strike in 1994, the industry took a hit and area shops felt the pain. Gaining profit quickly became a full-time job.
"A lot of people tried to do it part-time," said Richard Oglesby, owner of Classic Collectibles Inc. "This is not a part-time business. It's not something you do as a hobby."
For Rick and Linda Phillips, owners of Boo Bear's Village in south Augusta, their investment is a family business. The baseball card market didn't support their 1,200 square-foot store, especially after the baseball strike. But instead of shutting down, they adapted.
They expanded their inventory to dolls, candles, hand and body creams, resin bears, Pokemon items and gifts.
"I still sell as many cards as I did before, but now it is just one-third of our market," Linda Phillips said. "I still have many of the same customers as I did before, and their families now, not just the men anymore. I diversified. If I hadn't have diversified I would have lost a lot of them."
Rick and Linda Phillips were able to adjust to the market. But just as they overcame one obstacle, there was a growing giant that posed another threat -- the Internet.
"The Internet did affect our business with the single cards," Linda Phillips said. "That's why we started selling just the packs and boxes. When you can't compete with a market like that, there's no use in fighting it. Just go on to something different."
The Internet has taken the place of malls, churches and hotel lobbies, where baseball card shows used to be a weekly event.
"The biggest reason for no card shows is that there really isn't a need for them anymore with the Internet," Steele said.
"You still have your national and regional shows," Parham said, "but the days of your community and church shows are gone, because it's not worth the time."
According to Linda Phillips, the Internet card market took off with the introduction of high-priced, short-printed cards. In 1991, subset and parallel cards inserted randomly into packs became a major part of the market.
The market now includes cards numbered as few as one of one, meaning only one of that particular card has been produced. The scarcity has changed the way collectors collect.
"People can't collect one player anymore," Parham said. "You used to have those who collected team sets every year, but they can't put them together now. You've got a lot of people who've gone back to rookie cards. That's become really popular in the last year."
It hasn't been as popular with the customers at Mike and J.J.'s Cards.
"Unfortunately, a lot of our customers are the old traditionalists," said Steele. "They like to put sets together. But the companies have started short-printing some of the cards that are needed to make up that set, so they have to buy a lot more boxes or packs in order to fill their set, and they just got fed up."
The collectors who didn't abandon the hobby enjoyed a large increase in card values because of the short-printed cards. The rookie cards of some of today's unproven players have greater values than many current Hall of Famers.
For example, a 1983 Topps Tony Gwynn rookie card has a $60 value, while a 1999 Fleer Mystique Pat Burrell rookie card books at $80. Gwynn is considered a future Hall of Famer, while Burrell has yet to play a full season, but the card's scarcity has made the card more valuable.
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