Baseball Cards and Belarusian Rubles

I began collecting baseball cards in the summer of 1984, when I was a nine-year-old who knew little of the game. By the time I quit collecting in 1989, I could tell you not only what the letters RBI, SB, and BB on the back of the card meant—I could tell you the stats for most any player in my collection. My first pack was the result of a Fleer 3-pack which was divided among me and my brothers. I ended up with a Greg “The Bull” Luzinski card which I placed at the front of my ever-increasing stack of cards that were wrapped with a rubber band—hardly a way to keep a collectible in mint condition.

1984 Fleer Don Mattingly rookie card

I did find one gem among the cards I collected that summer: a Don Mattingly rookie. It’s amazing that this card was so well preserved when Mattingly came to prominence a few years later. For a kid, finding the Mattingly rookie among the commons in your collection was like finding a Picasso in your attic. In the late 1980s, the Mattingly rookie was the hottest card around. The Donruss brand card was worth a bit more, but the Fleer was still a rare find which at its peak was worth anywhere from $75 to $80 in mint condition.

A cursory web search reveals today’s value for the Mattingly rookie at around $30. What happened? Was Mattingly’s short-lived career to blame? He still has been mentioned on Hall of Fame ballots, and despite his back problems in the latter part of his career he is still considered one of the better hitters of all time.

It turns out that the decline in the card’s value has little to do with Mattingly himself. A recent article on the baseball card industry tells the story all too well:

Summertime is when baseball’s pennant races heat up. Too bad the same can’t be said for interest in baseball cards. Fleer, the New Jersey company responsible for breaking the long-running Topps baseball-card monopoly in 1981, went out of business in May, citing sluggish sales and debts approaching $40 million. It was sold at auction last month to rival Upper Deck for $6.1 million. In addition, the Major League Baseball Players Association decided not to renew next season’s card license for cardmaker Donruss – a major blow.

“This is huge news because in the last six weeks we’ve reached a real turning point in the card industry,” says Rocky Landsverk, editor of Tuff Stuff, a monthly collectibles magazine. “For the past 10 years, we had too many cards out there. This should help clean some of that up.”

I’d say it’s more like the past 15 years. I quit collecting in 1989 mainly because it was becoming too expensive a hobby for a teenager to keep up with. I had accumulated around 7,000 cards which at the time was worth around $500-$600. Nowadays it would be difficult to get $200 for the whole lot, if even that much. In the late 80s, the baseball card market became saturated, with new companies popping up left and right, building on the established “big three” companies of Topps, Fleer, and Donruss—of which the latter two were still in infancy themselves. The result of the market saturation (added to Major League Baseball’s own problems) is the baseball card industry’s current decline.

Belarusian Ruble

This downturn calls to mind the sordid history of the Belarusian Ruble (BR). When I lived in the former Soviet republic of Belarus from 1998-99, I saw the exchange rate go from 75,000 BR per USD to around 1.2 million BR per USD in just over a year. Throughout the entire increase, the government kept printing more and more money while artificially maintaining its value. The result was a real-world value that plummeted, leaving Belarusians who had large quantities of rubles left with currency that was cheaper than toilet paper in some instances.

While not exactly the same, the situation is similar with the baseball card industry. The once lucrative market became so saturated with different types of cards that the novelty and uniqueness of individual cards wore off. Any collectors who thought baseball cards were a sound investment were left holding many cards that were no more valuable than a noisemaker for the spokes of their bicycle wheels.

Thankfully, my collection was always oriented more toward fun and the love of the game than investing. I’ll most likely let my collection continue to age, unless there’s anyone out there interested in a Jose Canseco rookie (once worth $100, now worth $18) who is willing to pay yesteryear’s price. Any takers?

I didn’t think so.

1 thought on “Baseball Cards and Belarusian Rubles”

  1. I feel your pain. I think my Rafael Palmeiro rookie card just took a nosedive in value. Oh well, at least the pictures are still cool.

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