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When Collecting Sports Cards You Have to Focus

Do what you love and you´ll never work a day in your life,’ goes the old maxim.  It is also the only overt lie I am going to write in here.  Ask any basketball player, artist, or whomever else you think has a dream job what their day is like and you hear about the work put in.  So yeah, Manny Ramirez reputedly showed up early to take BP and loved working on his swing, but he also would get blisters and grit through it.  In Hollywood, people are never fully at work, but they are never fully at play either, because of this.

What does this have to do with card collecting?  There has been an evolution in card collecting and many different hats to be worn.  Collecting cards was once kids imploring their fathers to buy certain packs of cigarettes.  As time passed, candy and marketing shifted so that kids controlled more of their own collection destinies.  Into the 70ś, James Beckett (and his guides) and card shows further led to changes in what collectors were doing.  There were dealers and collectors.  But the baseball card investor started to rise.


As I write this in 2020, we have breakers, flippers, and half a dozen other terms that have come up since kids asked, ‘can you get some Piedmonts, pops?´  What does knowing this have to do with the card market today?

Ben McDonald – this is the year he will breakthrough, I know it!

Sports cards are a market, a business, an industry, and a hobby.  All in one.  I grew up in the 1980´s and the term ¨I PC _____¨ would have been as foreign to me then as Twitter.  Yeah, some kids tried to make money (Ben McDonald FTW) but I collected cards, not investments.  Now, of course, things are different… somewhat.

David (SVA Card Collector) preaches a few things in his podcasts.  Among them, he subscribes to Mark Cuban´s theory that when others zig, you zag.  Buy the card that you can get the sure money back on.  He is 100% correct… if you are a card investor or card flipper.  Of course, that is Business 101.  In kindasorta baseball terms, it is core MoneyBall.  Per that and many other Michael Lewis books identify, invest in under-valued resources.  The question I believe that each person in this enterprise has to ask themselves is ´why I am spending money on cardboard pictures of grown men (or in the case of Bowman, growing soon-to-be men)?´  

If sports cards are, strictly speaking, an investment for you, you have made an interesting choice.  Because it IS an investment, like a pennystock it can grow exponentially or value can disappear instantly.  But do you wade into penny stocks on a whim?  

I have been thinking about this a lot lately.  Personally, baseball cards have been a hobby.  I love the sport and card collecting scratches a few itches for me.  It helps me feel a connection, however tenuous, to the bigger picture of it.  I enjoy learning about history and, in part through cards, I learn more about the game.  I am a Tiger fan so, while they may be a tire fire on the field, their cards old and new are something more to enjoy.  I like to gamble so the excitement of opening a pack is a minor rush.  I like the satisfaction of completing something around a hobby I like, so I build sets.  With all that I see myself as a hobbyist more so than anything else when it comes to collecting.  However, funding that hobby can get tricky.

And that’s how I came up with the title of this piece; Focus.

Whether you spend money on cards for enjoyment, for investment, for connection to people here (or past), or any other reason… when you are setting out to spend money on cards, it is always important to consider what your focus is.  David (SVA Card Collector) recently mentioned that when he got back into the hobby (and, to this day) sometimes he spends money less wisely than ideally for lack of focus.  Mantle is going up so buy Mantle.  But Luis Robert is the new hotness so pour money into his cards.  But there is a documentary coming out soon on Jehosephat McGillicudy so those cards are definitely going to go up.  But I PC the 3 players that seemingly everybody PCs so buy that… it just is not feasible or scale-able (there may be another article on the Theory of Gambler´s Ruin to discuss more about why) to chase like that.  Ultimately, it may be profitable but it will always be an impossible and never-ending task. 

When you are looking at how you spend your time and money in this hobby, it will help you in the long-run to consider your goals.  If it is purely a money-making enterprise, the zig-when-zag approach is wise but you should constantly be re-assessing your course.  If it is because you are a gambler and are in it for breaks and lines, make sure you are only buying in when the price is right.

As for me, I collect for fun.  I have a job and I have hobbies and I like to keep them separate.  If I didn’t have focus, I would be overwhelmed in sports card market.  For example, I collect the Topps Tigers flagship sets since 1952.  It is a large undertaking so I track it on a Google sheet to make sure I stay up to date on what I need/have.  I also collect the Tiger All Star and Manager Rookie cards so I have a separate tab for that.  I also keep an expenses tab where I note cards and cost (both bought and sold) as I update my collection so I can see what is going on.  At times it can be disheartening to see how much has gone out of my bank account but then I go back to the slabs and that, being the goal, makes it seem better.  Because completing those runs provides me a sense of accomplishment and connection, and that is my focus.  By ruling out things that do not fit into my collection as expenses, I can do what I want (within budget and reason).  So, while I also enjoy building sets and opening packs, those are on the side (and can be unemotionally sold to fund what I really collect).  

Deciding what and how you value, then focusing your time, energy, and investment on that, will help you be more successful in your collecting, whatever the goal.

About the Author

Joel Haas

Joel Haas currently works for a large managed services company remotely from his basement in suburban Detroit. His wife, kids, and corgi mutt are very tolerant of his card collecting habit. Ish.

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