The Disappearance of the Set Collector
When collecting only the big names doesn’t cut it
I was reading a Blowout thread today that actually wasn’t related to altered cards. This one was about collectors and what they do with base cards.
Base cards are those mundane ‘regular’ cards that come in packs. You’ll find most collectors these days quickly thumbing by them in hopes of finding the latest valuable insert card, which will of course be replaced by a different insert card tomorrow.
None of that is to mock collectors of newer cards, of course. Cards these days can cost quite a bit and if you’re spending lots of money on packs, I can completely understand not being interested in the cards that aren’t bringing much of a return financially.
Back to that thread, though. The idea was to find out what collectors do with these base cards. The answers ranged from giving them away to kids, to taking them to Goodwill, to even throwing them away.
Now, those are newer cards and, collecting older cards, I can’t really relate to the pack-buying scenario. But as a set collector, I did find the discussion intriguing. That’s because, few collectors these days, it seems, collect full sets of base issues. Modern collecting seems much more about finding a valuable card in a pack or grading a decent card in the hopes that it will receive a top grade and, consequently, become valuable.
And, by the way, this isn’t simply an issue with modern collectors. I think set collecting is less popular among all collectors, including ones dealing with vintage. I do know quite a few people collecting sets but a lot of pre-war collectors don’t want to be bothered with tracking down every single card. They’d rather focus on collecting the individual cards they really want instead. That, by the way, makes perfect sense.
I really believe that there are two distinct reasons why collectors have moved on from collecting sets.
For modern collectors, I think the market has really shifted towards focusing mostly on high-dollar inserts and rookie cards as that’s where the money is. In the days before inserts, collectors’ main objective other than maybe collecting team sets or certain players was generally limited to collecting sets. It’s the reason why so many complete sets were offered as factory sets. Today, it may not be entirely about pulling big hits from packs, but it mostly is. You don’t need to look beyond the gaggle of companies running breaks, opening packs for audiences in search of a high-dollar card, for that confirmation. That’s where a lot of money is spent these days.
For vintage collectors, I believe that the rising prices for cards are to blame. For example, look at what a Babe Ruth or Ty Cobb card costs these days. The 1933 Goudey set is a great example.
Minus the shortprinted Nap Lajoie card, putting that set together in low-grade condition really wasn’t too bad, say, ten years ago. You could buy very low-grade Ruth cards for around $500 and the Gehrigs were even cheaper. These days, good luck trying to find a Ruth in any shape for much under $1,000. And considering there are four of them in the set, you can see how the price adds up. Even if you want all of the cards in a set, a lot of collectors can be wiped out financially just trying to acquire the biggest ones, let alone shortprints or the other key cards.
The cause is amplified in a larger, more complex set like T206. Completing a 520-card set minus the rarities was always a significant challenge just because of the sheer number of cards and big names. But doing so today is way more expensive given how the Cobb cards (in particular, the green background card) have risen in value. All of the other Hall of Famers have risen sharply, too, and while a lot of collectors may be working on a set today, finishing one at these prices will prove incredibly difficult to do for collectors without deep pockets.
I don’t know that the disappearance of set collecting means the end of the hobby or anything like that. Rather, it just means people are finding different ways to collect. It doesn’t mean it’s any better or worse — it just means that it’s different.
Still, I’m what you call a holdout in the sense that I just love collecting sets. I don’t know what it is but I’m really drawn to the allure of it. I do buy singles from sets on occasion and have actually started doing more of that lately. But in general, the sets are the focal point of my collection.
But why sets? Man, I don’t know. There’s something cool about seeing every single different card in a particular set. I get as much joy out of viewing the commons, the poses, the artwork, on commons as I do on the stars. If there’s a reason I collect sets, I guess that’s what I’d point to. Every card may not have the same financial value but every card is equally valuable to me.
There’s also a great feeling once a set is completed and you can sort of sit back and admire the work. Flipping through a binder of cards for a set you’ve completed sort of takes you back to remember the journey it was to get there. You see a certain card and remember how difficult it was to find. Or you see another and are reminded of what a steal you got on it. Complete sets tell all sorts of stories — particularly if you’ve assembled one on a card-by-card basis as opposed to buying them all at once.
There’s little doubt that set collecting is less popular these days. But it’s still my preference and a great way to collect.