Continued Strength of the Pre-War Hobby Depends on … Modern Card Collecting?

Believe it or not, modern card collecting has much to do with the future of the pre-war card market

Many pre-war and early vintage collectors can’t stand to look at modern cards. They’re usually shiny, to our eyes, often unattractive, and there are way too many parallels to keep up with. Even a once-promising aspect of modern cards, relics and autographs, have flooded the market to the degree that most just seem kind of pointless. An autographed card used to be a treasured commodity. These days, you can often find commons in dollar boxes.

But if you’re a pre-war collector, you should hope that the current popularity of modern collecting continues.

Aaron Judge Modern Topps CardI saw a tweet recently that intrigued me. It showed a collector’s local Target or Wal-Mart baseball card section that was nearly completely empty. Collectors used to go to their local card shops and have no doubt that a particular unopened product would be there. These days, finding these boxes in large retail outlets is often a crap shoot. Unopened product seemingly flies off of the shelves these days and the hobby is undeniably strong right now.

Strong as in early 1990s strong? I guess it depends on how you view the question.

In those days, most towns not only had a card shop but a few of them. Shows were common and all kids, even if they didn’t collect themselves, knew of many kids that did. There were just a lot more collectors around in those days.

But the market is perhaps not any weaker than that time period if you consider the amount of money being spent on cards these days. Instead of $1 packs, many are in the $3-$5 neighborhood — and a lot are considerably more, obviously. Key inserts can be worth thousands instead of hundreds. And pre-war card values have jumped exponentially. More money is in the hobby these days and it’s not really tied to the rate of inflation, either.

Here’s the thing. Many of us collecting pre-war cards may ignore the modern market entirely. Other than an odd fetish with modern graded pro wrestling cards and collecting Dwight Gooden cards, I basically do. There’s no real problem in doing so but we should understand that modern collectors are sorely needed if the pre-war market is to continue to thrive.

That’s not only in the sense of a ‘rising tides lift all boats’ perspective in terms of keeping prices healthy. I commonly mention that on Twitter. Rather, the pre-war market will rely upon collectors being interested in these older cards for prices to remain high. And while these cards may be attractive to us, few collectors are going to jump into pre-war collecting without any background on card collecting.

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Now, the cards have proven to be such an investment that some companies, like PWCC, actively tout it as such. Some folks with no collecting background can and do buy a few pre-war cards as an investment, and getting directly into the hobby that way. However, the majority of pre-war collectors are going to come from collectors of more modern cards that simply find their way to pre-war issues.

That’s how I started and I’m guessing that’s a similar story for many others.

Sure, some cards of the mega stars like Babe Ruth, Ty Cobb, and Walter Johnson will always be popular. But if you think legendary players like Zack Wheat, Rogers Hornsby, and Nap Lajoie can’t slip from memory, think again. Here’s a fun exercise — ask your local neighborhood kid (well, not in a creepy, stranger danger type of way) if he’s heard of those players. Heck, even ask your casual adult sports fan if they can tell you which teams they played on. I recently spoke to a 9-year-old child originally from Chicago that had never heard of Michael Jordan.

Now, what do you think the chances are that, as adults, non-card collectors will begin to have an interest in those sorts of players — enough to the point that they may spend hundreds of dollars on rare baseball cards of them? But even if a modern collector can’t tell you their names, if they are interested in cards of Trout and Judge now, and stick with the hobby, as an adult they may be inclined to learn more about older cards.

This isn’t a doom and gloom outlook for pre-war cards — rather, it’s the opposite. Both the vintage and modern markets are doing well and that should continue to provide a positive outlook for the state of early cards. But things are hardly guaranteed to stay that way if modern card collecting doesn’t remain hot.

Go ahead and mock the collectors chasing a seemingly endless string of 1/1s, rainbow parallels, and jumbo-super-ultra-x-green-pink refractors. Laugh at the folks shelling out more than a grand for a Topps Update Mike Trout rookie card that isn’t rare even by the most generous of definitions. Or scoff at the folks ripping hundreds of dollars in packs in the hopes finding an insert to at least break even. I mean, even I can’t help but scratch my head at that at times. But just know that those types of collectors are needed to ultimately grow the pre-war hobby and keep it a healthy one.

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