How a Random 1986 Topps Baseball Card Led to a Pre-War Card Obsession
Some collectors got their introduction to the baseball card hobby through an iconic vintage card — mine came in the form of a 1986 Topps common
In 1986, I was eight years old and just barely getting into sports. I began playing baseball that year and was familiarizing myself with the basics of the sport. While I picked up on it pretty quickly, one thing that went completely under my radar was the world of baseball cards.
I’m often asked how I got into collecting cards of players from over 100 years ago that I had no real connection with. Here’s that story.
In 1986, I would receive my introduction to the hobby in the form of a 1986 Topps rack pack. My grandmother purchased these for me even though it was actually my brother’s birthday. It was an entirely random buy for no other reason than wanting to buy me something inexpensive and keep me occupied.
Frankly, I didn’t know what these cards were, exactly. I knew they were pictures of actual baseball players but beyond that, nothing. I soon discovered that these ‘things’ were collected by others and I wanted to know more. More specifically, I wanted another freaking pack to open.
Those were my first baseball cards and I can’t tell you about most of the cards in that pack. I don’t remember them and even in the moment, was probably more excited about the birthday party than I was for those cards. But one of them stands out because of a trip to the local card shop that I would make soon after that trip.
Forget that McNamara was the manager of the rival Boston Red Sox from the ’86 Series (I was a Mets fan). And forget that I initially thought he was an umpire as opposed to a manager. McNamara’s card doesn’t stand out for any of those reasons.
See, the local card shop in my area had a box for idiots like me. Kids with no knowledge about baseball cards, I expect, stumbled into their shop quite often. And while I would basically live in that place during summers for the next 4-5 years, initially, I didn’t know the first thing about cards or why they existed. So when this wide-eyed black kid stumbled into their shop asking what was going on, I was hastily shown their ‘special’ box.
In my mind, said box was gigantic and full of thousands of baseball cards. In reality, it was probably more like a modest 2′ x 2′ box that was about a foot high. The box sat on a metal folding chair in the back of the small shop to keep kids like me out of the hair of actual customers. It contained a random assortment of cards with easy-to-follow guidelines. You could buy any card in the box for one cent or you could trade any two of your cards for any one in the box.
Now we were talking. This was simple and easy to understand. I’m sure there were more meaningful cards in the box but, sifting through it, the one that I noticed was a crumpled up version of John McNamara’s card. That card stood out to me because I’d had one just like it from my rack pack. And, well, also because I assumed he was an umpire with that shirt, which looked similar to the ones worn by umpires in our local Little League games. And for whatever reason, that triggered something in me as I really began collecting.
From there, I began learning and collecting a lot more. And it helped that, like most kids growing up at that time, I had friends that were collecting, too. When it came to buying actual cards, I can distinctly remember two big buys in my early card collecting career.
A 1987 Topps Dwight Gooden card that cost me $2.25 at the time was my first big purchase of a single card. Today, the same card can be bought for a nickel, of course. But at the time, it was my most prized possession.
A few years later when Ben McDonald fever caught on, I was at a card show out of town. I had exactly $6 to my name and spent it all on McDonald’s 1990 Upper Deck rookie card. That was another buy, of course, that didn’t really work out in hindsight. But fortunately, my card-buying prowess would get better after that. I continued collecting into the 1990s until I got to college when I had mostly gotten out of the hobby.
Fast forward to 2001 when I graduated and I suddenly got the itch to collect again. While I was buying some modern stuff (the Rite Aid near my apartment selling Topps packs was a hotbed for Ichiro rookies for some reason), I was really getting an itch for vintage. You know, the stuff that 99% of us couldn’t afford when we were kids.
But, how old were cards, exactly? I mean, when did this hobby really begin?
While I knew there were older cards, my handy Beckett price guide indirectly told me that the oldest cards anyone cared about were from 1948 — specifically, 1948 Bowman. That, you see, was the oldest set listed in the price guide I had. So 1948 it was. I didn’t have any great affinity towards that set. I was mostly drawn to it because it was the oldest one listed in the guide.
Fresh out of college, I didn’t have money to burn. But I was, for the first time in my life, making an actual living, managing expenses, and accumulating a small amount of disposable income. And my card buying was focused on that set, slowly building and subsequently upgrading it.
I got married a few years later and was mostly on and off with the hobby. I’d occasionally buy some stuff but didn’t have much of a focus. And then about ten years later, I focused almost entirely on vintage, eschewing modern stuff I didn’t understand. After the 1948 Bowman set, I delved into the 1951 Bowman set, which remains my favorite post-war vintage set of all time. But I soon began turning my sights to even older cards.
After completing those two sets, the 1933 Goudey set was one I was learning about and I turned my attention there. That was the first pre-war set I really worked on. Aside from the four Babe Ruth cards, the two Lou Gehrig cards, and the Nap Lajoie SP, I’d completed it.
And then I found the T206 set.
I won’t rehash my T206 encounter in building that set. If you’re so inclined, you can read about it here. But in short, my first T206 card put me on a path to pre-war madness. When I began building that set, I jumped almost exclusively into pre-war.
After T206, I did T205. After T205, I went to T207 where I’m down to my last three cards for the set. And in between, I’ve focused on almost anything and everything that has to do with pre-war cards.
Why pre-war cards? I don’t know that I can really answer that, to be honest. It’s a myriad of things that other pre-war collectors probably would suggest. The artwork, the age of the cards, the variety, the rarity — there are a lot of contributing factors, but those are the biggies.
Many of us focusing on these cards (probably most of us) began as collectors of more modern cards — cards from the time when we grew up. That’s part of the reason I believe modern card collecting is still critical to the pre-war part of the hobby. Many people have taken a similar path to pre-war cards just like I did.
In my case, it started with a 1986 Topps rack pack.