New Fields, Same Dreams

New Fields, Same Dreams

How the Internet has changed sports card collecting.

For 33 years, Dennis Webb’s Card & Comic Collectorama on Mount Vernon Avenue in Alexandria has featured the same geography: plants arranged in the front windows and a dizzying array of pop culture memorabilia covering nearly every inch of the interior.

Old bookcases buckle under the weight of Star Trek and Doctor Who trade paperbacks. Comic books climb the walls and span the generations, from the early adventures of Spider-Man through Frank Miller’s modern day graphic novels. Then there are the collectable cards; ones that feature country music stars, scenes from James Bond films and Green Hornet episodes, and, most prominently, professional athletes. Boxes of "wax pack" baseball cards lurk behind the counter, waiting for an enterprising fan to drop a few dollars, rip open the packaging, toss away the stale gum and thumb through the bounty, searching for that elusive keeper among the chaff of light-hitting shortstops and middle relief pitchers.

"I always think it’s better to be able to handle the cards and see them yourself," said Webb. "Today, they’re buying things on the Internet, that’s basically mail-ordering. And I never thought mail-ordering was that great a thing anyway."

Shops like Webb’s and regional card shows used to be the sole outlets for those seeking to buy or sell baseball cards, sets or collections. But the Internet has changed this $300 million-a-year industry in several significant ways.

The online auction site eBay was the first Web-based boom market. Everything from entire collections — tens of thousands of pieces — to rare individual cards could be sold or bid upon inside specifically sorted categories. A quick check of the site in April found 173,652 active auctions for baseball cards: From an Edwin Encarnacion 2007 Topps card for $0.01 to a "flawless" 1981 Rochester Red Wings Cal Ripken, Jr. card listed for $19,999.91.

BILL LYNCH HAS experience with eBay, selling auto accessories on the auction site. When the Alexandria resident first started peddling his auto wares a few decades ago, he was restricted to selling them directly to dealers. The Internet, he said, has opened up the marketplace so he can sell directly to the consumer.

That same principle applies to baseball cards. Lynch buys cards from yard sales and from individuals, and tries to resell them through the Web. "I got between 80,000 and 100,000 cards," he said. "I want someone to take a look at them and buy’em all."

Lynch recently posted a classified ad for the cards on the online community, listing several of his most prominent sets and his contact information.

B. Marcus Badley is also using Craigslist’s free classified services to sell his collection of roughly 40,000 cards and sets. He said the fees associated with eBay — from the price of listing items to the price of shipping — deterred him from going that route.

Badley, a pitching coach for Mount Vernon High School’s varsity baseball team, used to sell cards at a shop on Maui in the late 1980s and early 90s. Upon relocating to Virginia, his wife told him to sell the majority of his remaining collection, which he estimates could be worth up to $15,000.

What he’s found is that the classic cards and sets he lists in his ads have gotten attention, while the newer cards have not. Those cards come from a time when the market was flooded and when certain manufacturers were attempting to control prices with an assortment of stunts and gimmicks.

"You had very small numbers of people driving the prices," recalled Badley. "We’d have a mint condition Johnny Bench that would be going down in price, and we’d be asking, ‘What the heck?’"

RANDY EARNHART of Sterling experienced that bias against newer cards first-hand as he attempted to sell his collection of over 250,000 pieces. He went to a recent collectibles show at the Dulles Expo Center and was snubbed by dealer after dealer. "Some of it was price, but a lot of the cards I have are 1980s and 90s, and that was the era of mass production," he said. "A lot of them aren’t interested in that many cards from that time frame. Most of them want the old school or the ones with the game-used jerseys or bats in them."

He tossed up an ad on Craigslist, using a baseball card price guide he purchased to assign dollar amounts to many of his better pieces. Earnhart was asking for $2,500. "That’s a penny a card. That’s not that bad."

Later, the price dropped to $1,200.

"I’ll keep lowering the price, or throw it on eBay," he said, after failing to attract much interested with the Craigslist ad. "I thought about eBay, and I still may. But once you start paying the fees …they get a percentage of the final sale, and if someone uses PayPal then you lose even more money. I really didn’t want to do that, but I may have to."

Earnhart wants to sell his collection in order to fund the restoration of a car he’s been working on, but there are some items he’s not looking to part with — like anything having to do with his beloved Detroit Tigers or Lions.

Badley, too, has his keepsakes: Ted Williams collectibles, cards featuring former NBA star and fellow Gonzaga alumnus John Stockton, and an unused ticket to a Seattle Pilots game.

Baseball memorabilia may be big business, but it’s a business with an undercurrent of sentimentality. Whether it’s in a box in Randy Earnhart’s home or in a binder in Dennis Webb’s Collectorama, there are just some things that will never be tossed away with the stale gum.