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Sports Collectibles: Then and Now

I’m a Baby Boomer, born in 1952. That makes me a product of the Sixties, the decade that shaped my life to this day. Of course, I was big into sports then and ever since--hockey, football, and baseball. I remember very clearly the many times I raced to the neighborhood confectionary in Regina, Saskatchewan to buy bubble gum cards. My friends and I loved it when the new sets would arrive for each season: football in late-summer, hockey in the fall, and baseball in the following spring. 

We were always anxious to see the latest designs on the cards and the player poses, especially for our colorful heroes. Each plastic-wrapped wax package came with a set of four cards and a strip of powdery, stale gum that we chewed anyway, although it never made bubbles--all for a mere nickel. I had my favorite teams in the Big Three sports: Toronto Maple Leafs, New York Yankees, and the hometown Saskatchewan Roughriders. About this same time I used to keep a 1954 Bowman bubble gum card of Mickey Mantle--my ultimate sports hero--in the clear plastic sleeve of my wallet for a couple years, a card worth at least a thousand dollars today in mint condition. 

Mickey Mantle
1954 Bowman Bubble Gum card of Mickey Mantle (US Public Domain)

I had a ton of cards in my early teens, but, like so many others my age, we saw our cards thrown out by our mothers because we were sloppy and always left them strewn about on the floor of our bedrooms, or the closet, or wherever. I’m glad my mother didn’t throw out my 1957 APBA baseball cards, however, which I had received from my cousin in 1962 or 1963. It could be because they were part of a board game that I had always kept neatly away in a large box in my closet shelf. I still have those APBA cards today, by the way, displayed in individual plastic sheets, all 320 cards. Stars like Mickey Mantle, Whitey Ford, Yogi Berra, Ted Williams, Stan Musial…

I also collected five-by-seven, black-and-white hockey photos, simply by my parents purchasing Bee Hive Corn Syrup in the grocery store. Under the cap of each plastic top came a colorful cardboard ring that you could mail into St. Lawrence Starch Company in Port Credit, Ontario and ask for the hockey star of your choice--Gordie Howe, Johnny Bower, Bobby Hull, or any other then-current player.

Another one of my favorites were the Post Cereal baseball cards that were distributed in Canada in 1962. They were on the back of each cereal box in a panel. Seven cards to a panel, along with a small ad on the bigger boxes. Less on the smaller boxes: three cards, I think. Ah, Roger Maris, Mickey Mantle, Hank Aaron, Willie Mays…

All you had to do was cut them along the borders--which I did as neatly as I could with my mother’s scissors--and you had instant baseball cards. So that my parents did not buy any doubles of these panels, I used to “volunteer” to help my mother on shopping day by going with her to make sure she did not purchase the boxes with the cards I already had. If she did, I’d make the switch when she wasn’t looking. Several times I also convinced her to try some new Post cereal brands once I learned that, say, Alpha-Bits had a different set of players then Grape Nuts did. I learned just this year, actually, that in 1962 Post had 16 different cereal brands. I didn’t remember that many! So, there were a lot to choose from.

Post also issued Canadian Football League sets in 1962 and 1963, which I had collected in the same way using the same schemes at the grocery store. Alas, all these cards and photos were lost forever during my mother’s previously noted throwaway day. 

I plunged into sports memorabilia again--a lot more seriously this time--immediately after moving to Ontario in 1976. By then, collecting was becoming quite a business to some, and a real money maker to a precious few dealers. Many of the cards I remember and had collected the decade earlier--the stars--were now worth several dollars each. Within two short years, I had collected almost every complete NHL hockey card set--Topps and Parkhurst cards--from 1951 to the end of the six-team era in 1967. I sold them--at the going rate then--and used the money as a down payment on our first home in Burlington in 1979. 

Honus Wagner
1909 Honus Wagner American Tobacco Company card (US Public Domain)

But wouldn’t you know it, the prices of sports cards took off in the 1980s. Within less than ten years, those same cards were worth ten times what I had paid for them. And easily another ten times or more since then. Oh, well. Should I have hung onto them longer?

Today, I have some sports memorabilia that I’ve collected over the years, mostly publications by going to sports shows and tapping into EBay. Street and Smith Baseball Yearbooks and Who’s Who in Baseball, in particular. I also have some Detroit Tiger card sets from the 1970s-1990s, along with Tiger program and score cards when the team’s venue was the iconic Tiger Stadium.  

Just to show you how cards have increased in a few decades, let’s look at the 1954-55 Topps NHL set that had comprised the four American teams: Detroit, Chicago, New York and Boston. Sixty cards in all.  In my opinion, it was the most gorgeous hockey set ever made. Outstanding poses. I found a set of these cards recently on the internet selling for $7,200 in excellent/mint condition. I had sold my near-mint/mint set for the then-going price of $75 back in 1979. My set could go for $10,000 in today’s money. Oh, that hurts just thinking about it!

The 1952 Topps Mickey Mantle is a unique card baseball, number 311 in the set of 407. That year and for the next decade afterwards most cards were issued by Topps starting with the first series for a month or so in the corner stores, the second series after that, and so on until September. In most cases, the last series would come out too late in the season or not be distributed at all, making this last series more rare than the first, second or third series of cards. 

The 1952 Topps Mantle card was the first card in the last series. Very few of the last hundred found their way to American corner stores. Some were sent to Canadian stores, however, the following spring, quickly followed by the new 1953 cards. Because of this more of the Mantle cards, along with the others in the last series, have appeared in Canada, something that Americans picked up on once the collecting craze began. Lately, mint condition Mantles have gone for $100,000 or more, while average ones can easily fetch $30,000. 

The most valuable sports card of all time is the T206 Honus Wagner baseball card, of which one sold at a recent 2016 auction for a hefty $3.12 million. This card was issued by the American Tobacco Company in 1909. Wagner, a Hall of Fame shortstop with the Pittsburgh Pirates, was considered one of the best players in baseball history. He was also very concerned about the younger generation having to purchase tobacco in order to receive his card. So, he demanded that his card be pulled from the set. Which it was, but after around 100 or so had been distributed throughout the continent. Thus, the rarity and the value of this particular card today.

I wish I had me a 1952 Mantle and a 1909 Wagner in my current collection. I might even take another 1954-55 Topps hockey set. If only…


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