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At the height of the popularity of collecting baseball cards in the early 1990s, Chuck Zweiback decided to leave his corporate job behind and turn his favorite hobby into a business.
He opened a 1,500-square-foot baseball card store in a Columbus, Ohio, strip mall even though at the time he could hardly walk more than a few blocks without stumbling across a competitor.
"There must have been almost 20 baseball card stores in Columbus alone back then," said Zweiback, who owned that shop for 21 years before he retired earlier this year. "Now there are only two shops remaining. Before we closed, people were coming in from all over the state because there weren't any shops left in their area."
The phenomenon Zweiback described has unfolded similarly across the country as the baseball card craze of the late 1980s and early 1990s proved unsustainable. Many shop owners have closed their doors and others have had to get creative to stay afloat as sales of cards declined drastically from their peak of $1.2 billion in 1991 to maybe a quarter of that these days.
The market for rare vintage cards remains as viable as ever today among serious collectors willing to invest hundreds or even thousands of dollars, but newer cards don't inspire the interest from either kids or casual baseball fans that they once did.
Enticed by video games and other electronic gadgets and disillusioned by the 1994 baseball strike and the subsequent string of steroids scandals, kids who in previous generations might have devoted some of their allowance to trading cards instead spent their money other ways. Manufacturers responded by trying to drum up interest in new products by including swatches of game-worn jerseys or fragments of game-used bats in cards, an innovation that catered to deep-pocketed middle-aged collectors but further alienated kids by driving up the price of packs and making common cards worthless by comparison.
The inability of baseball card manufacturers to recapture the youth market that was once their primary niche has been especially damaging to shop owners. They often generate such little walk-up business that they become dependent on a couple of regular customers spending at least a few thousand dollars a month on vintage cards or high-end packs.
Bob Brill, who owned a baseball card shop in Ventura, Calif., for 13 years, closed it in 2009 soon after the economic downturn all but eliminated the small customer base he had left. Before Brill decided to go out of business, he endured days in which only two or three customers entered the store and weeks in which he had barely a couple hundred dollars worth of sales.
"We had to shut it down," Brill said. "There was no way I could keep it open. It was just dying. You'd still have the occasional big hitter come in, but that was it. Most shops today that survive make it because of a couple big hitters, a guy who will come in and spend $2,000 at a time. But those guys eventually go away. They move, they lose their jobs, they retire or they get divorced. And when that happens, that's the danger because then you're in trouble."
That baseball cards are now more popular with adult collectors would have come as a surprise to previous generations because for decades they appealed mostly to kids.
More from the 'Toughest Jobs in Sports' Series:
• Introducing the series
• July 21: Manny Pacquiao's sparring partner
• July 22: World Cup referee
• July 23: Colorado Rockies pitcher
• July 24: Publicist for Alex Rodriguez
• July 25: Ice maker, Arizona Coyotes
• July 26: Baseball card shop owner
• July 27: NCAA enforcement staff member
• July 28: Professional gambler
In the pre-World War I era, young boys and girls would pester their parents to fork over the picture cards tobacco companies used as promotional items inside their cigarette boxes. Children in ensuing decades spent much of their allowance on bubble gum packs to snap up the Goudey, Bowman and Topps baseball cards included inside.
Since so many of those cards were tacked to walls, creased and torn from being placed in bicycle spokes or thrown away when parents cleaned their attics, prescient collectors recognized the resulting scarcity created a market for certain rare cards from that era. They snapped up old Ty Cobb, Mickey Mantle or Joe DiMaggio cards at low prices and sold them at shows for hundreds or even thousands of dollars.
Those profits caught the attention of everyone from kids, to other collectors, to speculators who had never shown any interest in sports memorabilia before. They each bought up boxes and boxes of new cards in the 1980s and early 1990s in hopes that product from that era would someday appreciate in value in the same way that the older cards had.
"Everything card shops put up at that time sold within days," said Rich Mueller, managing editor of Sports Collectors Daily. "You could buy a box of cards from your local grocery store, and make a profit just from selling whoever the hot rookie was that year. Cards were cheap — 50 cents a pack. And sometimes the best rookie cards sold for $10 or $12 apiece individually."
To meet the newfound demand, card manufacturers ramped up production in the mid-to-late 1980s, flooding the market with millions more cards than were produced in previous eras. Major League Baseball also contributed to the deluge by licensing new manufacturers to capitalize on the boom.
Also adding to the glut of cards from the era was that collectors of all ages protected their cards like never before, buying binders and clear plastic sleeves in which to store them rather than dumping them in shoe boxes to be discarded someday. Everyone was so conscientious of the potential value of baseball cards that even kids as young as second or third grade walked into stores with Beckett price guides under their arms and treated buying baseball cards like purchasing stocks.
Alas, the notion that investors might make the down payment on a house or car someday with a boxful of Jose Canseco or Ken Griffey Jr. cards proved misguided to say the least. None of the cards ever became rare enough to appreciate in value. There's still such a surplus of cards from 1986-1993 on the market that the last time most of the best ones sold for more than a couple dollars was back when Full House was still on the air and Beauty and the Beast was still in theaters.
"People would buy cases of brand new cards thinking they were going to send their kids to college with them and they would put them in the garage and wait," said John Broggi, executive director of the National Collectors Convention. "Well, everyone else was doing that too. When it came time to sell them, people became disillusioned very quickly. They were saving those cards and now they were worth less than what they originally paid for them."
Once speculators realized modern-day baseball cards weren't a fruitful investment, they began spending money elsewhere. The baseball strike that led to the cancellation of the 1994 World Series also hurt card manufacturers and store owners because it alienated casual fans and persuaded them to turn to other hobbies.
With the baseball card bubble having burst and demand for new cards dwindling, manufacturers began going out of business as quickly as they had appeared during the boom years. First to fold was Pinnacle in 1998, followed by Pacific going under three years later and Fleer declaring bankruptcy four years after that. By 2009, Major League Baseball granted Topps exclusive rights to print cards, though Upper Deck retained the right to print cards with player likenesses but no team logos via a deal with the player's association.
Amid waning interest in old-fashioned baseball cards, the remaining manufacturers sought to differentiate themselves and generate interest from collectors with novelty options. It started with limited-edition cards featuring autographs, bat splinters and swatches of game-worn jerseys, but it escalated quickly from there.
In 2007, Upper Deck enticed collectors to buy its packs by including a card with a World Series ticket signed by Babe Ruth in one of them. Topps made headlines the following year with its "DNA cards" featuring locks of hair from historical figure like Abraham Lincoln, John F. Kennedy and Beethoven. There was even a dinosaur bone DNA card.
Since the most coveted of these types of cards often sell for hundreds or thousands of dollars, they've turned buying high-end packs into a form of legalized gambling as collectors search through low-value cards in hopes of finding a lottery ticket. Topps has also priced certain five-card packs at $500 apiece because they're guaranteed to contain autographed cards, jersey swatch cards or both.
"When they had to move into the pieces of jerseys and the pieces of bats to draw people in, it had a twofold effect," said Tom Bartsch, editor of Sports Collectors Digest. "It raised the prices of everything and for a lot of the sets, it rendered the common cards almost inconsequential. People are only looking for these novelty cards. If you're opening a pack or a box and you don't get one of these so-called hits, you're disappointed and you're wondering why you spent the money."
Innovations like that were a mixed blessing for shop owners like Chuck Zweiback because they appealed to high-end collectors but didn't help him attract walk-in business from kids or casual fans. Nonetheless, Zweiback and his wife Barb managed to do what so many of their competitors could not: remain in business despite the crash of the baseball card industry, the cancellation of a World Series and a flurry of steroid scandals.
Whereas other longtime shops stayed afloat by supplementing their incomes with eBay stores and attracted customers by advertising on social media, Zweiback credits a more traditional approach.
He emphasized cards and memorabilia from former Ohio State stars and from the state's many pro teams. He capitalized on the Pokemon and Yu-Gi-Oh! crazes, the Magic: The Gathering fad and the zeal for Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa merchandise without alienating the high-end card collectors that regularly frequented his store. And, perhaps most importantly, he turned the store into a place collectors and baseball fans alike looked forward to visiting to check out the newest cards and talk about the local teams.
"There were some lean years, but we always adjusted," Zweiback said. "Our biggest key we always felt was we always listened to our customers. If I had to give one reason we were able to maintain the longevity when others couldn't, that was it."
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