How to Collect Baseball Cards: A Few Thoughts for Coping With the Downturn

3/5/09Follow @bbuderi

I have approximately 7,000 baseball cards in my collection. These treasures are arranged in numerical order, in long and slender cardboard “card boxes,” with the typical box containing cards from a single year.

The vast majority of my collection hails from the sixties. My heyday covered the years 1962 through 1965, when I collected every card made by Topps. But I am strong throughout the decade, and also have some great cards from the 50s, 70s, and 80s. Among my favorites: two Pete Rose rookie cards, Nolan Ryan and Reggie Jackson rookies, and a bunch of Willie Mayses and Mickey Mantles (several of which are so battleworn they have lost all but sentimental value). But what I’m most proud of are those four years when I collected every single card out.

Even though I finished this streak before my teenage years began, I still remember the rules I developed for collecting—rules that I only strayed from once, at a painful price (read on). Lately, with the detritus from Wall Street blocking sunlight from the business world like the comet dust that allegedly killed the dinosaurs, I have realized that these rules are helping me today as an entrepreneur. I don’t know how valuable they’ll be to other people running companies, but to me, at least, they seem like they might hold some insights about how not to become a business dinosaur.

So here they are:

1) Collect the Whole Set — A complete set is more valuable than the sum of its parts. That was obvious to me as a seven-year-old, even though I wasn’t thinking economic value, but intrinsic value. Especially for startups running on a shoestring, the temptation in this climate is to go extra lean and not hire every position you have open. This, it seems to me, is a huge mistake. Hire the people your business needs to be successful–you don’t want key roles to go unfilled or to be partially filled by employees who in turn must scrimp on their core responsibilities. One of the best decisions we made in recent months was to hire a part-time business manager to handle HR and office logistics previously taking up founder time.

2) Be Willing to Pay A Premium to Fill the Holes in Your Collection (Because That Still May Well Be A Bargain) — This one is really a corollary of Rule 1, but it merits special attention. Some hires may seem expensive at first blush, yet constitute bargains when you consider the value they add to the team as a whole. This isn’t only true for people, either. It may make sense to take what might seem like less-than-ideal terms on a deal, for instance, if that particular deal validates or allows you to realize a key part of your business model.

3) Collect from Different Sources — I learned early on that my neighborhood stores seemed to sell different editions of cards at different times than stores in nearby cities. I would occasionally convince my mom to take me to these other venues, tapping the high-turnover stores in the city for latest-edition cards that my neighborhood peers hadn’t gotten their hands on yet, and filling in holes in my collection with older-edition cards from stores in the boonies, where my half-brothers lived. Whether you’re looking for employees, partners, suppliers, or customers, diversification of sources can expand your horizons and help you think out of the box (even though in my case, it helped put cards into the box).

4) Develop Great Trading Partners With Whom You Create Mutual Value — Matty Holtz and Randy Dover. These fellow collectors and I always sought fair trades that helped all parties. If someone didn’t like a trade, we renegotiated. Obviously, if you do this consistently in the business world you will have great partners and customers who might just help you out when you need a special hand.

5) Trade to Value — This simply means that despite its “book” value, trading the same card to two different people can bring you wildly different valuations. To maximize the value of what you have to offer, understand the needs of your partners and customers. They (perhaps invoking Rule 2) will willingly pay more than “fair market” value if what you’re providing fills an important gap for them. And they won’t think you’re ripping them off, either.

6) Only Trade Doubles — Never trade a card that you only have one of. I violated this rule once, receiving 23 cards (all ones I didn’t have) for one single Willie Mays. Even though on paper they outstripped the value of Willie, this was a calamity. All these cards were relatively easy and cheap to collect from other sources, but Willie was rare and extremely hard to replace. I spent a lot of angst and effort to restore the Say Hey Kid to my collection. And I’ve got to be honest with you, I’ve got no great direct business lesson to share here, except for maybe reinforcing Rule 1—and to emphasize that one “hole” can also be greater than the sum of a bunch of other holes.

7) Be Patient -– When I was collecting, Topps issued seven sets of cards in a season. They would release them one at a time, and often the rarest cards would be held back until the last set. If you didn’t stay in it for the long haul, you couldn’t complete the set—yet by the time the seventh set came out many kids had tired of the season, or were spending their money on something else. Especially in today’s business climate, you have to do everything you can to plan for and stay in it for the long haul. Your investors, partners, and customers are all likely to be more cautious than usual and slower to act, or you may just feel desperate to do something and enter into a deal or make some other move that really isn’t a good fit with your business or strategy. But if you can keep at it and stick to plan when others lose patience or courage, you stand a much better chance of completing your “set” and creating something of great and lasting value.

Bob is Xconomy's founder and editor in chief. You can e-mail him at bbuderi@xconomy.com, call him at 617.500.5926. Follow @bbuderi

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  • Mike Wolff

    very clever, Bob–reminded me of my great business blunder: selling the entire set of prior-generation cards (1940s) to my 6th-grade buddy for $0.50! In retrospect a clue that I would not be an entrepreneur! Best regards, Mike

  • Pete De Spain

    Brilliant!

  • Pete De Spain

    It’s not often I read a relevant industry piece that also brings back a rush of childhood memories – even rarer still to read an article regarding the downturn that puts a smile on my face!

  • Bruce Wirt

    Very well said “Baseball Card” Bob

  • Tom Henderson

    No wonder I could never beat Bob in our fantasy baseball games. He held all the cards.

  • http://www.staenberg.com jon staenberg

    Great stuff…with a collection of 40,000 sports ticket stubs we should compare notes sometime!

  • http://community.cardboardconnection.com/ Mike

    I like the baseball card analogy. Great article!

  • http://www.YouHaveNotChangedOneBit.com Erik Sebesta

    I’ll swap you a 1989 Topps box of unopened wax packs for an Xconomy article to be written later. Note, the Topps box cover features a photo card of Jose Canseco and the wax packs still have the chewing gum included. The chewing gum from the late 80′s may or may not increase your ability to hit home runs.

  • Tim D-T

    Now, how to expand the analogy to reflect on what value your collection is now bringing you (or not!) Like I told my brother-in-law about his collection of vintage Star Wars toys still in the original packages: It’s not an “investment” if you are NEVER going to sell it!