IN the last decade, the hobby of collecting and trading baseball cards turned professional. Fueled by nostalgia, the aging of baby-boomers, and the bottom line of investment appreciation, the intangible memories of childhood coalesced into cash sales.
Not only cards but also a wide-ranging assortment of sports memorabilia - autographs, as well as gloves, bats, and uniforms worn by star players - saw their nostalgic worth swapped for dollars. In 1990, according to collectors and antiques industry sources, $1.5 billion changed hands over such items. The rise in prices is likely to continue.
"Baseball memorabilia is perhaps the widest collecting area in America," says Karen Keane, managing director of Skinner Inc., an auction house with branches in Boston and Bolton, Mass. The 1980s ushered in a "new collecting market. There's a grace and elegance to baseball," she says, "a slowness coupled to speed and action. It stops time, in a way." And today, there's not a player on the Boston Red Sox that isn't a lot younger than most baby-boomers, says Ms. Keane.
"Baby-boomers have reached a point in their lives and careers where they have the money and time" to do some serious collecting, says Steve Ellingboe, publisher of Sports Collector's Digest. With 10 years' experience writing about sports collecting, he emphasizes that the main factor is still nostalgia, not money.
Last March, Sotheby's New York office held its first specialty auction of sports memorabilia in the United States. The premier item was a multicolor baseball card, originally issued by tobacco producers in 1909 and 1910, of Honus Wagner, a famous Pittsburgh Pirates shortstop. Wagner did not smoke and strongly objected to his name being used to promote the habit. Very few of his cards were printed and fewer remain. The pre-sale price was expected to top $100,000. The card sold for an incredible $451,000, sending hobbyists scrambling to their attics in hopes another copy could be found.
Baseball's dominance of sports memorabilia rests on two pillars: "There exist a lot of affordable things in baseball, and it spans generations from kids to grandparents," says Keane.
Former schoolteacher Gary Gilbert, owner of Gilbert Sports Nostalgia store in Needham, Mass., says, "I collected and gave away baseball cards. One day I noticed the kids talking behind my back." It dawned on Mr. Gilbert that they were perplexed, even humored, by his giving away valuable stuff. The experience forced him to decide between what "I sell and what I keep for my hobby," he says.
For a long time there was only a market for baseball cards and a few other items associated with baseball, according to Gilbert. Now basketball, ice hockey, and football items are being traded, he says. In 1985, while collecting memorabilia on Boston Celtic Larry Bird, Gilbert bought a Michael Jordan fluorescent sticker for 50 cents. Just three months ago, at the height of the National Basketball Association playoffs, a sticker identical to the one he owns sold for $2,000.
The manufacturers of baseball cards will not say how many of each card …