Changing Levels of Discrimination in the Market for Baseball Cards

Article excerpt


Over the last 4 decades, baseball trading cards have moved from the shoebox under the bed to the showpiece of sport collectors. What had been a childhood hobby, collecting baseball cards that came with sticks of sugary sweet bubble gum, has become big business. Cards that once were used to make special noise effects on bikes tires are now investments in 'sports memorabilia.' Some of these cards can now sell for millions of dollars. For example, a 1910 Honus Wagner card recently sold for $2.35 Million ("$2.35M card, but how much is the bubblegum?" USA Today, 3/29/2007). Card collecting is clearly no longer just a hobby of preadolescent males, it is now a business, an investment for the buyer. The wide market for these trading cards has provided economists with a playground of data to examine how the value placed on player's cards is affected both by the player's skill and, possibly, by the player's race. For instance, if collectors display prejudice against non-white players, then cards of players with similar stats but of different races would presumably sell for different amounts. Alternatively, it may not be each individual buyer who is demonstrating prejudice so much as buyers jointly assuming that other buyers will display prejudice, thereby affecting price. This is something like England's famous "Page Two Girls" beauty contest where people are asked to pick what other people will think is the most attractive girl. At any rate, the result should be the same in this case: racial discrimination against non-white players should show up as reduced card price, all else equal.

What we bring to this discussion is two-fold. Initially, we examine how the impact of race may have changed across time as we have reason to believe that attitudes towards race may well have changed. Additionally, following our own work (Burnett and Van Scyoc, 2009), we bring the added dimension of a player's fame to the analysis. Indeed, we suspect that famous players' cards hold value distinct from racial impacts. If there is a racial bias on the part of card collectors it would most likely be seen in the cards of players not so famous and we feel we should include this idea into the academic literature.

Resale value of a particular player's card is paramount to today's buyer, which brings us to the issue of pricing these cards. Any number of player characteristics could affect the price of a given card, though chief among these elements would include demonstrated player skill (stats) as well as player race. Unobservable characteristics, such as off-field behavior (such as steroid use) may well influence the demand for cards, but since our primary data set is from the 1960's, one might expect that little of these types of influences are likely to remain in buyers minds. Though, by looking at pricing both in current markets (based on prices from 2008) and from previous markets (1981, a year that would have seen most of the players from the 1960's would have been inducted into the Hall of Fame, for instance but close enough to the time the players were on the field and well known among collectors), we may be able to ferret out changes in collector behavior. Apart from the off-field behavior, players' on-field behavior can be measured either directly by annual and lifetime player stats as well as by such awards as Most Valuable Player (MVP), election to the All Stars or Hall of Fame (HF). These observable characteristics are some measure of fame and how their careers were perceived at the time (All Stars, MVP) or since (Hall of Fame). We include all three of these measures of fame into our work, to determine if they appear to affect the value of cards. Supply conditions for these cards, according to the manufacturer, did not vary depending upon the popularity of the individual players. However, if card collectors did display any bias against non-white players, they may have been less likely to keep cards of those players, limiting the supply of those cards in later years. …


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