Back in 1987, on the way back from one of my brother’s many violin lessons in Albany, my parents agreed to stop at a local VFW or Elks Club and take us to our first baseball card show. The reason I can place the year? The first pack I ever opened was from the 1987 Donruss set. It was waxy to the touch and had this ugly brown finish on it. The cards inside it, however, were wonderfully designed, with striking black borders and yellow-gold backs, and the set was littered with rookie cards of superstars from the day: the two-sport wonder, Bo Jackson, in a powder-blue Kansas City Royals jersey; future four-time Cy Young-winning hurler Greg Maddux, seen winding up for the Chicago Cubs; a skinny, five-tool Pittsburgh Pirates prospect, Barry Bonds; and the guy I was after, Mike Greenwell, a phenom outfielder for the Boston Red Sox. Later that year, my family moved to a small town in China (long story), and I was forced to leave my cards behind, 7000 miles away. I could only dream of them.
When I returned to the states, I had an insatiable urge to start collecting again. And that’s how I became a baseball card collector for life. (There’s a good chance that you’ll be able to find me at one of these shops in the Capital Region on any given weekend.) I’m always adding to my collection, and it’s awful convenient that Saratoga Springs’ OG collectors’ haven, The Vault, is right around the corner from my office.
The National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum in Cooperstown, NY, is banking on its museum-goers having similar experiences and nostalgia-fueled memories as me. Just in time for the Memorial Day weekend rush, the Hall of Fame will be unveiling a new exhibit, entitled Shoebox Treasures, on Saturday, May 25, which goes in-depth on the production and history of baseball cards. “This will be a deep-dive into the history of the industry and how it’s shaped the way we’ve related to the game and become fans,” says Jon Shestakofsky, vice president of communications and education at the Hall. The exhibit will begin all the way back in the mid-to-late 19th century, when cards were first distributed as advertisements for stores, tobacco and candy companies; then, get into the evolution of card designs and production; and delve into the big “boom” in the 1980s (the one that sucked me in) and how that turned the hobby into a multi-million-dollar, multifaceted enterprise (1952 Topps Mickey Mantle, anybody?).
The Hall itself has an extensive baseball card collection (200,000 strong) that will be partly on display in the exhibit. Patrons will be able to view about 2000 of its cards in pull-out drawers. For museum-goers of a certain age, there’ll also be an interactive bicycle wheel with a card in its spokes (boys in the ’50s and ’60s used to jam cards into their wheels, the ride around, making their bikes sound like motorcycles). And patrons will also be able to take part in a digital interactive component, where they’ll be able to create their own baseball cards based on historic designs from the Topps Company.
The exhibit will also feature a special “10 Holy Grail Cards” section, which will include cards such as the aforementioned ’52 Topps Mantle and the über-scarce 1909-11 T206 Honus Wagner (the museum has one of the nicest copies in its collection). The exhibit was made possible by $800,000 worth of donations, including one from Arizona Diamondbacks Owner Earl G. “Ken” Kendrick, Jr., a collector who I’ve written about extensively in the past, who owns one of the most expensive baseball card collections in the world (he also loaned the Hall some rarities for the exhibit; he himself owns a copy of the Wagner, which he paid more than $3 million for). Given that these ten cards hold an incredible value on the secondary market, the Hall has put in place some never-before-used technology to make sure they stay safe. Says Shestakofsky: “To help protect them from light damage, we’re using a new technology called VariGuard SmartGlass, which is glass that darkens until someone walks up to it and presses a button.”
Besides the opening of the new baseball card exhibit, the Hall will also be hosting its annual Hall of Fame Classic ballgame on Saturday, too, featuring six Hall of Famers—Bert Blyleven, Rollie Fingers, Goose Gossage, Trevor Hoffman, Tim Raines and Alan Trammell—and a number of other recently retired players at the Hall’s Doubleday Field.