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Sports card collecting has gone from boom to bust

Like so many other sports-obsessed youngsters of the 1980s, Aaron Fritch harnessed a robust entrepreneurial spirit and hoarded baseball cards by the thousands.

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Aaron Fritch of Duluth poses with a large portion of his sports card collection that at one time was more than 50,000 cards. (Clint Austin / caustin@duluthnews.com)

Like so many other sports-obsessed youngsters of the 1980s, Aaron Fritch harnessed a robust entrepreneurial spirit and hoarded baseball cards by the thousands.
Fritch was born in 1980. Spurred by like-minded family members, he started collecting trading cards when he was 5 or 6 years old, about the time the industry exploded like a Nolan Ryan fastball. Fritch, now 35, estimates his collection ballooned to more than 50,000 cards.
“I spent every nickel I had on them,” the 1998 Duluth East graduate said.
Likewise for Mike Thro, who built the bulk of his collection via the SuperAmerica gas station in Morgan Park.
“The whole neighborhood got in on it,” Thro, 31 and now living in Stillwater, Minn., said. “Every spare cent I had went to buying cards at SA.”
Thro aptly summed up the current value of his youthful wheeling and dealing when he said he now has “boxes full of worthless crap, basically.”
Craig Engwall knows the feeling.
Engwall, executive director of the Minnesota Deer Hunters Association in Grand Rapids - when he’s not managing his fantasy baseball team, that is - got swept up in the Twins’ pennant fever of 1991, when young phenom Scott Erickson looked like the second coming of Sandy Koufax. Engwall promptly purchased 100 Erickson rookie cards and thought he had “money in the bank.”
Today, the 51-year-old Engwall says those cards “are worthy (of) the bike spokes.”
He’s right.
Erickson rookie cards are selling for about 0.99 cents on eBay, not nearly enough to cover shipping.
BUILDING TOWARD A BUBBLE BURST
What was a bustling billion-dollar industry in the early 1990s has crashed like Jose Canseco’s reputation. A slew of manufacturers emerged in the late 1980s and early ’90s to compete with mainstay Topps. They began flooding the market with billions of sports cards, which were viewed by buyers - young and old alike - as investments.
How big did the industry get during those boom times?
There were “an estimated eighty-one billion cards produced a year at its peak,” according to Dave Jamieson’s book, “Mint Condition: How baseball cards became an American obsession.”
Because of their perceived value, trading cards in the ’80s and ’90s often were protected in soft, rubbery sleeves, hard-plastic, screw-enforced cases or three-ring binders. So not only were more cards produced, but many of them were preserved.
That’s a far cry from earlier generations of sports-card aficionados. People like Engwall bought cards to use and play with - and for the bubble gum tucked inside each pack. There was little thought given to future fortunes. Consequently, the far fewer cards released in the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s frequently were jettisoned altogether or left in poor condition.
Engwall started collecting in 1969. His big break came when a babysitter gave him a “few shoe boxes full of his cards, including Bob Gibson’s rookie and dozens of (Mickey) Mantles, (Willie) Mays, etc.”
There is some money to be had with those big-name legends. But that never appealed to Engwall. He liked to collect his favorite players, study their stats, read about them.
It was a hobby.
“I paid attention to what the value was, but it was never my intent to sell them,” he said.
Engwall still has his cards, maybe 1,500 total. That includes his favorite, a 1959 Roberto Clemente that lists the Puerto Rican superstar’s name as Bob Clemente. He hasn’t flipped through them in decades.
“The last time I inventoried them I had a Mac Plus,” Engwall joked of the first computer he ever bought. That was in the late ’80s.
Fritch has whittled his collection to a few thousand, from more than 50,000. He hangs onto
valuables but otherwise has ditched his commons without thinking twice. Simple supply and demand says their best days are long gone.
Tim Laudner, for example, no longer can do anything to boost the 25-cent value of his 1987 Topps card.
“Most of the cards I bought aren’t worth anything,” Fritch said. “They’re just never going to be scarce. They made way too many cards.”
Fritch noted the importance of having cards graded. Companies like Professional Sports Authenticator or Beckett - yes, that Beckett, the original price-guide bible - scrutinize cards for a fee before returning them to their owner with a 1-10 grade attached.
Fritch said he recently had a 1954 Hank Aaron rookie graded as a 4.5, which could bring him about $1,000 in a sale. The same card with an 8.5 grade, though, just sold for $17,000. And in 2000, a grade-10 Aaron rookie sold for an even $100,000.
Fritch said it doesn’t matter how flawless a card looks to the naked eye.
“They might look pristine to you and I, but you absolutely have to get them graded; otherwise they’re worthless,” he said.
Fritch still buys and sells online. He says cards produced before the 1980s have held their value pretty well. After that? Not so much.
That is true for his stack of Brett Favre rookies, all of which are in excellent condition. Regardless of the ol’ gunslinger’s Hall of Fame-worthy resume, his first-year cards would fetch Fritch about $8 apiece.
VALUE MORE SENTIMENTAL THAN FINANCIAL
Carl Grussendorf remembers one summer of Little League in which his father promised a trip to the local card shop in exchange for a home run.
“The last game of the season I finally hit an inside-the-park homer,” the 40-year-old Cloquet resident said. “I was so excited.”
And that’s what Grussendorf’s collection is all about - the memories. Those little cardboard photos are awash in nostalgia, and each has a unique story. They bring Grussendorf back to his childhood, something no amount of money can replace.
“As a kid, that was my favorite thing to do, was to get baseball cards. That’s all we did,” Grussendorf, a physical education and health teacher at South Ridge, said. “You weren’t even thinking about how much they were worth.
“I never got into it to hold onto them and make money off them.”
Grussendorf has “several thousand” cards, including a Michael Jordan rookie and some Mickey Mantles, but nothing exceptionally rare. After getting away from the hobby while in college, he returned in the 2000s to pursue vintage cards.
Adam Jackson started collecting when he was 3. He collected the four major sports, with an emphasis on football. A radio operator in the U.S. Marine Corps, the 27-year-old Jackson is stationed in North Carolina. He graduated from Duluth Denfeld in 2006 and returns to the Northland regularly to visit family.  His close to 30,000 cards reside at his mother’s house.
Among the rarities are Pete Maravich and Kirby Puckett rookies, as well as a 1999-2000 Kobe Bryant card that includes a swatch of game-worn jersey. There were only 25 such Bryant cards made.
Jackson, like Grussendorf, isn’t concerned with his collection’s drop in value.
“I didn’t start collecting cards at the age of 3 thinking about what their future value would be,” he said. “I started collecting as a way to learn who the players were and what their stats were.”
Jackson no longer collects, save for a Topps pack or two at the beginning of each baseball season.
He says his biggest disappointment is the iconic 1989 Ken Griffey Jr. Upper Deck card that debuted as a potential goldmine during the star’s rookie season before its value slid and slid, and slid some more. The card now sells for about $30 online, though some with grades of 9.5 or 10 are listed for a few hundred dollars.
That, however, doesn’t mean much, said Craig Lipinski, owner of Cardboard Heroes in Canal Park. Asking $300 for a card doesn’t mean it will yield $300.
“Anything that’s a collectable is only worth what someone is willing to pay for it,” Lipinski said.
WHAT NOW?
Who can forget gathering with buddies to compare collections, make trades and set up impromptu card shows in neighborhood garages? Or the thrill of ripping open a fresh pack feverishly digging for a Puckett, a Griffey or a Jordan?
That was where the real fun was.
That’s one reason collectors from that era are so reluctant to part ways with their keepsakes. It’s not necessarily a hope that they’ll someday regain their value, but a hesitance to dump something that meant so much, however long ago.
“I’d have a hard time throwing them away,” Thro, a 2002 Denfeld graduate, said of his thousands of cards, which are split between his house and his parents’.
So they sit in storage, collecting dust. Others shuffle totes and bulky chests around garages, basements or storage sheds. They’re out of sight, but never completely out of mind.
For his part, Grussendorf puts out a few stacks at rummage sales for kids to look through. Maybe they’ll find a favorite player or, better yet, a new hobby.
Today, the industry is a shell of its former self. According to Sports Collectors Digest, card sales peaked at $1.2 billion in 1991. By the end of the 2000s, it was below $400 million. And the number of dedicated sports-card shops had plummeted from 5,000 to 500.
Fritch, whose uncle used to be part-owner of local stalwart Collector’s Connection, said it’s a matter of priorities. He will hang onto a few cards and talked Friday of eventually passing them down to his children.
“I never recommend totally throwing stuff away, but I’d strongly recommend organizing them,” he said. “And if you have the storage space, more power to you.”
Instead of storing valuables, consider it storing memories.

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