Stephen Strasburg has already revived a moribund baseball franchise, and now he’s breathing new life into a related industry. Not bad for a 21-year-old just wrapping up his first month in the major leagues.
Strasburg, perhaps the most aggressively hyped pitching prospect in baseball history, has attracted national television coverage and huge crowds for every appearance since joining the Washington Nationals in early June.
He’s also sparked something of a frenzy in the baseball card world with tales of the one-of-a-kind Stephen Strasburg Bowman “Chrome Superfractor” card that was sold for more than $16,000 by a Virginia collector. The buyer then turned around and sold it for $32,000.
A quick check of auctions on eBay showed 50 Strasburg items with prices of at least $1,000. Most are variations of the Superfractor cards — glittery plastic cards with extremely limited production and many with autographs.
And it’s not just Strasburg who has the sports card enthusiasts all excited. A similar one-of-a-kind 2008 Bowman “Chrome Superfractor” card of Atlanta Braves rookie outfielder Jason Heyward is priced at $27,000 on eBay, with about 20 more cards topping the $1,000 mark.
According to Beckett Media, which tracks the pricing of sports memorabilia, the Strasburg card is the highest-priced non-autographed card in the modern era, surpassing a 2008 Tim Lincecum card that sold for $4,000.
Such frenzies are nothing new in the world of sports cards. Tom Daniels, owner of the Baseball Card Shoppe at Westgate Mall, has witnessed plenty of ups and downs in his 37 years in the card business.
“This year is really big because you have the rookies, first Heyward and now Strasburg,” said Daniels. “Strasburg is in the news all the time and that’s what gets people interested.”
Daniels recalls a similar phenomenon surrounding New York Mets pitcher Dwight Gooden about 25 years ago.
“I had a customer ask if it was a good deal to buy Gooden’s rookie card for $10,” Daniels said. “I said, ‘If you look at his stats for his first two years, they’re almost identical to Herb Score.’ He said, ‘Who’s Herb Score?’ I said, ‘That’s my point. He got hit in the head by a line drive and his career was basically over. If that happens to Gooden, you’re paying $10 for a card that’s going to be worth 25-50 cents.’
“It’s the same thing with Strasburg. He looks great right now, but with pitchers, you never know.”
Of course, you don’t survive in a volatile business like sports cards by concentrating on the most speculative, highest-priced end of the hobby. Daniels, who started out with a mail-order business in 1973 and opened his shop in 1982, credits his longevity to customer service, a wide variety of products and a willingness to cultivate young collectors.
“I think part of our success is that we’re so varied,” said Daniels, 63, who operates the shop with his wife, Anita, their son Jeff and, at times, his grandson, 10-year-old Lukas. “We sell posters, pennants, bobble heads, McFarlane (figurines), 8x10 photos … it’s a little bit of everything.”
Having been in business so long, Daniels has witnessed customers come and go depending on their life cycles. Kids who bought cards years ago may have drifted away through their teens and 20s, only to return with their own kids in tow.
“Some stores don’t want to deal with kids,” Daniels said. “But since we look at this as a long-term thing, we look at it like kids are your future adult customers. We see a lot of kids we had back in the ’80s or ’90s coming back because now they have a little money to spend on hobbies.”
Daniels said the peak of the sports card business was around 1990, fueled by stories touting baseball cards as supreme investments. Back then there were about 30 card shops of one kind or another operating in Madison, he said. Now the only full-time shops are his and Jim’s Card Korner on University Avenue, along with a handful of stores in outlying communities.
Along with the reduced number of retailers has come a cutback in card production, with the professional sports leagues generally going to exclusive arrangements with card companies. In the boom years, as many as 81 billion baseball cards were cranked out by a variety of producers. Now Topps, which dominated the business in the ’50s and ’60s, is the only producer licensed by Major League Baseball. (Bowman is owned by Topps.)
“A lot of dealers didn’t like it when there were so many producers because they said there was too much product,” Daniels said. “We looked at it differently. If you could control your spending it was nice because you could find something you really liked. When I was a kid you either bought Topps or you didn’t buy anything.”
Deron Martin, of Martin Sport Shop in Monroe, thinks it is a positive that the industry is streamlining its distribution processes. Panini America, which took over Donruss, now distributes NFL, NBA and NHL cards.
“It’s like anything, there’s a lot of corruption in distribution,” said Martin, whose family has been running the sports card shop for about 20 years. “The distribution channel in sports cards has been flawed for like 10 years. It’s a big positive step, probably the best thing that’s happened in the sports card industry in years.”
It also doesn’t hurt when some rookie phenoms come along.
“Strasburg means great sales,” Martin said. “Whenever there’s a strong rookie crop in a sport, the products just take off. I bought a lot of Bowman this year. I sold out, restocked, sold out and restocked and now I’m sitting on them for a while on purpose.”