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Trading cards collect new fans
Peter Funt

To paraphrase Rudyard Kipling: A good cigar is a smoke, but a cigar box filled with trading cards is a treasure. 

My father smoked Dutch Masters Panetelas and the box in which they came was the perfect size for storing baseball and football cards made by the Topps company. Cards came in packs of six, along with a stiff slab of pink bubble gum that had a distinctive sweet smell, while the box, having once held cigars, had a deep earthy scent. In combination the aroma was intoxicating. 

With modern digital enhancements, and boosted by pandemic-altered lifestyles, the sports-card business is booming. This month, a single card printed in 1952 by the Topps company, depicting the Yankees rookie sensation Mickey Mantle, sold for a record $5.2 million. 

Topps was a family business in Brooklyn, launched in 1938 by Morris Shorin and his four sons. The business, however, was gum—sold for a penny per slab. It wasn’t until 1949 that the Shorins decided they could sell more gum by including “Magic Photo Cards” in the packs, featuring sports stars such as Babe Ruth and Cy Young. 

Within three years Topps was producing more than 400 different baseball cards annually. Then, in 1992, after four decades of selling kids candy they no longer wanted, Topps determined it could peddle more cards by eliminating the gum. Besides, buyers hated the fact that, when warm, melting gum stained the valuable cards. 

Today’s collectors have more on their minds, as reflected by a recent piece in The Athletic magazine titled, “A guide to football card investing and future speculating.” The focus was on cards produced by Panini, an Italian firm that specialized in selling stickers of soccer stars and expanded to the U.S. in 2009. Having scooped up rights to the NBA and NFL, the company has modernized the trading-card trade and made speculators out of collectors. 

Demand is growing for cards manufactured by Panini America and for Topps, which continues to hold rights for Major League Baseball. 

As a former collector and current diehard fan, I must say the new card craze leaves me cold. The Athletic reports, “like any investment, speculating on football cards carries risk. But those risks can be minimized given that Panini produces cards for each player in a range of investment levels. Think of these as akin to small-cap, medium-cap and large-cap investments.” 

Another recent wrinkle is “box breaks,” in which collectors buy a rights to a certain number of cards in a new box or case, usually opened “live” on YouTube or other social media sites. Topps is conducting a Breaker Showcase next month, with “distinguished guests!” and a chance for someone to win the “Platinum Box Cutter!” 

In March, Panini will release its newest NFL set: “Six cards per box, 10 boxes per inner case, two inner cases per master case” in what it calls “stunning Optichrome technology.” These are sold at an online auction, with the price starting at $800 and dropping every five minutes until the set sells out. 

My allowance used to be 25 cents a week, which bought me 30 Topps cards and five slabs of stale gum. I’m guessing that, even with inflation, today’s kids are priced out of the Panini auction. But, maybe, if they’re lucky, dad will let them play with the box. 

Peter Funt is a writer and speaker.