Sunday, June 26, 2011

Another Man's Trash

I collect sports cards and have been doing so in some fashion my entire life.  The fact that local hobby shops still exist and annual card shows draw a crowd would lead you to believe the hobby is healthy.  Try to find that hobby shop or attend that card show, however and you'll find dwindling attendance and a noticeable lack of new product.  The major players in card manufacturing have gobbled up their competitors and secured sport-exclusive license deals (Topps has baseball, while Panini has basketball).  Like it or not, these monopolies exist as a result of the card boom and subsequent market crash of the early to mid-1990s.  Back then, it was a sellers’ market; buyers motivated by speculation began to scout draft classes for the next Ken Griffey, Jr., Michael Jordan or Wayne Gretzky.  They paid premium prices on packs for a chance to land a hot rookie or a randomly inserted card sporting an autograph or memorabilia. Dozens of companies printed millions of cards, severely saturating the market.  Without scarcity, the cards became practically worthless.  The 1994-1995baseball strike and NHL lockout did little to help matters, either.  Collectors became jaded as the hobby introduced redemption cards (IOUs from athletes who did not sign their cards in time for insertion). Casual fans, who were buying cards by the truckload, became disinterested and stopped collecting.  Manufacturers went bankrupt or consolidated and hundreds of card shops around the country closed their doors forever. 

Today, the hobby is a shadow of its former self.  Hobby shops are limited in number and operate on banker's hours.  Card shows focus on consignments, grading and autograph sessions instead of selling boxed product.  The manufacturers left are shrewd, separating their limited product lines into low, middle and high-end.  The majority of adult collectors in the top two tiers "bust" boxes or cases for the chance at a handful of inserts or rookie cards. When it comes to today's sports card collector, it's less about the sport and more about ROI. 

It's not all doom and gloom, however.  Manufacturers managed to keep kids interested by introducing gaming elements into their lines (e.g. Topps Attax® , Panini Adrenalyn®).  They also keep prices low so children (and their parents) can afford them.  Although technology and the Internet has an upper hand on today's youth, there are still plenty of kids excited about playing sports and following their favorite pro athletes. The ideals the hobby was founded on are still around; you just have to look harder to find them.  Here's a prime example.

While my wife and were still dating in college, she would go yard-saling and try to find things for me that I was interested in.  One particular Saturday, she proudly came back to school with a few dusty binders full of old football cards.  I wasn't particularly interested in card collecting at the time, and the cards were mass-produced and in rough shape.  It pains me to say it, but I wasn't very grateful.  Instead of taking it to heart and tossing them, however, she decided to keep them herself, storing them in her parent's attic.

Flash forward eight years, and my wife and I share a home of our own.  Her parents, anxious to clean out that attic, dropped off my wife's childhood on our doorstep. Amid a sea of old stuffed animals, knick-knacks and books, I noticed the binders I blew off years earlier.  I flipped through the pages again looking for cards of note.  Unfortunately, my initial suspicions years earlier were confirmed; the books have little monetary value.  I quickly put them on the shelf and waited for a chance to get rid of them for good.  A few weeks ago, I got ambitious and put the cards into the trunk of our car.  I soon forgot about them, and it wasn't until my wife sent a text to ask if she could give them away to her co-worker's son that I remembered again.  Busy at work, I told her to go ahead.  

The following day, I got another text from her.  It read as follows:

"You made a little kid very, very happy...he was so excited, he couldn't sleep.  He spent all night picking out cards in his room and telling (his parents) all the stats he knew for the player.  He said he doesn't need anything else for his birthday."

It turns out her co-worker gave her son the binders the night before his birthday.  He spent hours poring over the cards and reading stat lines from the players he knew.  In just one night, he had more fun with those cards that I've ever had with my meticulously organized binders of prized rookie cards and autographs.  Here was something I was anxious to get rid of, and yet it made a child so happy and content that he was willing to forgo his birthday presents. I realized then I'd forgotten what the hobby was all about: celebrating our heroes and their athletic accomplishments.   Suddenly, memories of my childhood came flooding back.  I remembered back to when my father's co-worker gave me a set of dog-eared Donruss baseball cards (my first ones) when I was about five.  I cherished those cards, reading the words on the back that I could make out to anyone who would listen.  That simple gesture started a lifelong interest in the hobby and the sport of baseball itself that continues to this day.  Somewhere along the way, however, I became a speculator; I can see now I treat the hobby as a marketplace and the cards as a commodity.  The passion for the sport and its players has slowly disappeared.  I don't even remember the day I stopped collecting baseball cards altogether and choose football instead, but I do know why (the quick maturation rate of their rookie card values).  In the end, I gave up something I cared about simply because it wasn't worth enough.    But all hobbies share one thing in the common; their true value cannot be measured in dollars and cents.

After hearing about that boys' reaction, I can take solace in the fact that the spirit of the hobby is still alive and well.  Now I need to tap into some of that spirit inside me, if there's any left.  I think the first step is to spend less time thinking like an investor and more about what created my drive to collect in the first place: a genuine love of the game. 

Friday, June 10, 2011

When Christmas Goes Pop

Album Cover
Perhaps it's the sweltering heat of late Spring/early Summer here in the Northeastern US that has me longing for cold, crisp December days.  Whatever the catalyst, I made an impulse buy a few Saturdays ago when I saw a shiny red Christmas album sitting in the milk crate of a church community yard sale.  As I mentioned before, yard and rummage sales are notorious for poor vinyl (both in condition and taste). There are usually plenty of holiday-themed albums from famous crooners like Dean Martin, Perry Como, and Andy Williams, but I rarely feel compelled to buy.  In this case, however, I decided to make an exception.  The album in question, A Very Special Christmas, is a compilation of Christmas songs recorded in 1987 to benefit the Special Olympics.  The brainchild of record producer and current A&M chairman Jimmy Iovine and his ex-wife Vicky (a former model and bestselling author), the album and its successors have earned over $100 million for the disabled children’s’ charity.  Here are four reasons why I couldn't pass it up:

The Artists
With artists like Madonna, Sting, the Pointer Sisters and the Eurhythmics (just to name a few), the album is a veritable who’s-who of 80's pop.  The majority of the contributors were peaking or at the height of their fame when the record was released.  To help put it in perspective, here are some highlights from 1987:

·         Bon Jovi's Slippery When Wet becomes the top selling album of the year.
·         U2 releases Joshua Tree in March, catapulting the band to superstardom.  The record would later take home the Grammy for album of the year.
·         Whitney Houston's Whitney produces 4 chart topping singles, including “I Wanna Dance with Somebody” and “Didn't We Almost Have It All” on its way to 9x platinum.
·         Sting's Nothing Like the Sun, featuring “Englishman in New York”, legitimizes his solo efforts after the breakup of the Police and a lackluster movie career.  It would go double platinum.
·         Madonna kicks off the Who's that Girl World Tour, fresh off the success of True Blue.  Ironically, Madonna and actor Sean Penn would file for divorce in December.

The Songs
Outside of the artists themselves, many of the songs have gone on to become timeless holiday classics, perhaps none more so than Madonna's playful take on Eartha Kitt's previously sultry Santa Baby.  See if you can spot some of your favorites from this track list:

1. Santa Claus Is Coming to Town - The Pointer Sisters
2. Winter Wonderland - Eurythmics
3. Do You Hear What I Hear? - Whitney Houston
4. Merry Christmas Baby - Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band
5. Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas - The Pretenders
6. I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus - John Cougar Mellencamp
7. Gabriel's Message - Sting
8. Christmas in Hollis - Run–D.M.C.
9. Christmas (Baby Please Come Home) - U2
10. Santa Baby - Madonna
11. The Little Drummer Boy - Bob Seger & The Silver Bullet Band
12. Run Rudolph Run - Bryan Adams
13. Back Door Santa - Bon Jovi
14. The Coventry Carol - Alison Moyet
15. Silent Night - Stevie Nicks

The Cover Art

Pop artist Keith Haring, whose distinctive designs caught the eye of the international art world and earned him critical acclaim before his death of AIDS in 1990, illustrated the album cover. The playful gold lettering and messianic imagery is in perfect contrast to the stunning red background.  Fortunately, my album jacket is in excellent shape.

Perhaps it's my sentimentality toward 1980s popular culture, but the infamous ‘Me’ decade certainly made altruism and philanthropy chic.  Who can forget Band Aid, Live Aid or Farm Aid, which brought together musical acts to raise money for various causes (e.g. the depressed American farm industry or the Ethiopian famine in Africa)?  There's something to be said for celebrities taking time away from globe- trotting and self-promotion to donate their time and effort to charity. It is both touching and somewhat artificial, which I guess can be said about the decade itself.