My love affair with cardboard began in the fall of 1986. I was only in first grade and had a stack of vintage Topps baseball cards that my dad had given to me. While on the bus ride home from school, I learned that another kid had a 1986 Gary Carter Topps All Star card –the catcher and star of the hottest team in N.Y. at the time, the Magic Mets! I told him to take whatever he wanted. He took his time, finally choosing a Craig Nettles, a Willie Randolph and one or two others (he was a Yankees fan), and the Carter was all mine. Now I was hooked!
Carter soon became my favorite player and childhood hero. Over the next nine years, I would go to every card shop around looking to add to my growing collection. In the years before the internet and eBay, I would hand-write letters to mail order dealers like Kit Young and Gary Walter detailing what Carter cards I wanted, most of which were only about 5¢-10¢ each. I didn’t care. They were gold to me.
In the summer of 1992, I had perhaps my biggest thrill. My father took my cousin and I to a show at the Westchester County Center in White Plains, N.Y. At practically every booth, I found some kind of “rare” or oddball Carter card that I never even knew existed. After picking up a stack of about 40 new cards, we finally found our way into the parking lot where my old man reached into his pocket to buy us all hot dogs. When his hand resurfaced, all that was in it was pocket lint. He’d spent every last dollar on Gary Carter baseball cards. And boy was he mad. That was the last card show I ever attended.
1986 Topps All Star, my very first Gary Carter card.
After Carter retired that fall, I collected the few ’93 cards that came out, but my flair for card collecting was fizzling out. Though I had become a Yankees fan as well, I just couldn’t get into it the way I had for Carter. And at that time, once a player hung up his cleats, his cardboard career was also over. No more new cards!
Over the next 18 years, I occasionally checked eBay to see what my Carter cards were worth. Once in a while, I’d pick up one or two “new ones” that caught my eye. But in May 2011, when I learned that Gary had been diagnosed with a brain tumor, it all changed. I suddenly became very nostalgic and found myself researching the cards I was missing. I figured it couldn’t be that many. Boy was I wrong. Now that Beckett and some other online resources were at my disposal, I had an active checklist of everything ever made.
What surprised me the most was how much things had changed since I hung up my hobby hat back in ’93. One of the biggest changes was that retired players were now considered cool. I guess like me, there were many children of the ‘80s (and earlier) who still wanted to collect their favorite stars of the past. Now there was a market for that. The other big change was the addition of parallels. When I stopped collecting, Topps was just starting to tinker with gold foil parallels – nothing like the explosion that apparently began in the early 2000s. Beckett listed just over 500 Carter cards from his playing years (1974-1992), yet in 2005 alone, he had more than 950 cards! I knew I’d never be able to have everything, but the idea of grabbing up new cards with slick new designs and unused pictures was intriguing. I was hooked again!
The last big change I noticed was that cards now featured pieces of bat, jersey, cleat, glove, you name it. And there were all sorts of authenticated autographed versions of cards as well. Having never spent more than a couple of bucks on a card, this high-end collecting was a whole new world for me. It was expensive, but since I was making more than I did when I was 12, I didn’t mind it.
Within a few months of being back into the hobby, I had outgrown my little album of Carter cards and was close to filling a 3-inch binder. With sites like eBay, Sportlots, COMC and Beckett, I was able to immediately make a large dent in the cards I had missed out on. Every day, a stack of little yellow envelopes would fill my mailbox, and each night I would go about opening them as though it was my part-time job. Because there were so much coming in (and I was accidentally re-buying stuff I had), I developed a thorough, color-coded excel spreadsheet that I used to keep track of my collection. Blue is owned. Green is purchased/coming. Purple means I'm not interested. Red is Must Have!
When Gary passed in February of 2012, I noticed a slight bump in his card prices, as some collectors tried to cash in. Though I scorned their opportunism, I was able to pick up a bunch of cards they otherwise may not have been so inclined to move. Collecting his cards actually helped me mourn the loss of my childhood hero.
To this day, I still collect everything new of Gary Carter as it comes out, as well as select cards that I missed out on during the down periods (though there isn’t much left). My biggest thrill is still when I see a new card design and a rare or unused image. It makes me feel like a kid again!
I hope that one day my son enjoys the hobby like I did. Maybe we’ll even go to a card show together, so I can spend all of my hard-earned cash on Aaron Judge, Gleyber Torres or Gary Sanchez cards. I just hope the hot dog stand outside takes plastic.