Over the last couple months there has been a lot of reflection. With additional time at home, we begin cleaning out basements and closets stumbling upon mementos from our childhoods. There has also been much talk in the trading card hobby recently that we are heading into junk wax era 2.0, and the hobby is as hot and popular as it was in the early 1990’s.
Neither are true, in my opinion. While we are seeing a gigantic increase in the hobby’s popularity, I do not believe it will result in another junk wax era. Will prices sharply decrease on many cards? Yes, and that has always been the case. Nothing new. Is the hobby as hot as it was in 1991? Not even close. Not until you can find baseball cards in every business on Main Street will see the hobby where it was in the early 90’s.
With that, I wanted to share my time as a kid collecting in the junk wax era. For some, you may have been my age (late 30’s) during the baseball card boom of the late 80’s and early 90’s. For others, you may not have been born, thus not experiencing first hand what life was like when baseball cards were a hot topic in mainstream newspapers and magazines. A time your small town barber sold packs of Topps baseball cards, and small cities with a population of 10,000 residents were host to two or three local card shops.
I was an 80’s kid…and a 90’s kid. Born in 1982, I was able to experience the latter part of the decade as a youngster and caught the baseball card craze in 1989 when I was seven years old. Then, my formative years all occurred in the 90’s. I grew up with Bart Simpson, became a teenager when grunge was on its way out, and boy bands were on their way in. I entered high school when “The Freshmen” was a hit by Verve Pipe and graduated to Vitamin C’s “Graduation Song.”
And all through that, I collected baseball cards (and football cards and basketball cards). This is my baseball card story as an 80’s and 90’s kid.
Where It All Began
Couponing was a craze in the 1980’s. My dad worked days at Case IH, and my mom stayed home with me before I was school age. She was a member of a coupon club, and had filing cabinets filled with various coupons. We lived in a tiny house about 800 square feet. My dad was building a house we would move into when I was six years old. These were the only two houses I knew until I left for college. There was “home,” and the “little house.” By 1989, baseball cards became big business and we had moved from the “little house” to the bigger house.
One company teamed up with Topps in 1989 and when you collected a certain amount of UPC codes from that company’s products, you could redeem them for a 1989 Topps team set of your choice. If memory serves correctly, it was General Mills. I likely devoured a couple bowls of Franken Berry and Boo Berry each day to get the requisite UPC codes for my Topps baseball card set. I chose the Chicago Cubs team set, of course.
Remember when you had to not only collect a dozen UPC codes, but THEN wait an entire six to eight weeks for delivery of your prize? That was eternity for a seven-year old kid. And I didn’t make enough allowance to buy 35-cent packs of 1989 Topps to piece meal a Cubs set together for myself. Alas, the two month wait was finally over, and I still vividly recall that summer day when a box arrived with my name on it.
It was a warm sunny weekday in Annawan, Illinois. It seemed like I had made a thousand trips to our hometown post office with no Topps baseball cards awaiting for me. But on this day…there was a yellow slip in our PO box. Could this be? Will we turn this yellow slip over to Shirley, our long time postmaster, and she will grab a box for me that includes Cubs baseball cards?
Indeed. Mom handed over the yellow slip to Shirley, and she retrieved a package. It was for me. I raced outside to our boat of a car – a 1985 Mercury Grand Marquis – and ripped open that package. There it was. A complete set of 1989 Topps Chicago Cubs baseball cards. Mom was right behind me, and fired up that gas guzzling boat of a car and steered it across the street to the State Bank of Annawan drive through. I remember waiting in line at the bank drive through and flipping through my new baseball cards – Ryne Sandberg, Mark Grace with a gold cup (sweet!), Manny Trillo, Angel Salazar, some future star named Mike Harkey, and this is weird. A card with the guy in a college baseball uniform. He’s not a Cub, I thought. Apparently he was a #1 draft pick by the Cubs. This is pretty cool, I thought, and so my love of the 1989 Topps Ty Griffin baseball card began.
Playing With Baseball Cards
“Are you playing with your baseball cards?” My dad would ask me this question throughout my childhood, and it was a running joke as my baseball card collecting continued into adulthood. By the time I was in my 30’s, I would still get out a box of cards when visiting my parents and spread them on the living room floor like I did with those 1989 Topps Cubs cards almost 30 years prior. Instead of recklessly flipping through them and organizing by names, or batting average, or making card fort…I was sorting them carefully and numerically or by team.
My dad passed away in 2016. As he battled lung cancer he had a couple near-term wishes – to watch the Chicago Cubs win a World Series and to see the new home my wife and I were building and would move into. He was missed that World Series celebration by 68 days, and we moved into our new house 86 days after his passing. To take my mind off his death, when I returned home from the hospital I went to my local card shop and bought a hobby box of 2016 Allen & Ginter.
Growing Up in a Rural Illinois Farm Town
Growing up in a small town is special. From an early age I could hop on my bicycle and ride all over our small town. We played backyard football in a lot next to the water tower. Some sandlot baseball on a huge lot of grass that at one time decades before was where the high school building sat. If we weren’t home in time for dinner, our parents could make one or two phone calls and find us. Word spread faster among residents in a small town than a viral Facebook post today.
The local IGA grocery store was just two blocks away from my house. It was located “uptown.” We didn’t have a “downtown” in Annawan. Why it was uptown, I do not know. But I can tell you it was literally uphill from my house. Once we reached the crest of the sidewalk a half block away, we would catch a lot of speed on our bikes heading into my front yard. One time, while riding an old 10-speed, the handle bars came off midway through my downhill cruise. Fortunately, I only suffered from some scraped knees and elbows.
Packs of baseball cards were 35 cents in 1989, but there was a new set called Upper Deck that was released that year. It was $1 per pack. A DOLLAR! I could get three packs of Topps cards for that price. Upper Deck was too pricey for a seven-year old, so I never had the popular Ken Griffey Jr. rookie card from the set. Packs of Upper Deck were so popular and high end they were not on sale with the rest of the cards in the candy aisle. You had to ask the cashier to grab them from the back.
I think baseball cards were often shop lifted from my small town grocery store, because everytime we walked down the candy aisle and looked at what packs of cards were available, Beatrice behind the register would watch us like a hawk. It’s funny that 10 years later I would be in Beatrice’s position at that same grocery store as a high schooler…watching kids in the candy aisle like a hawk.
There Used to be Card Shops Everywhere
We didn’t have a baseball card shop in my hometown of 800 residents, but the town next door five miles away had one. The “big cities” 10 miles each direction had several. To the south was Kewanee, complete with a Hardee’s and McDonald’s on each side of town…and it had a Wal-Mart. Kewanee also had three card shops. In the other direction, Geneseo had a couple card shops. Six card shops within 10 miles of my rural hometown. Today, you have to drive about 40 miles to find one card shop in that area.
Hart’s Cards was my go-to card shop. It was located in Geneseo, Illinois, and it also had a much longer staying power than the other five shops. Hart’s Cards lasted through the 1990’s, as it became a hot spot for beanie baby sales along with trading cards. By the time I was regularly visiting card shops, I was mainly into Shaq and basketball cards.
Today you are hard pressed to find many card shows. Madison, Wisconsin and the surrounding “suburbs” has roughly 500,000 people. We have one card shop, and about eight or nine card shows per year. Growing up in the cornfields in northern Illinois you could find card shows within a 30-minute drive every weekend. Even in my small town, we would have card shows at the local community center. It was an old rectangular building with a concrete floor. You could rent the building for an entire day for about $20.
And Card Shows Every Weekend
One of these card shows at my local community center was the first time I laid eyes on a 1986 Topps Traded Bobby Bonilla card. Bobby Bonilla…the superstar for the Pittsburgh Pirates who would beat up my beloved Cubs played in Chicago?! I was dumbfounded. Why did the White Sox get rid of him, I often wondered. I couldn’t afford the $3 price tag on that Bonilla card, so it was one of the first purchases I made when I returned to baseball card collecting in the late 90’s.
Another card show memory was taking a trip to Kewanee to the Knights of Columbus Hall. Cubs first round pick and top prospect Earl Cunningham was appearing to sign autographs. We piled into the Carpenter family station wagon with a small group of boys to buy baseball cards and meet a future Cubs superstar. I had a 1990 Score baseball card signed by Cunningham in bright blue sharpie. It was the prized piece of my collection for several years, but then it became lost and still today I look all over for a 1990 Score Cunningham signed in blue sharpie.
The Carpenters were great friends as a kid. We traded baseball cards, played tackle football in their backyard, and had walnut fights (ouch). Brandon had an awesome collection of Larry Johnson basketball cards and Barry Sanders football cards. Whenever I sort through my cards and find an LJ, it takes me back to those days. Brandon and I still trade all these years later. And yes, I send him my LJ’s and Barry’s.
Whenever I find a box of 1989 Topps, my initial reaction is: “oh, God…more 1989 Topps,” but when I start flipping through those cards they instantly take me back to Friday night’s watching Full House, Perfect Strangers, and Family Matters as I sort through my stash of cards. Or scraping up 35 cents in loose change from around the house and riding my bike to IGA to buy another pack of cards.
They may be junk today, but the memories are grand. While worthless pieces of Topps, Donruss, and Fleer cardboard now, it’s a representation of collecting in a care-free world. Trading cards and eating penny candy with your friends. Priceless.