A Decade at the Top: A look back at the first 10 years at PSA

By Joe Orlando

I can still remember the first time I found out about PSA. I was at a local baseball card show in Southern California and I noticed a small booth at the end of the room. It was PSA; a card grading service that hobbyists knew little about at the time. There was only one guy behind the table; his name was Adam.

Babe Ruth

Adam was surprisingly young; I thought the lone representative of PSA would be someone with at least 40-50 years under his belt. We started to talk about grading and the benefits of the service. I was very skeptical. I didn't understand why cards needed to be encapsulated and graded by a third party. I was no novice and I knew what I was looking at; I didn't need someone to tell me how to grade a card or if it was authentic.

I was wrong.

During that same show, I wandered over to a well-known dealer and was mesmerized by a 1948 Leaf Babe Ruth. The condition looked tremendous and I was seriously considering making a deal for the card. I always wanted a Babe Ruth card and this was one of the more affordable Ruth examples; the Goudeys were way out of my league.

I told the dealer that I would think it over for about 30-40 minutes but I was sure that I wanted the card. I wandered the room for a while and then came back for the card. It was gone. Another dealer came by and purchased the Ruth while I was walking the floor. At the time, I was very upset. I let a great card slip away because I couldn't pull the trigger when I needed to but it was a blessing in disguise.

Babe Ruth

As I swung by the PSA table once again, I noticed that a man was yelling and noticeably distressed. I moved closer to see what the fuss what all about. In his hand was the Ruth card that I had my eyes on, he was the buyer. Adam, the PSA representative, just got done explaining that the card had not only been bleached, but it also was trimmed. At first, the buyer didn't want to believe it but then, after calming down, he realized that Adam was right and so did I. The buyer was now the proud owner of a card that had very little market value and his wallet was much lighter than before.

That could have been me and, if I would have moved quicker on the purchase, it would have been me. The buyer, as I understand it, was finally able to get his money back but I am not so sure if I would have had the same luck. I was just a kid, not even 20 years of age yet. The buyer was a dealer who could have made things very troublesome for the seller; rumor would have spread quickly if this matter wasn't resolved.

I could have been left holding an altered card but I was lucky that day. Unfortunately, I did buy a few trimmed cards along the way, prior to my introduction to PSA. I wanted sharp cards and dealers trimmed cards to make the corners as sharp as can be. I was young and unaware of this unethical practice at the time. The hardest one to swallow was my purchase of a trimmed Nolan Ryan rookie card. I sold nearly everything I had in order to buy that card; I always wanted one.

I tried to get my money back but the dealer wouldn't give me a refund. He must have been very proud to know that he just took advantage of a teenager. Today, that same dealer is a columnist for another hobby publication and he enjoys bashing PSA every chance he gets. Gee, I wonder why?

Steve Rocchi
PSA President Steve Rocchi

With the 10-year milestone rapidly approaching, PSA President Steve Rocchi reflected after a decade at the helm.

JO: After being the leader for 10 years, how do you feel about PSA's position in the market today?

SR: It's great but I think we are only at the tip of the iceberg when it comes to what PSA can do for the hobby. When PSA first started, it was really only used for high-end vintage sportscards. Today, PSA grades everything from Mickey Mantle cards to Tiger Woods cards. We have made some great strides, not only in card grading, but also in memorabilia authentication. We have had the pleasure of authenticating for some of the biggest names in the sports world such as Major League Baseball and the National Football League. We have also been a part of sports history by providing authentication for items such as Mark McGwire's 70th home run baseball from 1998, Mickey Mantle's 500th career home run baseball and every game-used football from the Super Bowl over the last couple of years. These are just a few examples of how PSA has expanded.

Mickey Mantle

JO: What was it like at the start?

SR: There were only three of us. Mike Baker, who is now the director if grading, Adam and myself. We were lucky to get 400-500 cards per month. It took a few years to gain support from the dealers; resistance to grading was commonplace. Pretty soon, we were taking in about 5,000-10,000 cards per month so we came up with an ultimate goal of 20,000. When the ramifications of the baseball strike wore off in about 97-98 and the McGwire/Sosa home run race stole the headlines, we experienced a surge in submissions. Since that time, we have been averaging about 125,000-150,000 per month with a peak of about 220,000 submissions. The combination of the resurgence of baseball as a sport, the emergence of the Internet and the need for grading gave our company a tremendous lift.

JO: Could you have predicted this great success in such a short period of time?

SR: I think it would be very egotistical to say that I knew that PSA would be in the position it is in today. I did know that there was a need for the service but the growth happened so quickly that it was hard to believe at first.

Jerry Koosman & Nolan Ryan

JO: Many grading services have followed in your footsteps; how is this affecting the industry?

SR: If you are the pioneer of a successful business model, others will follow. While I do think competition is a great thing, it has become confusing for new collectors and collectors who are new to grading to be more specific. Most of the other services are only here for the short-term and they really don't offer the level of expertise needed for the job. That hurts the consumers in the long run. As a collector, you want to use a service that is respected, a company that provides the highest quality of service and one that stands behind their product with a guarantee. It is imperative that collectors do their homework here. There is a reason that every major card, of high value, resides in a PSA holder. The "loose" grading shown by some other services is hurting the value of cards in the market and the consumer.

JO: Does it bother you that other services seem to constantly compare themselves to PSA?

Michael Jordan

SR: Not at all. It just reinforces our name in the industry. I will give you an example. Recently, I was shopping for tires for my truck. Everywhere I went, dealers were offering me tires that were "like" Michelins. After a while, I realized something. If every dealer in town is comparing themselves to the quality of Michelin tires, why not just buy the Michelin tires? If you want the best then you should deal with the best. The fact that other services continually compare themselves to us just reinforces the fact that we are the best in the business.

JO: Where does PSA go from here?

SR: Well, although we have a large customer base, the potential to increase that base is great. There are a lot of people out there who are sports fans or casual collectors that don't know about authentication and grading. Some of those people want to know more about the industry but they don't know where to look. We are going to aggressively pursue that untapped market and try to reach out to new areas of the hobby. Our memorabilia authentication division (PSA/DNA) is growing and it is becoming a major force, we want to continue to build this division. We also are looking into non-sports items, I think we can provide a valuable service for collectors in that hobby as well. The bottom line is that I am very proud of how PSA has positively affected the hobby. Consumers feel more comfortable with buying, dealers have enjoyed the benefits of providing authentic products to their clients and the overall expansion has been great. More and more collectors are entering the market and we feel that PSA has contributed to that growth in a major way. This is only the beginning.