Merkel's 1915 Cracker Jack set is renowned for its incredible quality.
Merkel's 1915 Cracker Jack set is renowned for its incredible quality.

When it comes to serious sportscard collecting, whether you are a rookie or a seasoned veteran, there is one thing that you know for sure -- this is not the hobby for the weak of wallet!

In high grades, most complete sets command prices in multiple thousands of dollars. It is certainly not a rarity for price tags in the hundreds of thousands of dollars to be affixed to various sets. A few of the most desirable vintage sets can set you back well over a million dollars. And, there are even a couple of single cards out there that will lighten your bank account quite a bit if you choose to claim ownership.

The vast majority of even very serious card collectors are not, nor will they ever be, in a financial position to own the PSA NM-MT 8 Honus Wagner T-206, a complete set of 1909-1911 T-206 White Borders in high-grade, or all 239 of the cards that make up the 1933 Goudey set in NM-MT 8.

But, as we all know, there are big league collectors out there that have made the ownership of the hobby's most desirable cards and sets a reality. Some of those big league collectors have become as well known throughout the hobby as the players whose cards they collect -- John Branca, Marshall Fogel and Brian Seigel are the Ruths, Gehrigs and Mantles of the sportscard hobby.

These collectors, along with a handful of others, are the ones who have the financial wherewithal to amass the collections that the rest of us can only dream of owning. This prompts the wonderment -- do these guys really love the cards and have a passion for the hobby like the "little guys," or are they just astute businessmen who see these cards as a prudent financial investment?

The answer to that question is the same with all of the major collectors -- it's both. That fact comes through crystal clear within moments of meeting and talking to these gents, and it is perhaps made most clear when talking to Charlie Merkel.

Along with the Brancas, Fogels and Seigels of the world, Charlie Merkel is another major leaguer who appears on the roster of the hobby's upper echelon. His name is omnipresent as a leader in the PSA Set Registry and as the owner of well over a dozen of the highest quality complete vintage baseball sets known to exist, including two that have been inducted into the PSA Set Registry Hall of Fame: his 1915 Cracker Jack Baseball Set and his 1952 Topps Baseball Set.

Merkel's 1915 Cracker Jack set is renowned for its incredible quality. At the time of the voting, his was the only complete set to exhibit a GPA over 7.00 and it was nearly an 8.5. His '52 Topps set is, of course, one of the "Big Three" (along with the T-206 and the 1933 Goudey sets) and is the most desirable post-war set in existence.

Sports Market Report's Editor-In-Chief, Joe Orlando, says that he believes that Merkel has been instrumental in changing the dynamic of the sportscard hobby. "With most complete sets you'll find the big name cards in high grade and the commons to be in varying conditions," Orlando says. "With Charlie's sets, every card is in high grade. His sets are truly phenomenal and he was way ahead of the game when it comes to the Set Registry. He was always aware of how difficult it is to find all of the commons in high grades to round out sets. While most collectors want the big names, Charlie has always been on the search to dig up the hard-to-find high-grade commons that, with the Set Registry now so hot, have become very desirable. He had been doing that long before the Set Registry became popular. He had the foresight to do that, and today he is benefiting from his foresight being as that the Set Registry has propelled a whole new part of the hobby."

An attorney from Clarksdale, Mississippi, Merkel's profile is stereotypical of the high-end collector. He had a passion for baseball from the time he was very young. He had been a card collector as a child. He lost interest in cards during the time he was attending college and establishing his career and family. After attaining a high level of professional success, his interest in cards returned.

Upon his return to collecting, he was fascinated to realize how valuable cards had become. He became almost obsessive in learning everything he could about the hobby. He seeks out the highest quality cards and has great appreciation to PSA for the trust and confidence they have brought to the hobby, because, while he is willing to shell out the big bucks, he demands that he truly gets what he is paying for. And, he knows that along with the personal enjoyment these cards bring him, they also have an investment value that has proven to be a better bet than many of the more mainstream options.

There is, however, one thing that separates Charlie from most of the major collectors -- along with amassing cards and sets of incredible quality, he also still has every card that he collected as a kid.

"I started collecting cards when I was a 9-year old kid back in 1952," Merkel says with a Southern drawl so thick it could coat pancakes. "I grew up in this little town in Mississippi and the 1952 Topps cards were the first ones that were ever made available there. So, I began collecting them and, unlike many other collectors, I still have all of my original cards."

During the years that education, cars, girls, career and family eclipsed Merkel's interest in cards, his childhood treasures sat in the attic of his family home. They were finally retrieved and dusted off in 1982 and the nostalgia of those old cards set Merkel off on an odyssey to find each one in pristine condition.

"The impetus to pull those cards out of the attic came about when I went to a card shop with my son," Merkel explains. "That was when my interest got rekindled and also when I first realized how valuable these cards had become. I was amazed to see the same cards that I had in such perfect condition and from then on I began searching for each one of the '52 Topps set in grades of 8 or 9."

By 1992, Merkel had amassed a magnificent collection of high-grade cards and was regularly making substantial purchases.

"It was when I really got serious about collecting that I truly appreciated what PSA has brought to the hobby," Merkel said. "Before PSA, if you were interested in buying or selling a high profile card you were afraid it may be a counterfeit or that it was doctored in some way. That was the void that PSA filled. They gave buyers and sellers confidence. The grading is great. It has brought a standard to the hobby. But for me, it is the authenticating that is the most important." Along with his passion for cards, Merkel is a huge sports fan, an avid duck hunter, a loyal fan of Old Miss football and basketball and the New York Yankees.

WHAT?

How does a good ol' southern boy like Charlie become a fan of a team from… NEW YORK CITY?

"We had no local professional baseball team in Mississippi and my dad was a Yankee fan. He took me to a couple Yankees games in 1952 and I got pictures with all of the players and I got a ball signed by them and from then on I was a big fan."

Today, as the owner of some of the highest quality cards in existence, Merkel says that he loves his old childhood 1952 Topps originals just as much as he does his 8's and 9's. His goal is to someday put together a set of the '52 Topps in all 9's and 10's. "The '52 Topps will always be my favorite set because of the nostalgia, but I also love the Cracker Jack cards, the '33 Goudeys and all of the Bowmans."

And so, just like those of us whose collecting goals are not so lofty, Merkel's passion stems out of the love he had for these cards as a child and for the wave of nostalgia that they bring every time he looks at them.

"It definitely is the nostalgia," says Merkel. "It's the fun of finding the cards of teams and players that I followed as a kid. And, it's also the overall fun of the chase. Those are the primary reasons I collect (but) the more I have gotten into investment grade cards the more I have come to realize that these cards are really a better investment than the stock market. Sometimes I question whether or not I use that as a rationalization to myself and to my wife to justify why I invest so much money into cards. My wife says it's totally a rationalization."

But is the investing aspect really just a rationalizing justification?

Joe Orlando says that there is no need for justification, and that Merkel is very correct in saying that high-end cards are a prudent investment. "There are a lot of people who don't think of sporstcards from an investment standpoint," says Orlando. "The bottom line is that this is a supply and demand product. People love these cards and they want to own them. Since they were first produced, people have always wanted them, and they always will -- through ups and downs in the economy."

Orlando backs up his argument with the fact that even in weak economic times, cards have sold for record prices. He attributes that to emotion.

"There is no emotional attachment to a stock," says Orlando. "A person buys a stock for one reason -- to make money. But with sportscards, people don't lose their love for Mickey Mantle or Ted Williams because the economy is down. The desire for these cards doesn't collapse or fluctuate. It solidly remains strong because the love of these players doesn't stop due to an economic downturn -- and it never will."

Along with the consistent desire for cards, Orlando goes on to say that cards offer a retention value that most other high-ticket items do not. "If I buy a stereo system or a car, I will certainly get enjoyment out of it, but the second I bring them home they have lost significant monetary value," says Orlando. "With desirable cards you can enjoy them and it is very likely that they will retain at least most of their worth or go up in value. So here's a situation that you can own something that has an emotional and nostalgic value. Something that you can enjoy owning and that will most likely increase in value -- few things can offer those benefits."

According to Orlando, there are factual reports that have proven that if one were to properly invest in high-grade cards, they have seen a return that is consistently better than what can be realized with many other investments.

"Overall, sportscards have always gone up in value for one simple reason -- people have never stopped wanting them," says Orlando. "And so, they are a solid investment. Plus, if you enjoy them, and you have the money to own them, you can't lose -- you benefit on both ends."

Still, as much as Orlando promotes the investment aspect of the hobby, he is quick to point out that the emotional enjoyment is always the most important, whether you are a John Branca or a guy who owns four or five cards that have personal meaning.

"I have gotten to know many of the big, prominent collectors," says Orlando. "And they all have one thing in common: They have a love and passion for these cards just like every collector. They are successful business people so, of course, they want to be prudent with their purchases, but they want these cards because they have an emotional attachment to them and they just love them."

Orlando specifically acknowledges Merkel as he makes his point. "Charlie is one of the most prominent collectors in the world and yet he is a very unassuming, down-to-Earth guy. The perception about these prominent collectors is that they just have big money so they can buy up whatever they want. But that's just not the case, especially with Charlie. He loves cards and is extremely passionate about the hobby."

Orlando also makes it clear that while each of the hobby's most prominent collectors is a unique individual in their own right, the individual cards and sets that each owns are equally unique.

"When you look at Charlie's 1915 Cracker Jack set you realize that you are looking at a set of cards that has taken on a life of its own and has a reputation," says Orlando. "This is not just a phenomenal 1915 Cracker Jack set, it is THE Charlie Merkel 1915 Cracker Jack set. He also has other sets that would be referred to as THE Charlie Merkel set. That's what makes these guys such an integral part of the hobby -- and it all stems out of the simple fact that they truly enjoy this stuff."