Over the years, Sports Market Report has presented its share of stories on high-end collectors who are focused on assembling the highest-graded cards and sets in existence. While the tales of those hobby-topping feats are inspiring and fun to read, they don't reflect the world of the average collector whose collection, while perhaps extremely substantive, pales in value to even just a single card owned by one of the hobby's deep-pocketed whales.
"As a longtime reader of SMR, I love to read about a millionaire who has just acquired a Honus Wagner card. But I can't relate to that," says New Jersey collector Karl Hagberg. "What I can relate to is the guy who collects T206 cards in PSA [EX-MT] 6."
An avid PSA-graded card collector who specializes in mid-grade cards, Hagberg is what he calls "a serious middle man collector." Having amassed a tremendous collection of cards and sets that have graded in the PSA [EX] 5 to [NM] 7 range, Hagberg has been able to wrangle many spots on the PSA Registry.
"Everyone wants the best of the best," says Hagberg. "I understand that as well as anyone. But the fact is that most cards - desirable cards - that grade on the high-end are totally out of the financial reach of all but very few collectors. I think, too often, collectors focus on getting a card graded PSA [NM-MT] 8, [MINT] 9 or [GM-MT] 10, which is fine. However, I believe there's a lot of fun and excitement to be had in collecting mid-grade cards. Instead of having a couple very valuable cards, I have been able to put together a massive collection of cards and sets, starting with the T206s and going through the 1980s, that are beautiful and grade at PSA 5, 6 and 7."
A native of Jackson, New Jersey, who grew up loving the New York Yankees and collecting sports cards, Hagberg says that as a Jerseyite you have two options when it comes to your sports allegiance. "You have to go either north or south to follow a baseball team, and I was never going to be a Phillies fan," says Hagberg. "When I was growing up, I was a huge sports fan. This was in the 1970s and '80s, and the Yankees were the greatest team in baseball."
A card collector from as far back as he can remember, Hagberg recalls going to a local grocery store with his mother to obtain his first cards. "Every day I would get a pack of cards. I would then go through them and work out deals. Even when I was a little kid, I always seemed to have an aptitude for finding good deals. I would go to flea markets and make all sorts of trades and deals."
While attending LaSalle University as an English major in the mid-1990s, Hagberg says, like most college students with too much going on and not enough money, he took a hiatus from card collecting. "I never bought anything while I was in college," he says. Rather, "right before and right after [college] was when I bought the bulk of the cards I own. Right after I graduated, in 1995, instead of doing what all my friends were doing - investing in stocks - I started buying sports cards that I thought would be valuable investments."
The ability to purchase cards first came by way of Hagberg's work as a copywriter with a prestigious international public relations firm. While this work brought him success, he quickly realized that working one's way up the corporate ladder in the public relations and advertising world would be a long climb. Always a proactive type, fueled by creativity and self-motivation, Hagberg made the decision to jump off the corporate ladder and expedite his career by starting his own business. "I started a magazine, Currents, when I was 22," says Hagberg. "It's a lifestyles magazine about people, places and things to do in Monmouth County, New Jersey. I also conduct seminars for small and mid-size businesses in the area focusing on local media trends in advertising and marketing."
From his company's 1997 beginning, Hagberg has grown his business into one of the most successful media companies in the state, publishing three magazines and maintaining over 20 websites that form a unique network of advertising for local businesses. Actively involved in his community, he also serves on the board of four local charitable organizations and stages annual events that bring in over $150,000 for various charities and foundations.
Sports Market Report recently caught-up with Hagberg whose 4,000-plus PSA-graded card collection is stored at his home in a custom-built room specifically designed to display his treasures. A mini-museum that stands as a tribute to Hagberg's love and appreciation of sportscards, one can't help but be impressed as you cross the threshold.
KARL HAGBERG (KH): It was all meticulously thought out and custom-built. It's all beautifully finished and was designed for one purpose - to display my cards. I had custom cabinetry built around the perimeter of the room to showcase my cards, all in order by year. Then I have an entire wall dedicated to my T206 cards. I had a carpenter come in and craft rows of shelves around the room so the cards can sit vertically.
SPORTS MARKET REPORT (SMR): We know you're a married man. How does your wife feel about a part of her home being a card museum?
KH: (laughing) My wife, Anna, thinks I'm a nut. But she is very supportive of it because she knows that, unlike in the stock market, where we have lost a bunch of money, the value of my card collection has either held its value or increased in value. Over the years, I have sold off some doubles or some cards I have upgraded. Anna has seen firsthand how I have made money with the collection and realized they are a good investment.
SMR: You refer to yourself as a "middle man" collector. Tell us why you have such a fascination with mid-grade cards?
KH: I've been amassing my collection for over 20 years and have had my cards graded by PSA since they started grading. I have thousands of PSA-graded cards and my main focus is on mid-grade cards of Hall of Famers. I see massive value in mid-grade cards from T206s through the late-1960s. In high grades, most of these cards would be financially out of my reach and out of the reach of the majority of collectors. I really feel PSA mid-grade cards are much undervalued. The quality of a PSA 6 or 7 can be incredible. If you showed a card that graded a 6 or 7 to the average guy, and it was unslabbed, they would be incredibly impressed with its condition. Outside of the professional graders and the deeply knowledgeable collectors, you would be hard-pressed to find someone who would not think a PSA 7 was a mint card. So I have always been attracted to those cards because they are in beautiful condition.
SMR: Most serious card collectors are obsessed with condition and obtaining the highest grade cards they can afford. You, however, approach collecting from a different standpoint.
KG: Absolutely. I own cards and sets that most collectors will never own because they are obsessed with only having high-grade cards. I've got a run of T206 Hall of Famers that is currently No. 10 on the PSA Set Registry. Those cards are all PSA 5s, 6s or 7s. I don't own one in PSA 8 and I don't go below PSA [VG] 3. While that set grades out in the [VG-EX+] 4.5 to 5 range, it still has a tremendous value. I have many sets currently on the PSA Registry. I'm not at the top, but I would rather have numerous full sets of beautiful cards than just one or two rare 8s or 9s.
SMR: The PSA Registry has come to play such an important role with so many collectors. What are your thoughts about it?
KG: I love the PSA Registry. I think it's a very valuable tool for collectors. I really enjoy the competitive aspect. For me and guys like me, who have been involved in competitive sports, there comes a time in life when that goes away - when you're not out on the field or the court any more. For most guys, as they gave up the competiveness of organized sports, they become competitive in a business environment. But with the Registry, you still have the opportunity to be competitive in a sports environment. It's also enjoyable to find unique ways to highlight your collection and find other people who have something in common with you. It brings not just card collectors, but collectors of very specific cards, sets or genres, together for conversation, sharing of information, trading, buying and selling. That - dealing with other collectors - is something that, without the local card shows, has died in the hobby, except on the Set Registry. It has given new life to the subcultures in the hobby. When collectors lost the socialization of the hobby that the shows offered, many wondered how, or if, that could ever come back. It did, with the Registry. If I have a question or I'm looking for a specific card, I know I can post anything on the Registry, or contact another member, and get high-quality information from someone who shares my interests. I also find great value in the PSA Population Report. That is a great tool because you can establish just how difficult certain cards are to obtain and make an informed decision as to whether you want to begin collecting or buying those cards. Also, and I think this is really important, along with the completion element I also like the sense of legacy that the Registry offers a collection. My kids love to see where my sets are on the Registry and how, by adding cards, the status goes up. I think collectors like to know where they stand among their peers. Just like with athletes, [collectors like to know] where they rank.
SMR: When it comes to those rankings, you have really carved out a unique niche.
KG: I think what makes my collection unique is that I have PSA-graded cards from just about every Hall of Famer from 1950 through 2000. When you see my collection, it's the sheer volume, the way it's displayed, and the condition of these cards (all in middle-grades) that makes up for having that one, or maybe two, marquee cards that are out of the price range of 99.9 percent of the hobby's collectors. A Mickey Mantle rookie card in PSA 9 is not in the price range of many collectors. However, that card in PSA 6, while still very expensive, is not out of reach for many collectors. Think about this: I have every one of Willie Mays' cards. That's quite a collection. Not one of them is a PSA 9, but I have them all in PSA 7, 6 or 5. That is a collection that would be impossible to complete, with the exception of a handful of collectors, if you tried to put it together in PSA 8, 9 or 10. I have put together so many great sets and collections. Name just about any Hall of Fame player and go down the list of their cards and I can say something most collectors can't: 'Yep, I have that one. Yep. I have that one.' Hey, I'll be the first one to say that it's fun to pick up a copy of SMR and read about the guy who has just bought a million dollar card. But that will never be me, or most other collectors. My message is that just because your collection isn't worth millions, that doesn't mean you can't be seriously involved with the hobby, get on the PSA Registry and put together very significant sets and collections. You simply don't need the finest cards in the world to love and enjoy this hobby and have a lot of fun.
SMR: There's no doubting that you are having a lot of fun. Are there certain cards or sets that top the fun or fave list?
KG: My most prized possessions are two 1954 cards - one of Whitey Ford and one of Yogi Berra. My grandfather, who died last year, gave me those cards when I was about ten years old. Are they in good condition? No! But, they will be cards I will always treasure and pass down because they have historical significance from a family perspective. I'm a big Reggie Jackson fan, so one of my favorite cards is my Jackson rookie which I have in PSA 5. As for my favorite sets, the T206 cards have always been my favorites. The portraits are so beautiful. I have every card with the exception of the big four (Honus Wagner, the Sherry Magee error card, Eddie Plank and Joe Doyle), and I know I will never pursue those four cards. That's the biggest point I make with the type of cards I collect. I know many collectors would never consider trying to put together a T206 set because they know they would never be able to afford those big cards and could never finish it. Because of that obsession, if you want to use that word, they forego having the fun of collecting these incredible cards. Well, that never stopped me. I started my T206 set with a couple raggedy PSA [PR] 1s that I bought for something like $10. I don't need the finest things in the world. I like to have complete sets. I like walking into my room and knowing I have every card from a set, and that they are all PSA-graded. Oh, and by the way, there's one card I can't bring myself to purchase because of my father. My dad was a card collector. He collected during Topps' prime - the 1950s. He tells the story of how he had six 1952 Mickey Mantle rookie cards that he buried for safekeeping in the backyard of his home on Staten Island. When I first heard that, I immediately wanted to go back and dig them up. But he said they had been in a cardboard box, so there would be no way they would have survived and have by now decomposed. For me, (laughing) I can't get over thinking about that, and to this day, I still can't bring myself to buy that card - even in the lowest grade.
SMR: Unlike many collectors who keep their cards squirreled away in bank vaults, you enjoy your cards, and enjoy showing them off, on a regular basis.
KG: My card room is a true sense of pride. When people come to see it, their jaws drop to the floor, not just because of the way I have everything displayed, but by seeing individual cards that they had when they were a kid that brings back so many memories.
SMR: Speaking of kids, young people have been priced out of serious card collecting and most seem to be into many things other than cards. And yet, you have a daughter who is very much into cards.
KG: I have three kids. Emily, who is the card collector, is nine, Ava is seven, and my son CJ is four. I have always tried to involve them in the history of baseball and the hobby. But, you're right; kids are totally priced out of high-end cards. Even guys with good jobs can't afford some PSA 8s, so when it comes to high-end cards, there is no way kids can participate in the hobby. But many of those cards in PSA 5, which can be in really beautiful shape, are affordable to kids. Now admittedly, that's not true with the turn-of-the-century stuff or tobacco cards. Even in mid-grades, they are still beyond kids and even most collectors of any age. But, when you get into the 1970s, you can find beautiful PSA 6s and 7s in a price range that anyone can afford. As for Emily - she is funny. She reads SMR and any book she can find on cards. She wants cards for Christmas and uses her allowance to buy cards online. She is interested in old players and cards - although she considers cards and players from the 1980s to be old. She thinks of them as old relics (laughing). But most kids have fallen away from baseball cards, which is sad because 25 and 30 years from now, very few people will say: 'I grew up with those cards. I had that card when I was a kid. They bring back great memories for me.' I show off my room and my collection to kids all the time. I've also given away a lot of cards to kids to hopefully spark their interest in collecting. It's my way of promoting the hobby and doing my little part of seeding the next generation.
SMR: When you are out there prompting the hobby, what do you tell people? What is it about cards that have you so enamored?
KG: To me, baseball cards are a form of storytelling. In an age where kids do everything on their computers, where nothing that they read is paper-based, a card is something you can actually pick up and hold. And every time you hold any card, you are holding something that has a story behind it. The story of the card and player, sure - but there is also a story about the person who originally bought and opened the pack, how it survived in such great condition, or why, even though its condition was so bad, it was still kept and not thrown away. I take the time to tell my kids about the history of various cards and players, and that is what has helped get Emily interested in cards. I also allow my kids to handle my cards because they are protected - encapsulated - which is another benefit that comes with PSA grading. Think about it, would you hand a raw 1954 card over to a kid? No! You don't want that card to be handled at all. But because they are protected, you can really interact with them. Emily looks at cards as little history lessons. The cards of different eras have helped her put things into perspective from a historical standpoint - what was happening at the time a certain card was produced. Why there were no cards produced for a time in the mid-1940s. Most kids don't know we were at war and that they stopped the production of cards. There's a history lesson behind every card, if you take the time to learn what the lesson is, and then take the time to share it. As collectors, I believe we are the custodians of these historical artifacts. My cards - some that came from my grandfather and father - will eventually go on to my kids, and then to their kids and their kid's kids. Beyond their significance or value in the hobby, they will have a personal meaning and value to the future generations of my family, being as that they were handed down. Cards have become a real family tradition for us.