During the late 1860s, as organized baseball began to resonate with Americans in every corner of the country, a sporting goods store known as Peck and Snyder began capitalizing on the burgeoning interest in the game that was rapidly becoming the national pastime. Along with the uniforms and equiptment they sold, Peck and Snyder began producing trading cards that pictured various baseball teams and players as an advertising vehicle for the company.
From those early days of sportscard production untill the late 1970s, the manufacturing, purchasing, collecting and trading of these cardboard collectibles became as American as mom's fruit-filled pies and the bat-and-ball game that first inpired their creation. There was a carefree innocence to collecting sportscards up until the end of the 1970s, and scant few of us ever gave a thought to the fact that rubber bands, bike spokes, and flickin' cards against a wall were incurring damage that would later cause the cards that escaped those perils to become highly valuable and sought-after treasures.
By the dawn of the 1980s, baby boomers were coming to an age that brought with it their first wave of nostalgia. As they stepped out of the cocoons of colleges and universities and began to take on the responsibilities of careers, families and mortgages, they began to reminisce, and pine for the time when their greatest concerns were what player's cards they would become the proud owners of as they ripped open a pack of Topps offerings.
By the late 1980s, the desire to once again own the cards they had as kids was in full eruption. Adding to this explosion was the fact that the boomers, who craved these childhood memories, were by then in a financial position to purchase them.
Prior to the late 1980s, collecting sports cards was still a rather innocuous little hobby that was done more for the love of the cards than for their value. A card collector could easily and affordably, keep up with the new sets being produced and, when found, could purchase a vintage card for such staggering prices as $15, $20, or even $25 dollars!
That all changed by the start of the 1990s. Ironically, the explosion of the sportscard market, which was largely sparked in the late 1980s and early 1990s by men in their thirties who hoped to recapture the innocence of simpler times, became in itself a complicated, competitive and expensive venture. As the desire for older and better quality cards became more and more prevalent, even those who had fairly decent expendable incomes were being pushed out of the hobby's higher end.
And thus, by the middle of the '90s, collectors started to become selective about what they collected. Some began to focus on very specific things such as collecting every card from a certain set, or rookie offerings, while others were attracted to compiling sets of Hall of Famers, individual players, or favorite teams. With the advent of graded cards and limited edition offerings, that often included a player's genuine autograph, a valuable vintage card, or a small swatch of a game-used uniform or equipment, entirely new genres opened up for card collectors. Today, the various types of cards that collectors amass are as varied as the collectors themselves.
For collectors who are always looking to the horizon to see where the next explosion of interest may hit, many experts believe the genre that may be the closest to erupting is the collecting of unopened packs. To be sure, collecting unopened packs is nothing new. However, being as that Professional Sports Authenticators (PSA) has recently responded to the requests of collectors and dealers alike to begin authenticating and grading vintage and modern unopened packs of sports and non-sports trading cards, the chances are good that the genre is primed to burst open.
While unopened packs have always held a great allure for collectors, the "What's inside?" question has, at times, gotten the best of even the most devoted collector of these sealed treasures. It is also possible that very few collectors will opt to keep from opening new packs being as that today's offerings, which can cost upwards of $100, may hold one of those valuable insert cards. This may mean that the population of unopened packs may not grow much beyond what currently exists.
"The grading of unopened packs is an eagerly-anticipated and necessary service for the hobby," said Joe Orlando, President of PSA and PSA/DNA Authentication Services and the editor of Sports Market Report. "Many collectors and dealers have repeatedly said they want the PSA brand for the assurance of authenticity and grade of the unopened packs they buy and sell. Our goal has always been to do everything possible to strengthen the sportscard hobby and business by diversifying our services, responding to the desires and needs of collectors and dealers, and by building an authentication team of respected and skilled experts."
It is for that reason that PSA has tapped the skills of one of the nation's most highly respected card specialists – Steve Hart. The owner of Baseball Card Exchange in Lynwood, Illinois, Hart is renowned throughout the hobby for his exceptional knowledge of cards and unopened packs.
"We are very pleased that Steve will be working closely with us on the authentication of unopened packs," said Orlando who explained that PSA will now be offering a special holder to encapsulate certified packs, establish an Unopened Pack Set Registry, and will soon be publishing PSA grading standards and a price guide for unopened packs. "All of these offerings, along with Steve's expertise, provide the necessary base for an expanding market," Orlando added.
So, just who is this man who will be playing a vital role in PSA's latest endeavor?
Steve Hart is a man who has been involved with sportscards in one way or another since he was nine-years old. His early love of cards led him to local card shows and, by the mid-1980s, he became a dealer with a presence at card conventions. In 1990, at the ripe old age of 20, Steve established a retail sportscards store – Baseball Card Exchange. He built his business on integrity and customer service that quickly positioned him as one of Chicago's premier sportscard dealers. Throughout the following two decades, Steve expanded his business and, today, Baseball Card Exchange serves the worldwide sportscard hobby from their 8,000-square-feet office and warehouse.
As for Steve's fascination with unopened material, the interest started early in his collecting career, and today, after years of meticulously studying thousands upon thousands of unopened items, he is widely considered to be one of the foremost authorities on the subject. And so, as a service to SMR readers who are interested in getting their unopened packs graded by PSA, or who are now thinking about getting started in collecting unopened packs, we invited Steve to share some of his insights on this burgeoning genre of the hobby.
SMR: Steve, will you share with our readers how you first got involved with card collecting?
SH: It started for me back in 1979, when I signed up to play Little League Baseball. A team called the Orioles had drafted me and, after my first day with the team, I went with my mom to the grocery store where I saw a Topps baseball rack pack on the shelf with a picture of a Baltimore Orioles player on the top – I think it was Scott McGregor. I remember being pretty excited about seeing Major League Baseball players on those little pieces of cardboard and figured that I should buy the pack being as that there was an Oriole on top and I was now an Oriole myself.
I guess that is when my fascination with sportscards really started. Soon after, I was amazed to find out that I could buy cards that went all the way back to the 1950s! That was unbelievable to me and, of course, I had no idea that there were cards that even went back to a time beyond that. Like most kids, I enjoyed watching baseball games on TV and then buying packs to get the cards of current players. I especially loved watching the Chicago Cubs on TV when there was a rain delay because they would show highlights from past World Series games and All-Star games. I would then try to find cards of the players I saw in those highlight films.
SMR: When did you start getting more serious about card collecting?
SH: By the early 1980s, I started to buy sportscards in bulk form and began buying vending cases, rack cases, and wax cases. I participated in my first card show in 1985 to sell off my extra inventory and then used the proceeds to buy more cards. I opened my first retail store in 1990, right after I finished high school. Since then, I have moved the company several times, each time to a much larger location. Now our business is all mail-order through our Web site, direct sales, and auctions. We only attend a couple of shows each year, due to the fact that we are just too busy to get out of the office much.
SMR: Why are you especially fascinated with unopened packs?
SH: There is only a small amount of unopened material known to exist, especially pre-1970 and, each time a pack gets opened, there is one less pack that exists. For every call I receive from a collector who wants to sell their collection, only a handful will have something unopened in pre-1970 material. Frankly, it amazes me that unopened material exists at all today. You have to wonder why every pack wasn't opened. Nobody ever thought to keep packs sealed back in the 1970s. We just tore them open to get to what was inside. I'm even more amazed that the wrappers are still around today. That was the first thing you threw away after opening the pack. It's exciting for me to know that these unopened packs still exist and about what may be still out there in unopened form that has yet to be discovered.
SMR: Doesn't the curiosity of what may be inside ever get the better of you – especially with vintage packs?
SH: Very rarely does the idea of what is inside a pack get the best of me. Since we buy so many card collections, we have pretty much seen it all. Only once in a while do I ever consider, or follow through, with opening a sealed pack. We recently had a 1955 Bowman Baseball cello pack that was real thick with around 18 cards in it. The surface of the pack was split open pretty badly. I figured that, due to its delicate condition, if we shipped it or handled it too much, it was going to open anyway. Therefore, I went ahead and opened it. I had a few of the cards graded and several of them came back as PSA MINT 9s, including some examples that had never been graded in a MINT 9. Some of the highlights were a Bob Grim card that graded PSA 9. This was the only MINT 9 ever graded. We also got a Jocko Conlan PSA 9 and a NM-MT 8 Yogi Berra which was perfect in every way except it was a tad off center.
SMR: So when it comes to unopened vintage packs, isn't there always the chance that there will be a highly valuable card like those inside? With that being the case, why would a collector decide to keep from opening the pack?
SH: Of course, there is always the chance of an unopened pack having something valuable inside it, like the Grim, or Conlan, or Berra cards I referenced. But, overall, with vintage packs, there is far less of a chance of getting something valuable in the pack. Most vintage wax packs only had five cards in them. Therefore, since a series usually contained 110 to 132 cards, your chances of finding one of the big stars is pretty slim. Also, even if you do hit with a major player, the chances of the card being well-centered, in focus and with sharp corners is even slimmer. Now, your chances do get slightly better with cello packs, and even much better with rack packs. But it's a gamble as to what you may find as opposed to leaving the packs unopened, which will guarantee they will always hold a high value no matter what is inside.
SMR: Do unopened packs exist from all eras?
SH: Unopened packs exist today from 1948 on up and most are available with a little searching. But packs before World War II get extremely difficult to find, or simply are not known to exist at all. There are some hockey issues from 1951 and '52 through the early 1960s that are just about non-existent.
SMR: What are some of the most valuable unopened packs in existence?
SH: The most valuable packs would be just about anything pre-World War II. But since these packs are so difficult to come by, I won't even include them. As far as post-1948 packs, there are a few from each sport that command a large premium. In basketball, 1948 Bowman packs are virtually non-existent and the ones that have surfaced have sold for tens of thousands of dollars. Baseball packs that command the largest premiums are 1952 through 1955 Topps and 1948 through 1953 Bowmans. Baseball cello packs from the mid-1950s also get huge prices when they surface, along with baseball rack packs from 1960 and 1961. Football packs that seem to fetch the highest prices are 1952 Bowman Large, 1953 Bowman, 1955 All-American, and 1965 Topps.
I would love to see what kind of prices Leaf Football packs would get in today's market, but none have surfaced in a very long time. As far as hockey goes, almost anything pre-1960 is virtually non-existent. When they do surface in the marketplace, they realize incredibly huge prices. So, to answer your question, pre-World War II packs are the most desirable and, of course, the most difficult to find. However, since they are not going to be in a price range that would be available for most collectors, I would say that most pre-1970 packs would be the ones that are, and will be the highest in demand.
SMR: Every card collector knows how cards are graded, but how do you grade an unopened pack?
SH: The grade that will be assigned to an unopened pack will be determined by a few different factors. Grading will take into consideration the wear, tears, and holes in the corners and the edges of the pack. The folds on the back of the pack will be used along with the seal itself. There will also be value set on the "freshness" of the pack due to mildew or water damage. Loss of color or fading will also be a factor on the wax wrapper. Centering will not have a technical standard like cards do being as that lots of wax wrappers do not have defined borders like a card, does. Most of the centering will be based simply on eye appeal. Miswraps will, however, be taken into account. All that said, it is important for collectors to know that as a dealer, I will not be personally grading packs in any way. That will be up to the PSA experts. I am only required to judge each pack as being original or re-sealed, and if it has been tampered with or altered in any way.
SMR: How large of a share of the card collecting hobby does unopened packs account for?
SH: As far a vintage material goes, unopened material accounts for a very small percentage of the card market. An educated guess would be that only around five percent of all vintage material that is collected, bought and sold is unopened. However, to me, and to many others, it is the most amazing part of vintage material. In the modern market, packs account for a much larger market share with collectors looking for valuable insert cards.
SMR: Can you talk a bit about tobacco cards. Are there any unopened cigarette packs known to exist?
SH: There have been some unopened cigarette packs and tobacco packs that have surfaced over the years. However, the problem for sportscard collectors is that sometimes these packs don't always contain a baseball player. They could possibly contain the card of an actor, a notable Indian, or even wildlife.
SMR: What are your favorite unopened packs and why?
SH: My favorite packs are the ones with bright colorful wrappers. These seem to be the ones that stand out the most when on display. Some examples include 1955 Bowman Football, 1955 Topps All-American Football, 1956 Topps Baseball, 1960 Topps Baseball and 1968 Topps Baseball. I also like cello packs with major stars showing on top and unopened wax trays. They are very attractive items that are extremely popular with collectors.
SMR: Steve, let us propose a scenario – suppose a collector came upon a box in some attic or basement that contained hundreds of unopened packs of mainstream cards from the 1950s and 1960s, would you recommend they be opened or remain unopened?
SH: I would very strongly recommend that they keep them in unopened form. Like I mentioned earlier, these unopened packs would command huge prices. Opening them may result in a rare treasure or two, but the chances are against that. What you are doing by opening these packs is gambling away a sure thing.
SMR: Would that advice differ if the cards were from any other era?
SH: My suggestion would be to not open a pack that, has been issued before the mid-1980s. After that a lot of the unopened material does not hold much value except for the inserts. Therefore, I would say if you find unopened packs from the mid-1980s and up, you can rip away to your heart's content looking for those valuable inserts. But remember, the chances of getting those cards is highly remote and most anything pre-1983 is going to be worth more if you keep it in unopened form.
SMR: What sort of values are being placed on unopened packs today?
SH: Most packs from 1974 and up can be purchased for under $100 with a few exceptions. Packs from 1960 through 1973 are found in the $200 to $2,000 range depending on how rare they are, their condition, and if they are wax, cello or rack form. Packs that are pre-1960 usually start in the $1,000 range and go up considerably. But the fact is that, up until now, these values have been based on whatever something last sold for at auction. Now that PSA will begin grading unopened packs and publish a price guide, we will see more standardization of values on unopened packs.
SMR: What do you see as the future of unopened packs – growing? dwindling? staying about the same?
SH: Thanks to PSA, the future of unopened packs looks good. With PSA now getting into the unopened pack market, I believe we will begin to see more interest and growth. PSA will bring stability to the grade of an unopened pack and help eliminate the problem of packs that have been tampered with or re-sealed. Just like they have done with cards, autographs, and game-used memorabilia, PSA will now instill consumer confidence for the collector who up until now has stayed away from unopened material.
For further information on having unopened card packs graded by PSA you may contact the company by mail at: P.O. Box 6180, Newport Beach, CA 92658. Phone: (800) 325-1121; on line at: www.PSAcard.com or, via E-mail at: [email protected]
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