Taking My Hacks

What's in a Name? Everything.

Joe Orlando

If you have been paying close attention to the card market during the past couple of years, especially the high end of the market, there is no doubt that some unprecedented price levels have been reached during that time.  There are a number of reasons for the surge.  New buyers with a different degree of spending power and an intense focus on star cards and rookies have each contributed, but there is one aspect of the growth that is equally undeniable.

The names.

So, what do I mean by that?

A name is the athlete's brand.  Better yet, the athlete's name only becomes a brand - a household name - if their name is synonymous with perceived greatness in the sport.  In some cases, those who have achieved that kind of branding are not actually considered amongst the best in their respective sport, but it doesn't matter as long as their popularity is undisputed.  Perception is more important than reality.  You can be a perennial All Star or Hall of Famer, in any sport, and not possess a top-shelf name.  In fact, most Hall of Famers do not possess the kind of name I am referring to in this piece. 

Wayne Gretzky, Michael Jordan, Joe Montana and Babe Ruth are all obvious brands.  Their names, by themselves, carry a power that vaults them into another stratosphere when it comes to collectibles.  There are plenty of others too, from Roberto Clemente to Wilt Chamberlain, from Johnny Unitas to Bobby Orr.  These are the kinds of athletes that have statues with their likeness permanently placed outside of stadiums.  These are the names the average sports fan recognizes.  In fact, they are the names that are recognizable to the average person - period.

Over the past few years, there have certainly been exceptions to the rule, but the vast majority of the pricing escalation in cards has involved The Names.  While the rising card prices have stolen most of the headlines, the story is the same on the memorabilia side of the hobby as well.  What is a name? Joe Namath is a name.  Johnny Bench is a name.  Magic Johnson is a name.  Mario Lemieux is a name.  Elmer Flick, Andy Phillip, Arnie Weinmeister and Bill Quackenbush are not.  They were all excellent players, they are all Hall of Famers, but their names do not resonate like the others do.

Some of this has to do with their level of play, the positions they played or the era in which they played.  Something that should never be underestimated is the power of game footage, whether present or past, which fans and collectors have access to.  There are not many athletes from the early-to-mid 20th century that retain Ruth-like name power today, because their feats are not placed in front of our eyes like those athletes that played during the SportsCenter era.  Every generation is reminded of how great Michael Jordan was and can see that with their own eyes, but how about Jack Twyman?

Plenty of people would argue that Carlton Fisk, while great in his own right, was not quite as great as some other legendary catchers, but his 12th-inning home run in Game 6 of the 1975 World Series will be put on repeat for future generations until the sun burns out.  When it comes to names, Fisk is better than several other Hall of Fame catchers, regardless of statistics or achievements.  The same can be said of the aforementioned Namath.  Namath was a great player and is a Hall of Famer, but few would dare argue that he should be in the conversation for the best ever at the position.  That said, when it comes to names, Namath trumps many great quarterbacks because of his tremendous popularity.  His name is now a brand.

We can play this game all day long.  We can argue the merits of one athlete versus another and the debates will rage on.  The real question is whether or not a particular name will have meaning, without explanation, for future generations of fans and collectors.  Those are the names that have staying power, long after you and I will have passed on.

What's in a name?  Everything. 

Taking my hacks,

Joe Orlando

Joe Orlando
PSA President