Long-time hobby veteran Jeff Morris takes over the Editor’s Blog with some thoughts on superstar players, cards and injuries.
My mind went down a rabbit hole on Saturday night and I thought about the worst trade I had ever made as a collector. I have been an avid collector, as well as a hobby and industry veteran, for more than 50 years but this one goes way back.
It was 1970 and I was six years old. I was walking home from Churchill Public School near my hometown of Prescott, Ontario. The village I lived in near Prescott had only 250 people, so we all knew each other. We all brought our hockey cards to school with us every day, as well as our skates and sticks as there was a frozen pond behind the school.
I was walking home with Ed Horba, who was two years older than I was, and Fast Eddie – he was the fastest kid in the school – made me an offer. “I will give you five cards for your Bobby Orr.”
I felt uneasy about it, but then six-year-old me thought getting five whole cards just for one was a great deal, as it put me that much closer to completing my set. I got five commons. And Bobby Orr is Bobby Orr. At six, I got fleeced for the first time, though I don’t think Fast Eddie was taking advantage of me. He just really liked Bobby Orr and I didn’t because I was a Montreal Canadiens fan.
Orr already had knee troubles. Within a couple of years, we saw spurts of his greatness, but ultimately his knees shortened a brief but brilliant career. Hockey’s Mount Rushmore has Howe, Orr and Gretzky, and then the debate starts for who joins them.
I thought about this because of the injury that happened on Saturday night. I was watching Jeremy Lee’s Sports Card Live weekly YouTube show when hobby veteran and old friend Dave Sliepka put a note in the chat thread saying that Atlanta Braves star Ronald Acuña Jr. had just torn his ACL against the Florida Marlins and would be out for the season.
It started a hot discussion in the thread and took over the program for a while. We developed was a microcosm of how an injury to a superstar can have an affect on the hobby.
While Acuña is out for the season, this is likely just a setback in the big picture. For athletes like Bobby Orr and Joe Namath, knee injuries like ACL tears in the 1960s and early 1970s were career enders. What Acuña has is a season ender. He will be back. Look at the injuries that athletes like Adrian Peterson. He came back and was still at the top of his game. Athletes like Rafael Nadal, Lindsay Vonn and Klay Thompson have gone through it too. And does anyone even remember when Connor McDavid crashed into the boards against Calgary only two years ago and the hobby overreacted and thought his career was over? Last time we checked, he’s still widely considered the best player in the NHL and the hottest active player in the hockey card market.
One of the collectors on the thread was in a bit of a panic. He had an Acuña signed and numbered graded card that he had spent $30,000 on earlier in the year. He was planning on selling the card at the end of the season. He was afraid that his “investment” was now a bust. The chat thread went into dog pile mode, and he took it on the chin.
But the discussion led to a greater question. Is buying a card like that for the purpose of flipping it in six months an investment? Or is it more of a get-rich-quick plan?
The consensus was likely the latter.
So if you are invested heavily in Acuña, what does the injury mean and what should you do?
Investing vs. Collecting
When I started taking collecting seriously, I was finishing high school in the early 1980s. I never considered myself to be an investor, though I always kept an eye open for something that had a lot of upside in value. The first really smart “investment” set I bought was the 1980-81 Topps perforated tri-panel set that included the Magic Johnson and Larry Bird rookies with my all-time favorite player, Julius Erving. I thought it was the best card ever. I bought the complete set for about $12. My card isn’t worth a fortune – the elastic band that was around the set for a few years with that card on top made sure of it, but it’s worth a lot more than 12 bucks these days.
It was a good investment, but I did not buy it thinking I would wait until it was worth a small fortune and then flip it. It’s an untouchable part of my collection.
The collector on the thread sounded eerily similar to some collectors in the early 1990s who sat on cards, sets, boxes and cases and figured their investment would appreciate in six months. Maybe there are a lot of people who have sunk money into Acuña cards solely for investment purposes. Many will panic and liquidate their cards, simply because they want to pull what they can out of it. Other investors, meanwhile, will buy Acuña cards over the next month. Many collectors follow the advice of stockbrokers. Buy when everyone is selling, sell when everyone is buying.
Clearly, the thing to do here would be to wait it out. Acuña will have surgery, he will rehabilitate, and chances are he will be an All-Star several times in his career. His injury is not a lesson that collectors should not spend thousands of dollars on sports cards. But it is a lesson that sports cards are not cash. They are not stocks, bonds, or 401Ks. A signed, numbered Topps or Bowman Refractor parallel with a low serial number and a PSA 9 or 10 Grade is only worth what someone is will to pay for it at the time you are willing to sell that card.
The 75-25 Rule
For years when I worked at Pinnacle, Shop At Home, Pacific and Canadian Sports Collector magazine, I was always asked investment advice. My smart ass answer was always to talk to your broker and try to buy shares of Topps. But then I would give them the serious answer. If you are trying to build a portfolio of cards as an investment, focus on the Hall of Famers. I always used 75-25 as a rule – 75 per cent Hall of Famers and 25 per cent rookies or prospects or young stars.
Today, with all the hype around Acuña, Wander Franco, Fernando Tatis Jr., Vladimir Guerrero Jr. and Shohei Otahni, the cards on the market have already reached their potential values. They will still increase in value, but the return will be slow. But look how many players there are whose card values have a lot of upside this year? Outside of the Cincinnati market, who was stockpiling Nick Castellanos or Jesse Winker rookies when the season started? Who was on the Cedric Mullins bandwagon? How many Matt Olson collectors were there? In football, I remember working at Pacific when the first Kurt Warner and Tom Brady cards came out. They were commons, and before long, boom! The people who made the most money were the people who were first to set them aside.
The injury to Acuña will certainly scare off some buyers looking to make a quick buck off some young stars. Injuries are part of the game. This year seems particularly nasty with all of the oblique and soft tissue injuries in baseball. But a Hall of Famer is still a Hall of Famer. Is a rare rookie of a young star as good of an investment as a graded rookie of a Hank Aaron, Willie Mays or Mickey Mantle? Those are legendary Hall of Famers, and they are always a good investment. You just won’t get rich quick off them.
As for my 1970-71 O-Pee-Chee set, I eventually completed it, replaced the beaten up cards with crisp ones, and I got a very good Bobby Orr. My set is a very good investment, but I’m not moving it now.
The sad thing is that there is no way that Fast Eddie had that Orr card for more than a year or two before it met the fate of so many cards from a time when they weren’t worth much.
It got tossed in the trash.