There are so many cool and interesting ways to consume baseball and augment the enjoyment of watching the sport. There are books, there are films, listening to podcasts, there’s playing catch in the park, training with your local ball club. Yet, the one thing that has captivated me even more so than a late July pitching duel is the hobby of baseball card collecting.
Hobby collecting has been a vice of mine since a young age, predominantly football stickers. I proudly have completed every Panini sticker album from summer football tournaments stretching back to Euro 2004 and completed six straight Merlin Premier League sticker albums covering the late 90s and early 00s. Each of those collections have definitive endpoints, but the beauty of baseball card collecting, and it is beautiful, is the sheer variety of what can be collected.
Sure, one could be a completist and simply collect the full list of base cards put out by Topps or Panini each year, and many do approach collecting that way, but why restrict yourself? You may want to collect cards from your favourite team, build a personal collection (or ‘PC’ as collectors know it) of your favourite player. You may wish to speculate over cards that may be worth more money in the future or focus on big ‘hits’ being autographed cards or game-used memorabilia cards.
It took a great deal of perseverance to get my head around the subtleties of baseball card collecting. Firstly, there are a number of companies producing collections, but Topps and Panini are the big hitters. Topps have the official MLB licence and therefore are seen as the primary product, but Panini collections have their fans, particularly the Donruss collection with their variety of cool insert cards, such as emoji backgrounds and nickname cards.
Then there is the sheer volume of collections. Topps releases two ‘base’ sets each year of 350 cards. The flagship product features clean photography, with player stats and personal information on the back of each card. Then there is Topps Heritage, a beautiful product that takes retro graphic design and applies it to modern day players.
The list goes on: Topps Inception takes an artistic approach and is seen as a more premium product, focusing on fewer cards and more autographs from the game’s biggest stars. Topps Opening Day takes a fun approach to the start of the season with insert cards of opening day scenes, spring training, club mascots and even ballpark announcers. Gypsy Queen adds a mythical element to its design, Bowman focuses on rated prospects not yet promoted to the big leagues. There’s Topps Transcendent, Topps Pro Debut, Topps Finest, Topps Tier One, Topps Stadium Club, Topps Allen & Ginter…
If that isn’t overwhelming enough each collection has its nuances. There are short print variations, numbered colour variations, memorabilia cards. As I said earlier, it is best to just take what you want from the hobby rather than seeking to be a completist.
There is some useful guidance out there from myriad websites, blogs and YouTube channels, but some particular highlights for me are the YouTube channels of Phil Hughes and Erik Jabs, which I will watch every day with my morning cup of coffee.
Phil Hughes, former big-league pitcher for the Yankees and Twins, puts out around three to five videos per week through his channel ‘Phil’s Pulls’ and focuses on higher end products that may be out of the reach of you or me. His narrative features analysis of the current state of the card market and funny stories from his playing days when he pulls the card of a former teammate.
Erik Jabs focuses on cards at the lower end of the market, featuring reviews of new product releases, opening old packs to look for rookie cards of future hall of famers and his well-received $50 budget videos. He puts out at least five videos a week on his channel ‘Jabs Family’.
My approach to the hobby is to buy what piques my interest. I started off slowly, just spending a few pounds on vintage Milwaukee Brewers cards from eBay. For literally the price of a pint I picked up a set of twenty Brewers cards from the 1978 and 1986 seasons, including Brewers stalwarts Robin Yount and Paul Molitor.
Then I picked up cheap base cards of Brewers players from the 2018 and 2019 seasons, putting together a little album celebrating the back-to-back postseason appearances. The best way to do this is through the website Check Out My Cards (comc.com). I used the same website to put together a PC of Christian Yelich cards which is now over fifty unique cards strong.
Over the last few months I have thrown myself into Topps 2020 releases making my most extravagant purchase of a Topps 2020 Series 1 Hobby Box from the brilliant British based website sportstradingcardsuk.com. I spent an entire evening ripping open 24 packs of cards (ASMR heaven!) picking up a nice Andrew Benintendi game-used jersey card, an Aaron Judge blue-bordered holographic card numbered out of 150, as well as the rookie cards of the likes of Yordan Alvarez, Bo Bichette and Gavin Lux.
The hobby really does know no bounds and there are so many angles and tangents to putting together a collection of cards. Whether you want to spend a few quid or serious chunks of cash you can supplement the enjoyment of baseball in a thoroughly satisfying way.
Please hit me up on Twitter if you want to talk baseball cards!
Matthew Robinson is covering the Milwaukee Brewers during 2020 as part of the growing team of writers at Bat Flips and Nerds. Follow him on Twitter @tacticsmatt