My card collecting faded away with MLB Showdown, a short-lived modern version of Strat-o-matic baseball. I enjoyed Showdown, although got frustrated with how limited cards were. I wanted to be able to play players at any position, have hitters pitch, etc. So I started working on my own card game. I even put card stalk on my Christmas list one year to get some needed supplies, and to my surprise Santa listened.
I haven't bought any baseball cards in at least a decade, but they have been back at the front of my mind as of late. The T206 "Jumbo" Honus Wagner just sold for $2.1 million at an auction. T206 Wagners are far and away the most valuable baseball cards on the planet, and no other card will ever rival them. A recent 30 for 30 short tells about their value much better than I could in the same space it takes to embed the video:
The Jumbo Wagner is the first baseball card to sell for more than $2 million at an auction, a breath-taking pile of cash to trade for a really old hunk of cardboard originally stuffed in a pack of cigarettes. There's something incredibly American about the whole thing. However, a closer look at the $2.1 million says something else. The baseball card industry is almost dead.
The baseball card industry's woes have been visible for years. Take me, for instance. I'm a huge baseball fan. I've maintained this blog for over six years now. I watch and listen to lots of Mariners and Rainiers games. I talk baseball with my friends. I have more baseball paraphernalia than I should, ranging from street signs to oven mitts. What I don't have, as I've already shared, are baseball cards.
I am not the only one though. I thought I had outgrown baseball cards, like I assumed most people do at some point in their adolescent life. However, Tom Verducci presented some cold, hard facts in a 2009 Sports Illustrated article that made me think otherwise. Baseball card sales peaked at $1.2 billion in 1991, and were down to $200 million by 2008. My sinking interest in cards coincides with the fall of the entire industry. The trend is ominous, to say the least.
Fortunes haven't turned since Verducci's article either. Armen Keteyian taped a feature for 60 Minutes on a New York card show in March 2012, and you can decide for yourself how healthy the future of the baseball card industry looks in the video:
Enter the Jumbo Wagner, in 2013, on a public auction block. T206 Wagners are the crowned jewels of the industry. They will die last, and should always hold remarkable value. They are more than baseball cards at this point. They are cardboard slices of American history.
The Jumbo Wagner went to auction in 2008, and sold for $1.62 million then. Goldin auctions noted that was at the height of the financial crisis, and that since then the average T206 Wagner has appreciated 70% in value.
The math is simple. If the Jumbo Wagner had appreciated 70% from the $1.62 million it would be worth about $2.7 million today. However, the Jumbo Wagner isn't even a typical T206 Wagner. It gets its name because the dimensions are 1/16" larger than a "normal" T206 Wagner (possibly one reason the Jumbo Wagner has stood the test of time remarkably well.) Furthermore, it was last purchased in a market that should have been historically awful for any luxury items. All things considered, $3 million didn't seem out of question for the Jumbo Wagner. $2.5 million seemed reasonable.
So $2.1 million is a fascinating final total for the Jumbo Wagner. On one hand, it is a record. On the other, it could have (should have?) been way higher. Every report about the auction mentions the record total, so it's easy to see what the dominant narrative will be.
Goldin auctions wrote "this is very likely the only you will have to buy a high grade T206 Wagner for the next 10-20 years (or more)." They are experts on sports memorabilia much more than I will ever be, and their assertion seems reasonable enough. If we really go another decade or two between T206 Wagners, I wonder if there will be a baseball card industry when the next one hits the open market. $2.1 million might stand as a record for a long, long time - and ironically, I am more certain of this record's staying power because it is lower than I expected.
Don't be fooled by the record total; the baseball card industry is dying. Even the Jumbo Wagner hints at the industry's end, though the $2.1 million provides just a whisper among thunderous applause. It's there though.