Neoliberalism with a Stick of Gum: The Meaning of the 1980s Baseball Card Boom

Like many of my generation, my first and only investment portfolio was made up of baseball cards. In the late 1980s baseball card collecting ate up my allowance and lawn mowing money, but I figured I was going to make it all back and then some. After all, my father lamented how his mom had tossed out his cardboard fetishes of Willie Mays and Mickey Mantle that now sold for hundreds or even thousands of dollars. I assumed that in thirty years my Will Clark and Mark McGwire rookie cards would be just as valuable, perhaps more so. 

Instead, thirty years later I can buy whole boxes of sealed baseball card packs of that era for only ten bucks a pop. Last year a friend casually shipped me two boxes of 1988 Fleer cards bought on the cheap in his Texas town. Opening and sorting them has become a comforting nostalgia drug in quarantine and a fun activity to do with my daughters. 

That decades-old unopened boxes of baseball cards can be acquired so easily and cheaply tells the story of speculation run amok. My first investment portfolio was an early lesson in capitalism’s shady promises, collapsing bubble and all. Ironically, so many people bought and saved so many baseball cards thinking they would be valuable that they made them worthless. This is not just another story of boom and bust, however. Baseball cards in the 80s are a fine metaphor for neoliberalism’s triumph in that decade, from deregulation to speculation to intensified stratification and inequality.

The old cards from the 50s and 60s were scarce and valuable because nobody ascribed any monetary value to them at the time, and treated them accordingly. Kids would jam their cards in the spokes of their bikes to simulate the sound of a motor, or play games by flipping them. This information shocked me as a child. How could you keep your cards in the all-important mint condition by treating them like this! In my mind I pictured a 1952 Topps Mickey Mantle, that era’s Holy Grail, flying off a bike spoke into a muddy puddle, six thousand dollars gone just like that. If that’s how children treated their cards, it’s no wonder that parents eventually tossed them out.

Boomer gold

Baseball cards back then also reflected the highly regulated and centralized economy of the postwar period. Just as there were only three TV networks and three major auto-makers, there were only two major baseball card companies: Topps and Bowman. After 1955, it was just Topps. The bubble gum company had a monopoly on the business and later an exclusive contract with the Major League Baseball Players Association (MLPBA). 

Topps’ deals with the players had been pretty paltry until Marvin Miller took over leadership of the MLBPA. Under the agreement Miller negotiated in the early 1970s, players’ individual payouts from Topps doubled and for the first time the player’s association received a royalty on card sales. Just as unions had gained better wages and conditions in other industries, baseball players in the 1970s won union contracts and put the hated “reserve clause” -which kept workers tied to teams on year to year contracts- in the grave after a century of struggle. The Topps contract was one of many ways that players now had more control. 

However, the Fleer company sued in 1975, charging that the players’ deal with Topps was an unlawful restraint of trade. In the Reagan Dawn of 1980, a judge ruled in their favor, claiming that baseball was a special institution and thus could not sign exclusive contracts the way film studios did for movie trading cards. The union was forced to offer agreements with other card manufacturers. 1981 would see not one but three companies selling baseball cards: Fleer, Topps, and Donruss.

The decision echoed the political and economic trends of the time. Reagan’s breaking of the PATCO strike set the tone for union-busting by corporations and led to a decline in union power. (In fact, the players would go on strike in the same year of 1981 to stop the owners from destroying free agency.) Deregulation was also the order of the day, from airlines to long-distance telephone service. It had become conventional wisdom to the point that progressive leader Ted Kennedy co-sponsored the legislation deregulating the airlines. 

Neoliberalism made the same promises in baseball cards that it made elsewhere: Choice! Competition! Quality! The reality in 1981 was a little different. The Fleer set of that year was riddled with all kinds of sloppy errors. I got some ‘81 Fleer cards in a grab bag one time and I thought I had my hands on a scarce, valuable error card, then discovered my naivete. Fleer’s set abounded with all kinds of minor, uncorrected errors, meaning its “error cards” were both worthless and shoddy. The Donruss set became infamous for its flimsy card stock that folded faster than Mike Bloomberg’s presidential campaign. Nevertheless, the number of cards sold jumped up, leading the way to the eventual boom.

Early 80s Fleer cards are proof that the choice provided by capitalism is overrated

The boom in baseball cards did not become a true cultural phenomenon until 1987, which coincided with a big jump in production by Topps. That’s the year I went whole hog, in love with Topps’ wood-grain design, still a favorite of collectors today. My dad gave me two bucks each time I mowed the backyard lawn, and that translated into five packs of 17 cards at 40 cents a pack. Luckily for me, the state of Nebraska considered the stick of gum in the Topps wax pack a food item, exempting it from sales tax. The media started to notice baseball card fever, giving me the feeling I was part of something bigger. When the Omaha World-Herald published a big article, complete with color photo, on the rise of the card collecting hobby I clipped it from the newspaper and taped it to my closet door. 

I really thought this would be my meal ticket

I was just one of millions of people jumping into baseball card collecting, and they weren’t all just kids. Boomer nostalgia hit its zenith in the late 1980s, from the Wonder Years to the ever skyrocketing prices for vintage Mickey Mantle cards. Baseball card magazines appeared on the newsstands, and I soon became as dedicated a reader of Beckett Baseball Card Monthly as I was of Mad magazine. Beyond some engaging articles on baseball history, Beckett posted the values of various cards. I watched them like the stock ticker each month, hoping that my Bo Jackson rookie card would finally reach its potential. I traded cards with my friends, but always had the Beckett guide close by to ensure that I wasn’t getting ripped off. 

In 1988, the dam truly broke. Donruss and Fleer had been hard to come by in my small Nebraska town, in ‘88 they had their own big displays at Walgreens. Along with the big three, Score jumped in as well. Score’s cards began an arms race in card quality and pointed down the road to the eventual exhaustion of the market. Every one of their fronts had an action shot. This attention to quality stood in high contrast to some of the Topps cards of the year featuring airbrushed caps and Tommy Lasorda posing in a golf cart. Score even managed to make the back of the baseball card, historically just plain text and stats, far more compelling. All Score card backs had a portrait and a written narrative about each player. Score cards also came in cellophane packs instead of wax paper, a small touch that gave them an air of class.

By 1988 Topps wasn’t keeping up

That year the speculation kicked into overdrive, as did production. Publications like the New York Times touted baseball cards as an investment opportunity, noting that collectable baseball cards had increased in value by 32% in the last decade. Collectors bought boxes of packs and complete sets and kept them sealed, assuming that they would appreciate in value. Unfortunately for them, 1988 did not produce any notable rookie cards. (This is why my friend could send me two boxes of 1988 Fleer packs in 2020 at such low cost.) Valuable rookie cards and to a lesser extent error cards were the things that truly mattered. We panned through the dross of Bob Walks and Vance Laws in order to find the elusive Bo Jackson or Wally Joyner rookie card golden nuggets.

As with most speculative bubbles, the investors failed to see the warning signs and doubled down thinking that the ride would last forever. 1989 marked the true apex of America’s cardboard Tulipomania. After the great rookie card drought of 1988, 1989 heralded the arrival of Ken Griffey. Jr. He was one of those once in a lifetime players that everyone knew was going to live up to his potential, and the new Upper Deck set would make him the first card on their set. There was also an error card frenzy due to a 1989 Fleer card of Billy Ripken with the words “Fuck Face” written on the knob of his bat, which were later inexpertly blacked out leading to multiple versions of the card. The variations in corrections sparked speculation that Fleer intentionally created multiple versions to drive up sales.

The naughty card I coveted as a 13 year old

That same year yet another company started producing cards that forever altered the business: Upper Deck. The very name connoted quality and proclaimed that they were a cut above the others. Their stock was thicker, the quality of photos far better, and each card even had a little hologram thingy that was pretty impressive to the other kids in my middle school. They didn’t come in wax paper or cellophane either, but shiny foil. 

Upper Deck cards also cost a lot more: ninety-nine cents a pack as opposed to fifty cents for Topps. Just as American society was becoming more economically stratified during the 1980s, so were baseball cards. With Americans watching shows like Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous and people like Donald Trump becoming national celebrities, conspicuous consumption ruled the day. From the yuppies drinking Perrier and buying BMWs to the kids plucking down twice as much for a pack of Upper Deck than Topps, buying expensive objects projected social status. 

The card that changed everything

Keeping with the times, baseball cards went corporate. The family-owned gum businesses that sold cards on the side became publicly-traded companies: Topps in 1987 and Fleer in 1990. Marvel bought Fleer in 1992 for 540 million dollars and Topps moved their office from pre-gentrification Brooklyn to lower Manhattan. That era’s Wall Street greed and ethical breaches were mirrored in the baseball card world as well. Just as traders like Michael Milken and Ivan Boesky got in trouble for shady practices, Upper Deck executives were selling themselves their own cards at wholesale prices. According to a lawsuit against the company, Upper Deck execs intentionally printed valuable extra error cards to keep for themselves. 

That lawsuit was dropped, but major league umpire Bill Engel did get arrested in 1990 for trying to steal several boxes of Score cards from a Target in Bakersfield. (Evidently he and I had the same taste.) More tragically, that same year the owner of a card store in California was bludgeoned to death in a robbery. As a song of the era taught us, money changes everything. 

Pretty soon the bubble burst, just as in other parts of the economy. The financial deregulation of the 80s began to reap what it had sowed. Savings and loan banks, traditionally set up to give small loans and help people buy homes, had been set loose to spend money like drunken sailors on payday, fueling a real estate boom. As anyone with a cursory knowledge of economic history would have predicted, many of those risky loans failed and the S&Ls started to go under. In 1989 the government had to set up a bailout program that eventually cost over one hundred billion dollars. 

Baseball cards also met their Waterloo. After Upper Deck the number of sets increased and their price points skyrocketed, creating an unsustainable glut. In 1994, the year of the players’ strike, the bottom fell out. Ironically, the money the players’ union received from the frenzy of baseball card contracts helped fund their strike effort. 

The strike and its fallout gave a hard kick to an already rickety structure. By 1994 the hobby had been transformed. The average collector went from being an eleven year old boy looking to find their favorite player in a pack of cards to an adult man willing to pay big money for rare items. The industry adjusted. Nowadays the once workmanlike Topps cards are glossy and lavish. The companies also figured out how to create scarcity, the key to driving up prices. Today collectors vie for extremely rare limited-edition and autographed cards that are intentionally produced in small numbers. 

Beyond that, Topps learned that the key to reasserting control over the baseball card business was the bosses, not the unions. In 2009 Topps secured an exclusive contract with Major League Baseball. This means that while other card companies have made deals with players, they cannot use any of the team logos on their cards, making them far less desirable. Like the rest of the American economy from social media to online shopping, the few at the top reap the rewards. What was supposed to be a new era in competition back in 1981 did not fulfill the capitalist promise of more and better products at lower prices. Instead it resulted in the usual capitalist reality of monopoly. 

The price of a pack of baseball cards tells the tale. A wax pack of Topps in 1987 contained 17 cards and a stick of gum for 40 cents. A pack of 2020 Topps Bowman gets you ten cards for $14.99–an increase of 1600% even when adjusted for inflation with seven fewer cards in the pack.

Neoliberalism promised a better life with more variety and choice. It has permeated every corner of American society, including once obscure hobbies like baseball card collecting. The consequences on that little world are strikingly similar to the world writ large. Instead of fulfilling its promises, neoliberalism has meant the enrichment of the few at the hands of the many. Just as neoliberalism has made it too expensive for young people to afford a house, a trip to the emergency room a cause for bankruptcy, and going to college an exercise in crushing debt, baseball cards have become too expensive for children to buy. Well, unless they want to buy a dusty box of 1988 Fleer.