November 7, 2011

Not your father’s card show; memories of the hobby in 1988


Through the years, I had been a frequent attendee at baseball card shows. However, due to work commitments, selling and buying a new home and a great deal of business travel in 1987, it became almost impossible to free up a weekend for such pursuits. Consequently, I missed every show for nearly 12 months.

Eventually things quieted down and I found myself in the car one weekend on my way to a nearby show at a prestigious hotel. Just how prestigious I didn't know, until as I pulled up to the parking lot and a tuxedo-clad gentleman offered to park my car. Upon mentioning that I was bound for the memorabilia show inside, he handed me a complimentary parking stub, 1988 National League schedule, official show program and a ball autographed by the Minnesota Twins.

"Not bad!" Whoever was promoting this show sure knew how to make a collector happy! A perky young woman relieved me of my coat and baseball cap, both to be safely checked until I departed for home.

A bellhop guided me to the main entrance of the hotel's grand ballroom. Here, a snappy-looking gent in black tie and tails was collecting admission - a paltry $50. "Fifty dollars?" I exclaimed. "Why, that's more than reasonable," he replied, "considering you get this autographed Dwight Gooden blazer, a magnum of champagne and an authentic 65-pound bronze replica of the famous 1952 Topps Mantle card. Don't you agree?"

He quickly shoveled the items into my hands. "Here's your stub. Don't lose it, as the grand prize drawing will be a solid crystal copy of the World Series trophy!"

I staggered into the grand ballroom and stood there speechless until an enterprising young man in an official-looking jacket offered to wrap my prizes and ship them UPS Blue Label for a paltry $30. Not wanting to lug the stuff around, I quickly agreed and forked over the cash.

To the right of me, a couple of individuals were in the midst of a spirited argument about the condition of some 1969 Topps cards. "Well!" I thought. "Some things never change, do they?" Whereupon the two participants drew pistols stood back to back, counted off 10 paces, turned and fired, both scoring direct hits. Two tuxedo-clad strongmen quickly hustled the bodies out a side exit.

I was momentarily distracted from this commotion by a strange-looking apparatus to my right. Upon closer inspection, it appeared to be a gas spectrograph. With it, a man in a white lab coat was busy analyzing several 1984 Donruss Mattingly cards.

"Hey - what's that machine for?" I asked.

Mr. Lab Coat looked up, rather irritated. "Quiet! I'm in the midst of grading these cards!"

"You use that stuff nowadays for grading?" I replied, rather astonished.

"Sure! Where've you been the last year? How else could anyone know if these are actually Excellent-to-Mint, Ex-Mint Plus, Near-Near Mint, Near-Mint Plus, Mint,' Gem-Mint or Platinum-Mint?"

Boy! Card grading sure had gotten critical while I'd been away. "Just what will that gadget show you, anyway?"

"Well, depending on the amount of oxidation of the card's surface and the impurities within, the grade could vary significantly. Now leave me alone - I'm a busy man!" he harrumphed. I shrugged my shoulders and walked off.

Immediately ahead, a large group of people were busy watching what appeared to be a stock price ticker, with combinations of letters and numbers streaking by in rapid sequence. "What's that?" I asked a bystander.

"The latest prices on Mickey Mantle cards. They're updated every 15 minutes.'

"You've got to be kidding!"

He turned and pointed to a nearby dealer. "Don't believe me? Find out for yourself!" sauntered over to a glass display case which was loaded with tiny hermetically sealed card holders.

A nattily-dressed older man came over to the case. "And what can I do for you, sir?" he inquired, somewhat haughtily.

I studied the case for a minute. "May I see that 1959 Mantle, please?"

"An excellent choice, sir." He put on a pair of linen gloves and removed the '59 Mantle, placing it atop the case and handing me a pearl-inlaid loop. "One of the best we've had in years. Beautiful colors; nicely centered. And those corners are spectacular, if I do say so myself." He smiled politely.

I took a close look with the loop. "How much?"

"Just a moment, sir, whilst I call the brokerage." He quickly dialed a cordless phone with gold trim. "Yes, this is Benchley. Can you quote me a price on a Premium Grade 1959 Topps Mantle?. . Hmmm…Yes, I see...Very good."

He placed the phone on the case. "That card will go for $300 plus commission of 10 percent, bringing the total of"...he pushed some buttons on a calculator..."Three hundred thirty dollars. This quote is good for 15 minutes. Shall I wrap it for you sir... hmmm?"

I gagged momentarily. "Three hundred dol-no, uh, that won't be necessary. Thank you very much!"

Darting quickly around the corner, I was immediately accosted by a dealer looking to take futures contracts on 1989 and 1990 wax and cello cases.

"You won't find a better deal anywhere. I can call your broker right now and get you in the market. Of course, this sales pitch does not constitute an offering, which may only be made as part of a formal prospectus."

I dodged him and crawled under several tables, only to emerge at a large display of new Donruss Highlights sets. Let's see, here was a 1987 Umpires Highlight set. And over here, a 1987-88 Free Agency/ Salary Arbitration set. . . A 1988 Product Endorsement Highlight set...And a 1987 Highlights Highlight set. Imagine that! A set highlighting the year's best highlight cards. Clever.

I felt a tap on my shoulder. "Can I interest you in something?" The dealer waved his hand across the table. "I've got every Highlight set imaginable, in every special edition ever made. Gold, Silver, Rhodium, Platinum, Unobtanium - you name it, I've got it here. Look at this." He opened a large felt-lined case and extracted what appeared to be a sheet of crystal.

"It's a first - the complete Wade Boggs Sparkling Highlight set, with scenes from his early childhood right up to this year's season. Over 175 cards, etched in the finest crystal by Swedish craftsmen. And I'll let you have it for just $1,395!"

"Uh, er, well, that's awfully generous of you, but I think I'll pass. Never was big on crystal anyway." I forced a weak smile.

"How about this Extended Updated Traded Highlight set? Or perhaps you'd like this Rhinestone-inlaid Rated Coaches set?" I bolted for the door, knocking to the floor several standing racks with magazines and uniforms and creating a tremendous mess. Several heavy-set men set off in pursuit as I ran down the hallway for the hotel lobby.

"Give me my coat!" I shouted to the coat-clerk girl. She quickly retrieved it and handed me a large box with several leather-bound volumes in it. "Here you are sir, and here's your complimentary copy of today's Sporting Collectible Digest."

I turned to see my two pursuers closing fast, and hurled the box at them. They tried to dodge the flying volumes, but crashed into the bell captain's station, knocking themselves unconscious as the bell rang.

"Your car, sir?" A small man in a Cardinals' warm-up jacket grabbed my keys and followed me outside. "You won't be staying for the baseball supper? I've been told the Salmon Foie Natural Gras with Boulliabaseball Sauce is sensational. And the Surf 'and Artificial Turf is just delicious!"

I leaped into my car. "Here's 10 bucks. Thanks, and get lost!" I shouted. As my car pulled out, the Highlights dealer jumped on my hood.

"Wait! I've got just the set for you! It's the 1988 Topps Edible World Series Highlights set! Each, card is made from 100 percent Swiss milk chocolate, so you can have your cards and eat them too."

He was sideswiped by a passing car, and the ensuing impact showered the parking lot with thousands of chocolate fragments as I made my getaway.

Things weren't a total loss. I did win the grand prize Series trophy after all, which turned out to be a water fountain and aquatic garden. And the 65-pound bronze 1952 Mantle replica makes a great conversation piece, not to mention a door stopper!
• • •
Copyright ©2007 Peter H. Putman. All mechanical and electronic print rights are reserved. This story originally appeared in Baseball Hobby News in the late 1980s.

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