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Baseball Cards: You Can't Collect Everything, Right?

In the first part of a multi-part series, George Vrechek looks through the Standard Catalog at what’s next for the card collector in the attempt to try and collect everything. Just how cards are out there?
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By George Vrechek

Editor’s note: This is the first part in a series of articles on collecting by sport, with the first examining baseball cards.

An adage attributed to veteran collectors is that you can’t collect everything. Conversely, Jefferson Burdick (1900-63), the Father of Card Collecting, strongly encouraged collectors not to limit themselves and to remain open to expanding their interests. As a card collector, it was easier for Burdick to take that position since he gave that advice around 1950 when there weren’t eight ba-jillion cards that could be collected.

A fabulous 30,000 vintage card collection might include Topps, Bowman, Goudey, Diamond Stars, Play Ball, M&P and other popular sets.

A fabulous 30,000 vintage card collection might include Topps, Bowman, Goudey, Diamond Stars, Play Ball, M&P and other popular sets.

The signs of addiction
Collecting is a progressive addiction. It might start innocently with a friend introducing us to collecting and even giving us a few freebies. We dabble into buying cards of favorite players from our youth. We progress to collecting sets from those childhood years. That feels pretty good, and soon we are tempted into expanding into earlier and later years.

We get hooked on the high that comes from completing sets, and we move from baseball to football, basketball, hockey, boxing and non-sports cards. We buy from dealers in poorly lit hotel meeting rooms. Eventually, we are completely addicted and start bidding furiously on inserts, test issues, regionals, tobacco cards, exhibit cards, early gum cards, variations, printing differences and upgrades to all of them.

The collectors’ eyes start to glaze over as they move into progressive rounds of the addiction. Bobble heads and Slurpee cups appear on den and basement shelves. Second and third sets accumulate. Family members enable the addicts by covering up for them when they miss family events to visit dealers instead. Soon the addicts are looking for autographs of 19th-century ballplayers, uniforms of 300-game winners, Old Judge variations and Ty Cobb’s false teeth.

So you think you have collected everything
It is not surprising that some collectors come to their senses before they get Cobb’s teeth on their want-lists and follow the advice that you can’t collect everything.

I’ve heard collectors say that they have “about everything,” or that there is really nothing left that is available or affordable. Let’s look more closely at how far collectors get into the universe of collectibles. Jerseys, balls, autographs and photos are almost limitless.

Let’s look at just baseball cards to start with and consider other sports in follow-up articles. How many baseball cards do you have, not counting duplicates? How many cards are there that you could collect? What might be reasonable to collect next?
How many cards do you have and what is a card anyway?

Many of us can probably figure out how many baseball cards we have, but even that answer has to be based on more specific criteria. Do we distinguish between vintage and modern sets? What years would be considered vintage? Do we include minor league sets? Does it make a difference if the minor league card is a Babe Ruth 1914 Baltimore Oriole or a Rubby De La Rosa 2013 Pawtucket Red Sox? What about foreign issues? Are Japanese cards different from Topps Venezuelan cards? Are postcards included? What about photos with players’ names? Do we count variations? What about the first series 1954 Topps “Canadian” graybacks versus the third series 1952 Topps graybacks? What about tobacco cards with different backs or different factory numbers? Or do you just worry about scarce backs? How far do test issues need to roam outside the Topps offices? What about team issues, collector issues and reprints? Do we include comic cards of women in baseball outfits? How about ticket stubs with pictures of players? What if they are generic players? How about cards cut from newspapers? Are they cards or paper? Are coins, pins, silks, discs, Chemtoy Superballs, wrappers and movie posters included?

All-inclusive catalog approach
Former Standard Catalog of Vintage Baseball Cards Editor Bob Lemke wrestled with all these questions and developed criteria for what got included in the catalog – which generally included the kitchen sink, rather than trying to separate items into another non-card catalog. Most of the items mentioned above are in the catalog, despite some of the stuff not looking like a card. In the catalog introduction, Lemke described the criteria for listing. The complete catalog got so chubby that they decided to split the listings into vintage and modern with 1980 and prior issues going into the vintage book.

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Burdick’s take on continuing the pursuit
Jefferson Burdick would urge us not to turn up our noses at recent issues like those after 1980. Burdick continued to collect until a few years before his death in 1963. He stopped trying to pick up complete sets, but he did manage to acquire then-recent card issues like Johnston Cookies, as he turned his collection over to the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art. He was also organizing the heck out of postcards in his later years, which may have distracted him from finishing off his Topps sets.

I thumbed through most of Burdick’s baseball card collection at the Met. According to the Met, Burdick gave them about 30,000 baseball cards. His card collection was as complete as possible until the early 1950s when he started shipping cards to the museum. Thereafter, his cards were usually just examples of the newer sets. He was trying to collect everything, while still acknowledging that it was impossible to succeed. I even found Burdick’s equivalent of a brief want-list showing how many cards he was missing in each of the sets.

From the catalog, you can also figure out what sets were unknown to Burdick. If it is an old set and doesn’t have an ACC (Burdick’s American Card Catalog) designation, either Burdick didn’t find it or the set was lumped in with another issue. I’m guessing Burdick had 30,000 of maybe 35,000 baseball cards that he knew about, but there may have been another 10,000 cards issued before the mid-1950s that he didn’t know about.

A 15,000-30,000 card vintage collection
I estimate that long-time baseball card collectors today will have 15,000-30,000 vintage cards issued before 1981. I took an unscientific poll of 31 vintage card set collectors. Their collections averaged 17,000 pre-1981 singles. Someone owning just a lousy complete set of T206s would be welcomed into my circle of serious collectors as well, although collectors aren’t all that “serious.”

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Let’s look at: 1.) What popular sets would comprise the 15,000-30,000-card collections, 2.) How many cards have been issued and 3.) What is available that we may not have considered collecting.

How many cards in popular sets?
We’ll start with the easy math questions. How many cards are there in the popular (subjective opinion) sets from 1933-80?

I counted 16,787 Topps cards issued in their regular sets from 1951-80.

There were 1,884 Bowmans (excluding the PCL issue).

Other cards issued after WWII through 1980 included widely distributed Topps inserts, 1975 minis, traded sets, Post Cereal, Fleer, Leaf, Kellogg, Nu-Card, Golden Press and Hostess. I counted 4,902 cards in this arbitrary grouping.

While there were classic issues in the 1930s and early 1940s, they only comprised about 1,813 cards for popular sets like Goudeys, Play Balls, Diamond Stars, Batter-Up, M&P and exhibit cards.

Let’s ignore the (2,000-plus) variations in these sets, although I certainly don’t.

If somehow you managed to collect all of the cards mentioned so far, you would have 25,386 baseball cards and quite a nice collection. If you won the lottery and decided to pick up a few popular sets from the 1880-1940 period, you would only need a box big enough for about 3,000 more cards. In this grouping I included Old Judges, T201, T202, T206, T207, E120, E121, Tattoo Orbit, Goudey and National Chicle Premiums, S and S, and Double Play. Throw into the shoebox another 1,600 cards for a type card collection: One card from other sets.

You would have about 136 sets and 30,000 baseball cards. Like Alexander the Great, at that point would you weep because there were no more collecting worlds to conquer? Burdick had 30,000 cards. Is that about it for vintage baseball cards?

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How many cards are in the universe of baseball cards?
Because of all the questions I had about what was a baseball card, I was quite cautious in accepting any information as to how many separate baseball cards have been issued. I found a study from 1999 that estimated around 600,000 cards were issued between 1863-1999. I think the study was light on counting 19th-century cards, but those sets turn out to be relatively minor compared to trying to figure out how many cards were issued in recent years. For example, more individual cards were issued in 1998 than during the entire first century of baseball cards.

With the explosion of sets produced in recent years, the (110,000) vintage cards (pre-1981) are estimated to make up only 6 percent of all the baseball cards issued to date.

With the explosion of sets produced in recent years, the (110,000) vintage cards (pre-1981) are estimated to make up only 6 percent of all the baseball cards issued to date.

I estimated that the 1 million individual baseball card threshold was reached a few years ago and the numbers have continued to climb. The 2013 Beckett Almanac of Baseball Cards and Collectibles advertises more than 1.8 million “items,” although their database currently identifies 2.6 million items. I didn’t have the energy to try to figure out how many of the items were cards.

Whatever the number is, it is enormous. While there have been expensive cards issued in recent years, you might well say that having a set of 528 1990 Leaf cards is not better than having 524 T206s, and that counting cards issued after 1980 is like counting so many grains of sand on the beach. Let’s not bother.

In my own collection, more than 60 percent of the cards were issued after 1980, but they represent maybe 2 percent of the total value. Dealer Al Rosen once told me that while he will buy everything in a collection, he will leave the modern cards behind rather than lugging them home.

Let’s try cards before 1981
I’ll pass on trying to calculate all baseball cards ever issued, but I will take a stab at looking at how many cards were issued before 1981. To make things easy, I assumed that whatever Bob Lemke thought should be included in a book called “Vintage Baseball Cards” is what I would include in my calculations, even though the catalog includes many things that don’t look like cards to me. Lemke gave me his guess that there might be another 15 percent of the vintage card universe that is still uncatalogued since there are regional and foreign issues being discovered each year.

I went through the Standard Catalog of Vintage Baseball Cards, Third Edition and counted 2,249 sets. Only 136 of those 2,249 sets make up my phenomenal 30,000-card virtual collection described above. I then calculated the line items in the catalog. I found about 110,000 such line items that I thought represented individual cards in those 2,249 sets.

Therefore my virtual collection of 30,000 wonderful vintage cards from 136 sets, that would cause me to conclude that I had spent enough time and money, would represent only 27 percent of the vintage cards ever issued and cover only 6 percent of all the vintage sets.

What is out there that we may not have considered collecting? Are they primarily cheapo collector issues and minor league sets from the 1970s that take up space? Are they Canadian and Latin American issues, or is it just a lot of Chemtoy balls, pins and discs? It looks to me that it is a little of everything, a sea of sets difficult to easily describe.

A hypothetical collection of 30,000 popular vintage cards would include Topps, Bowman, Goudeys, Play Balls, some tobacco sets, and others.

A hypothetical collection of 30,000 popular vintage cards would include Topps, Bowman, Goudeys, Play Balls, some tobacco sets, and others.

What is left to collect in recent cards?
Let’s start with the postwar sets that didn’t quite pass my subjective test of popularity. I included the warped Kellogg’s cards, the Post Cereal cards cut from boxes by 7 year-olds and the chopped-up, stained Hostess panels and singles in my 30,000-virtual-card collection, but I didn’t mention several other issues. I would put these other issues in the category of recent cards that are available, if you can develop sufficient enthusiasm for them.

I identified 76 issues that have 3,908 cards for consideration. The principal issuers are Milton Bradley (695 cards), Kahn’s (508), Laughlin (479), Bazooka (425), Jello (400), and Topps Burger King (223). This category also includes more obscure Topps inserts, Johnston Cookies (95 cards), Berk Ross (112), and 1948-49 Leaf (98) to take care of any extra money you might have. This group is probably the most fertile ground for those looking for sets that are available and challenging, but not completely impossible.

I understood Bob Lemke’s rationale in including items that weren’t really cards in the catalog, but they don’t fit in my shoeboxes very well, and you may want to treat them as outside a vintage card collection.

The oddballs include pins, discs, caps, cups, lids, coins, silks, records, albums, statues, cartridges, matchbook covers, ticket stubs, stamps and bottle caps. If we ignore all this stuff, we can chisel away 10,417 items in 209 issues. Conversely, you can delve into any or all of these categories, but I wouldn’t call them cards.

Collector issues
I can be less apologetic about collector issues regardless of how old they are. I’m going to cart them over to the side as well. My numbers include 9,998 cards from 276 issues. They include issues produced for minor league teams by TCMA and others.

The granddaddies of these sets turn out to be those created by the late Bob Solon of Oak Park, Ill. Solon and friends produced five sets in 1969 and 1970, including what are now called the 1969 Solon Royals, the mysterious 1971 Expos LaPizza Royale (for a non-existent pizza place) and Fud’s Photography (for another phantom company.) Solon was ahead of his time in the non-licensed collector card business.

We started with a phenomenal virtual collection of 30,000 cards out of maybe 110,000 items in the catalog. After looking at recent available sets and after setting aside non-cards and collector issues, there are about 55,000 cards to consider. In the second part of this article, we will look at what is left to collect from the catalog.

George Vrechek is a freelance contributor to Sports Collectors Digest and can be contacted at