(Editor’s Note: The following piece should not be considered an endorsement or promotion of any type. Rather, this descriptive account is presented to help inform and educate collectors.)
By Jeffrey S. Copeland
For years, Glen VanMatre had been collecting cards of his childhood sports hero, Ken Boyer, 11-time All-Star and MVP third baseman who spent most of his career with the St. Louis Cardinals. Finally, a purchase on eBay wrapped up his quest to put together the full run of regular issue cards on which Boyer appeared during his playing days.
Once he acquired that last card (1958 Topps #350), VanMatre added it to his “Ken Boyer Basic” PSA Set Registry grouping, where he had previously posted his other cards. The set was now 100 percent complete, and with the addition of this last card, VanMatre was surprised and delighted to discover he suddenly had the No. 3 ranked “Current Finest” set.
“I immediately felt a great sense of pride and accomplishment,” VanMatre said. “Finally, at long last, the set was complete, and it had achieved a high ranking. I thought that was pretty cool.”
VanMatre is one of a growing number of collectors currently part of a phenomenon in our hobby that generates a great deal of conversation: participation in the PSA Set Registry.
As many hobbyists know, Professional Sports Authenticator (PSA) hosts a Set Registry representing a full range of collectibles. There are actually two branches within the registry, and the first covers 10 main index categories. The first eight indexes are devoted to cards: Baseball, Basketball, Football, Hockey, Packs, Misc. Sports, and Non-Sports. The final two index categories in this branch are Tickets, an incredibly popular area with collectors in its own right, and Young Collectors, a place where youngsters can showcase their collectibles and enhance their participation in the hobby.
Within these major index categories are the sub-categories where collectors can post their sets and other items. For example, within the main index category of Baseball, the sub-categories include the following: Company Sets, Mega-Sets, Hall of Fame Sets, Key Card Sets, T206 Sets, Autographs, Player Sets, Team Sets, and Type Sets. As of this writing, there were more than 72,000 registered sets in the Baseball sub-categories alone. When the numbers are added up for all 10 of the main index categories, there are currently more than 130,000 registered sets—an impressive number indeed, one which points to the popularity of participation in the Registry.
Running parallel is the second branch of the Registry: the PSA/DNA Set Registry. The main index categories here are as follows: Baseballs, Game-Used Bats, Autographs, and Showcase. Each of these main categories also includes a number of sub-categories. For example, within Autographs, the sub-categories are Entertainment, Historical, and Sports. At the time of this writing, there were more than 800 sets posted in Autographs. Other main index categories are home to such items as Hall of Fame Player Single Signed Balls, 500 Home Run Club Game Used Bats, and even autographs of actors who appeared in the film “Raiders of the Lost Ark.”
No matter which branch or individual category of the Set Registry collectors choose to participate in, they have a couple of immediate choices. They can either list the items included in their sets and the PSA grades assigned to each, or they can list items and PSA grades and include photos of the items. If pictures are present, clicking on the photo icons next to the listings can take the viewer to an experience very much like browsing through a fine art gallery. However, instead of seeing Impressionist paintings, Renaissance sculpture, or Modern art, one will see such treasures as beautiful T206 collections, 1952 Topps Baseball gems, pristine modern rookie cards from all sports, and even game-used bats once wielded by baseball’s immortals. In short, there seems to be a gallery for just about every interest.
On one level, with such a broad range of items within its borders, the Set Registry has evolved into this virtual museum, unrivaled in the hobby. At the same time, the registry also serves as a comprehensive reference guide, one that would undoubtedly have impressed our hobby’s original cataloguer, Jefferson Burdick. If one would like to see the full run of one of the first and truly iconic groupings of baseball cards, the 1888 Goodwin Champions (N162) set, no problem. All one has to do is find a 100 percent complete registered set in this category and click on the photo icons for instant viewing.
Another hobbyist focusing on non-sport cards might want to see what the “still needed” cards look like in the 1962 Topps Civil War News set. To do so, all that collector would have to do is scroll down through the list of non-sport sets until finding the targeted set and, again, click on the photo icons.
While interesting in their own right, these are merely the “facts and figures” related to the Set Registry. What I wanted was to know more about “how and why” so many collectors have decided to become a part of this. To do so, I interviewed participants representing a variety of collecting interests—from those who collect game-used bats to those who acquire tickets from milestone sporting events to those who focus on specific card company offerings.
First of all, just about every one of the collectors repeated a version of the age-old story, “My mother threw out my cards when I left home ... .” Then, years later after working jobs and coming to a point where some extra income could be put aside, they re-entered the sports memorabilia collecting world. However, by the time they came back to collecting, the landscape of the hobby had changed dramatically, especially in terms of what was popular, how much prices/values had changed, and even where they purchased cards and other items had changed. Many reported the card shops they used to frequent had closed up.
On top of these changes, card altering and counterfeiting had become much more of an issue than ever before. As a result, they wanted to make sure if they were going to spend significant sums on cards and if they had to purchase online without actually being able to study the items in person, they wanted the peace of mind of knowing they were getting authentic items. That led them to graded/authenticated cards, which in turn brought them in contact with other like-minded collectors. Once those connections had been made, they reported it seemed logical to start listing their graded/authenticated cards in the sub-categories within the Set Registry. As this was taking place, a whole new world of collecting opened for them.
Most of those I visited with said they initially started building sets within the Set Registry out of a spirit of competition with other collectors. This was “friendly” competition, but at the same time, the desire to have highly rated sets became a challenge and a passion for them. As they built their sets, the “thrill of the chase” to acquire appropriately graded cards became, as one collector shared, “The most fun I’ve had in collecting since I was a little boy. I’d search and search and search for just the right card at the right grade for one of my sets, and when I found it, the joy was so fulfilling.”
Still others reported both the “agony and the ecstasy” (direct quote) of going to shows, purchasing raw cards, sending them off, and then waiting to see if their purchases came back at levels of grading they anticipated when the raw purchases were made. Several likened the experience of waiting for the PSA package to arrive to the anticipation of opening presents on holiday mornings when they were youngsters. Sometimes the grades were as they expected (the ecstasy); other times, they found out they needed to be more critical and improve their own judgment of the condition of cards before making purchases. Sadly, on other occasions, the agony set in when they found out a raw purchase turned out to be altered or counterfeit, the stories of which I heard over and over again.
Multiple Registry participants also said that early on they purchased cards with numerical grades higher than ones they already had just to increase their ranking in a specific area in the Registry. Again, this was in the name of “friendly” competition and for the “jazz and joy” of seeing a set moved higher in the rankings.
Many collectors also admitted to checking their rankings in the Set Registry so often to see where they stood, they started taking a good ribbing from spouses, friends, and other collectors. One laughed out loud while sharing that his wife said for a time he was like “a teenager constantly checking a phone for e-mails and texts.” This collector got the message loud and clear—and started checking only when his spouse wasn’t in view. Perhaps this spirit of competition was summed up best by Steve Price (“Sports Broadcasting Hall of Fame” set, current rank #2 Current Finest and #2 All-Time Finest) when he said, “Competition in the Set Registry is intriguing and gets you both emotionally and intellectually involved in the hobby in a very special way.”
For many, this competitive spirit may have started involvement in the Registry; however, nearly all I interviewed said the Registry has also helped them build their own collections, and they have been able to help others complete sets as well.
Brian Coats (#1 Current Finest rank in the “1941 Goudey-Basic” set) said, “I’ve had people contact me knowing I needed a certain card, and they have helped me locate and purchase or trade for it. Not only do people like to complete their own sets, but they want others to complete their sets, too. I once even had another collector send me a card to help me complete a set I was working on at the time in the Registry—and he said he didn’t want anything for it. He just wanted to help out. That was pretty wonderful.”
Other Registry participants mentioned something else they discovered: If an individual has more than one of the same set registered, the cards or other items in the lower rated sets might possibly be for sale or trade. While this wasn’t always the case, each said they were able to add to their own sets by contacting those with multiple sets and inquiring whether some of the items might be available. Likewise, Coats added he has more than 500 extra 1941 Goudey baseball cards, and at times he has been more than happy to help other collectors fill holes in their sets. In doing so, he said he hopes the duplicates he trades or sells will assist those collectors who participate in the Registry—and not end up with individuals who will post them in an online auction a month later.
Most also reported that funds earned from selling cards from their “extra” sets in the Registry have provided them the means to purchase items for sets they are still building. In short, this all seems like a positive case of “what goes around, comes around,” a scenario in which all are winners -- and an important reason why these collectors stay active in the Registry.
Another common reason for participation in the Registry had to do with something many collectors struggle with at times: “keeping inventory.” That is, once the collectors started building extensive collections, an easy way for them to keep track of which cards they had, and which they still wanted to acquire, was to post their cards on the Registry. Then, all it took was a quick glance at their computers or smart phones to see their entire inventory (and the grades for each item) in one place. Every collector with whom I visited mentioned this convenience.
One collector said, “I have an extensive collection of T206s, and if I’m at a card show, it is sometimes difficult for me to remember, for example, which of the Hal Chase versions I currently have. A fast check of the Set Registry lets me know immediately whether a card I’m looking at is one I still need to acquire.”
Several collectors said before participating in the Registry, they had purchased a card at a show only to discover later, much to their horror, they already had the card and just forgot to remove it from the wantlist. Since becoming part of the Set Registry, that scenario no longer concerns them. In addition, this record of a collection, especially if photos of the items are also posted, can be provided to insurance companies and other groups when seeking coverage of various types. These collectors felt another level of “security” through having such a detailed record of their treasures right at their fingertips.
Although the thrill and challenge of the competition and the advantages in building collections may have been the reasons many started participation, collectors also reported it wasn’t long before the Registry began to mean much more to them, especially in the camaraderie that develops among Registry members.
Mark Holt (“Baseball N28 Allen & Ginter” set, current rank #20 Current Finest) said, “I love the contact with others I’ve met through the Registry. This has given us all a chance to talk about and learn more about different cards and sets, especially the more obscure ones. This ‘educational’ aspect of the Registry shouldn’t be overlooked, especially because others always seem more than willing to share their knowledge.” Holt wasn’t alone in his views; the friendships developed through contact with others in the Registry became a common refrain among those I interviewed.
Coats mentioned being contacted by a man who wanted to see if Coats knew where he might be able to acquire some cards to complete a set he was working on for the Registry. Coats had one of the cards the man was looking for, and in their conversations, it came out they both lived in the same city. Coats then suggested they meet so the collector could examine the card before purchase. It turned out the collector worked in the same building just one floor above him. Coats had seen the man before many times at work but didn’t know he was a collector. Coats helped him with his collection, and now they are friends as well.
According to those I interviewed, the friendships developed through the Registry often have been long-lasting and have added enjoyment to their collecting experiences.
Several also reported that contacts made through the Registry led to the formation of, for lack of better terms, “clubs” and “study groups” that get together at restaurants, libraries, and even the collectors’ homes, so they can share their knowledge and just enjoy each other’s company.
One individual said, quite proudly, “Those in my group all collect odd-ball, regional card issues. We get together every two weeks now, and at each meeting someone gives a presentation about his favorite set and its history. It’s all great fun—and a great learning experience. I wouldn’t miss one of our meetings for anything.”
Finally, I asked the Set Registry participants if they had any specific advice or suggestions they’d like to offer those contemplating joining the Registry. These were the common remarks:
Collect what you enjoy, collect within your means, and don’t get caught up in spending so much just to bump up a fraction of a position in a section of the Registry. The competition should, first and foremost, be fun and friendly.
Use the Registry to help you find what you need for your own collections; keep in mind many individuals who post multiple sets in the same category might be open to trading or selling some of their extra items.
Give consideration to starting with a set important from your childhood or a favorite player and build something in the Registry around that. Once you get your feet wet, you just may discover a whole new level of enjoyment in your collecting.
It costs nothing to participate. Use the Registry just for fun—as a virtual museum a person can enter and enjoy true rarities and iconic treasures—and as a place to find new items to study and collect.
After visiting with the participants and hearing their stories about how and why they became involved, I came to three conclusions.
First, these individuals are having one whale of a good time putting together sets while sharing their accomplishments with others. Second, through the Registry, many have forged bonds and friendships with others who are also passionate about the sets and other collectibles they are studying/chasing; this camaraderie was a common thread in all the interviews. Third, for many participants, posting their sets brings a feeling of great pride because they feel they are offering something back to the hobby as others then view and enjoy their listings.
As I was wrapping up this piece, a Registry participant I had interviewed earlier phoned me and said, “You mentioned you collect back variations for the T206s. I just met a collector through the Registry who says he has quite a few duplicates of the variations in his set—and he might be willing to part with some of them. Want his phone number?” I most certainly did want it—and was grateful some of the camaraderie had spread my direction. After a short pause, he added, “You know, I think the Set Registry is a pretty fine tool for the hobby.”
It appears more and more collectors believe he has hit the nail right on the head.
Happy collecting, everyone!
Jeffrey S. Copeland is a contributing writer for Sports Collectors Digest, as well as an author. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.