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Nothing like having that National experience

Columnist Barry Blair shares his experiences from the 38th annual National Sports Collectors Convention held in Chicago July 26-30.

By Barry Blair

As I write this, I just returned from spending three days at the National Sports Collectors Convention in Chicago. WOW! What a show it was!

I think that if there is anything you ever wanted in the way of sports cards or sports memorabilia, this is where you will find it. If you can’t, well, it probably doesn’t exist. So, here I go, giving you my perspective on what I saw in the Windy City.

Chicago is a great sports town, and with the Cubs finally breaking through and winning the World Series, the elation is probably at an all-time high. There was a strong presence for the Cubs, their fans, and all that goes with that. Jerseys and t-shirts were on many of the attendees. One of the signers on Friday morning at the Tristar Autograph Pavilion was current Cubs reliever Pedro Strop, getting in a little session before going off to work his real job, facing the crosstown White Sox. I saw bobble head dolls holding World Series trophies, a first for me.

But don’t forget the White Sox, Bears, Bulls, and Blackhawks, as there were a lot of people roaming around with their gear on as well.

Mantle is still the king. The Mick has driven this industry for years, and his cards were prominently displayed by vintage baseball card dealers throughout the show floor. It is always fun to see so many of them in one place. One of the best things I saw all week? The display by Heritage Auctions of the Mantle and Roger Maris jerseys they had, displayed side-by-side. For a kid who grew up idolizing Roger and Mickey, this was pretty neat.

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Author William Wilen was also on the floor selling and signing his book, “The Mickey Mantle Baseball Card Collector’s Guide.” This is a must if Mickey is your guy. Every year I leave there thinking the guy to buy is Willie Mays. Compared to Mantle, you can get some great cards of the ‘Say Hey Kid’ at great prices. One day they will soar in value.

The corporate people had their usual strong presence. Upper Deck was excited about their

Monumental Box Packages, which contained items from the athletes that they represent, many of which were signed by them.

Topps created an uproar every few hours with their “Pack Wars” promotions. They also had a large crowd for their “National Baseball Card Day” kick-off, where they revealed the cards and who would be on them. On Friday night they hosted a well attended “VIP Party.”

Panini created a lot of buzz throughout the show, with long lines formed around their booth for various promotions, box breaks, and giveaways. One thing that they had people clamoring for was an invitation to their “VIP Party” on Saturday night, where those who attended could come away with up to $2,500 in Panini swag and cards. I met a man at our hotel, a Reds fan from Cincinnati, who showed me his invitation that he had won at the Panini booth the day before.

“I have had one guy offer me $1,500 in cash for this,” he said, holding it up for me to see, as I bought a Chicago Tribune (great baseball coverage, by the way) early on Thursday morning.

“You going to sell it?” I asked.

“No way,” he said. “I’m going, but it is tempting. “

I saw him again on Friday morning. “Still going?” I said.

“Oh yeah,” he said, with a big smile on his face, the temptation of selling seeming to have left him.

One thing that Panini had was several events for kids that drew big crowds. I also thought it was great that kids 12 and under got free admittance to the National.

PSA had a very popular area, including the opportunity to get your own baseball card made and encapsulated like their graded cards, for free. They also gave away game–used, autographed bats of Derek Jeter, Kris Bryant, and Frank Thomas, to three lucky fans.

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Appearing on Friday at The Mike Berkus stage was former Boston Red Sox great Rico Petrocelli. He was there for two autograph sessions, plus a question and answer format, in which he reminisced about his Red Sox days, and took questions from the crowd in a well-received program. It is always great to see former athletes who enjoy their interaction with the fans as much as the fans themselves do. Great guy, great program.

Ok, I’m one of those older guys who is not quite sure what to make about all the fuss in the box break area. But after spending some time there to grasp what is going on, I think now I get it. After witnessing the excitement that came over John and the guys at Sports Cards Investors when they pulled out a 1/1 Barry Sanders auto card, it finally sunk in. This is exciting.

I roamed through the Tristar autograph area on several occasions and saw long lines for most of the signers. It always amazes me how cordial most of the athletes are with those who are paying to get there autographs, and again how indifferent some of them are to people who are shelling out lots of hard earned bucks to get things signed. I watched Cal Ripken interact with people in his line for several minutes and he was very nice and outgoing to all of them. Unfortunately, with some others, this was not so much the case.

The Major League Baseball Hall of Famers were present earlier in the week as they had to be in Cooperstown on Sunday for the induction ceremony, so there were a lot of football guys on the weekend.

My favorite moment here? Watching Bobby Knight sign a large stack of red folding chairs. I’m sure many a man cave in the state of Indiana will soon be the home of these. You do remember the chair toss, don’t you? 

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Do you like to collect autographed pictures? If you work the floor, you can find good deals at several different venues. Dealers always have guys sign extra copies when they do a show and you can pick some up at a good price if you take the time to look about.

On the football front, I was surprised that there seemed to be more Green Bay Packers stuff out there than anything else, especially over the hometown Chicago Bears. There were lots of signed Packers helmets all around the floor. The enduring power of those great Lombardi Packer teams still live on. Paul Hornung, the Heisman Trophy winner at Notre Dame, and a favorite of Vince Lombardi, was there to sign on Friday to a big crowd.

There were several former Bears there over the five days, but none bigger in Chicago than Dick Butkus, the Sunday headliner. I was fascinated at the number of old ticket stubs, programs, and pennants that were available. There were player’s commemorative Super Bowl trophies and rings available as well. Those always get me, the fact that things happen in former players’ lives that lead to things getting away from them, for whatever the reason. This is a thought that the average fan of a team probably finds unthinkable.

Of course, my favorite things are cards. For me, it is mostly baseball, some football, and occasionally a basketball and hockey card thrown in for good measure. The older stuff is a pure pleasure to see and look at. I spend hours going through them. There are vendors who specialize in all the major sports. You find tables that draw big crowds selling newer cards for 10-25 cents apiece, and they are doing a brisk business.

When you go to the National, you should have a wish list of just what it is you are hoping to find. I think it to be virtually impossible to see everything there, with over 650 dealers on hand. Take your list, work it and you should be able to find most everything you are looking for. Along the way, you will find things that will pleasantly surprise you. I found a signed copy of the baseball novel “Double Play,” by one of my favorite authors, Robert B. Parker. I have read his books for years, but didn’t know he had a baseball themed one. I bought a Joe Namath card I had been looking for at a very reasonable price. I always buy a few graded cards to put back and this year was no different. I got rookie cards of the Dodger’s Corey Seager, and two of my all-time favorite players, Greg Maddux, and Ken Griffey, Jr. Not extravagant purchases, but cards I went there wanting. I stumbled into a good deal on a Roberto Clemente Louisville Slugger bat that I can add to my collection. It is a beautiful piece of lumber. I now own an autographed photo of Paul Hornung, ‘the Golden Boy’ in all his glory, as a Packer. He is one of my childhood heroes, and to this day, my favorite football play is any variation of the old Packer sweep. I think Thurston, Kramer, Ringo, Gregg, Taylor, and of course, Hornung.

One of my favorite things about going is meeting and talking with other collector’s from all over the country. They are great people, with great stories to tell. I guess it is the storyteller in me that makes me enjoy listening to them. Next year the NSCC is in Cleveland, another great sports town, and maybe I’ll see you there.

Barry Blair is a writer and author who lives in Jonesborough, TN, who contributes to Sports Collectors Digest. You can reach him at