When Jeff Roberts decided a few years back to start a monthly gathering of like-minded sports card enthusiasts from the Nashville area, he had no idea what it would lead to.
“Eleven years ago, this month, we held the first show. Never in a million years did I ever think it would come to this,” he told me.
Roberts was starting to ease his way into retirement from his job as an architect, and this was what he wanted to do. He started out at a small school gym where he was “hoping to fill 15 tables,” he said, shaking his head. Soon it grew into two shows per month.
“The more shows we did, the more the people came,” he said.
Then he decided to try some bigger shows twice a year; one in the fall, and one in late winter, around the time that spring training started. They soon filled up as well.
That grew into using two buildings at Lighthouse Christian School in southeast Nashville, his home base. The shows became more and more popular and the area exploded in growth, becoming one of the fastest-growing metro areas in America.
“I knew that from my architect business,” he said.
His regular shows were soon up to 100 tables with a long waiting list of vendors. His larger shows would quickly stretch into having to use three separate units of the school, but he wasn’t happy with the logistics of it.
“That just didn’t work, having to operate out of the different buildings,” he said of dealers and collectors going from building to building. “It just didn’t feel right to me, not for the vendors or for those attending the shows. I needed to find a new home for the two bigger shows.”
At the same time, the growth in the Nashville area led the city to revitalize the rundown State Fairgrounds property. That led to NASCAR announcing it was returning to the historic track located in the middle of the property, and an MLS soccer stadium is in the process of being built there as well.
But what caught Roberts’ eye was the new Exhibition Hall Building they were building. Soon he was in discussion with them about moving his two bigger shows there.
“Then COVID hits, and the mayor shuts down all gatherings of this type. Everything comes to a halt, even our twice-a-month shows.”
But as we all know, with COVID came an explosion in sports card collectibles unlike anything we have seen since the late 1980s. Roberts was ready to go when he was allowed to start back.
Last summer, he was able to reopen his shows, and on Saturday, March 13, he had the biggest show he has ever done, filling the new Exhibition Hall at the Nashville Fairgrounds. And he was able to do the show in one big room.
“I’ve got 350 tables sold, and could easily have sold 100 more,” he said.
Roberts had a list of interested vendors that would have filled them all but said he decided to cut it off “as I don’t know that people can get around to more tables than that in a day.”
It is easy to see why his shows are a success, as everything is done with his customers coming first.
“It looks like we have had about 2,000 people come through the door, maybe more, as some people have figured out how to sneak in through the side doors,” he says with a laugh. “We’ll have to work on that for the next time.”
The crowd was really good considering there was late-season snow the night before.
“That might have scared off a few folks,” Roberts said, “But not many.”
When he returns to the Fairgrounds for shows in July and October, he is expanding to three days.
“They have the room here for us to expand and take in those that wanted to participate this time, but couldn’t,” he said.
On Saturday, Roberts had dealers from all across the country. I asked who got the prize for traveling the farthest?
“Well, let’s see, I’ve got one from Washington state and one from Los Angeles. They are here from Dallas, and Florida. Some from New Jersey, New York and Boston. We have one from Michigan, and even have a guy from Green Bay,” he said.
I find Jason Galleske, the dealer from Packer land.
“This has been a great show for me,” he said. “It has been well worth the trip, I’ve done a very good business today, both buying and selling.”
Ricky Line is a dealer who has been with Roberts since his very first show. He hails from nearby Kentucky and his booth leaves no doubt who his favorite team is — the Cincinnati Reds
“You know, I used to write some articles for SCD back in the 1980s,” he tells me. “They were looking for someone who was an expert on vintage cards, and I told them that I was on cards from the 1960s, and so they let me do some articles about that. I enjoyed it.”
Anthony Hargrove and DeMario Pressley were both defensive linemen for the New Orleans Saints when they won Super Bowl XLIV over Peyton Manning and the Indianapolis Colts. On this Saturday, they are the autograph guests for the show, and are a big hit with those attending.
“You won’t believe this, but Anthony was actually a quarterback in high school,” Pressley tells me. “Just ask him,” he says, laughing.
Sure enough, the story is true.
“Yeah, I was a quarterback in high school and was recruited as one to Georgia Tech from Florida. But that all changed when I got there,” he said. “First day they are assigning jerseys, and I get a high number. I tell the guy there must be a mistake, I’m a quarterback, and he double checks and says, ‘No, no mistake.’ There is a coach there, and he says, ‘Welcome to the defense son.’
“I was mad at first, but it worked out for the best. Hey, I got to the league and won a Super Bowl. It doesn’t get any better than that.”
Pressley played college football at North Carolina State. They were both enjoying getting to meet and mingle with show attendees, signing autographs and posing for pictures.
“This has been a great show for us,” Pressley said.
Beckett was there, taking in cards to be sent off and graded, while James Spence Authentication was doing a brisk business with customers waiting in line to have autographs and memorabilia authenticated.
Stephen Meyer of Nashville was the most interesting vendor I came across. He had a large collection of cereal boxes with athletes on the front of them. The vast majority, of course, were Wheaties boxes, which have famously celebrated the achievements of athletes over the years.
“There have been other cereal brands out there, but mostly Wheaties,” he said, noting that he had collected most of them himself over the years, checking the shelves at grocery stores around the country. The large amount of orange boxes certainly attracted attention as you walked by.
Intrigued, I asked him who has been on the most cereal boxes? “Michael Jordan.”
Is there a most popular box? “Muhammed Ali.”
What was his favorite? “A Pete Rose Wheaties box that he autographed for me.” He was attired in a Reds T-shirt, so that was no surprise.
Mike Caffey of Thompson Station, Tenn. had a large number of graded cards for sale at his table. What caught my attention was his selection of Tom Brady cards that were graded by CSG, the newcomer to the card-grading business. He took time to answer my questions about sending cards off to get them graded, and I think I better understand how that all works now.
WHERE ARE THE HOCKEY CARDS?
Nashville has emerged as a top-notch hockey town in the past several years. A ticket to a Predators game at Bridgestone Arena is a tough get. Just two weeks ago, I attended the Preds-Tampa Bay Lightning Stadium Series game, along with 65,000 other fans at Nissan Stadium, the home of the NFL’s Tennessee Titans. What an experience that was. Scratch the outdoor hockey game off of my bucket list!
I thought the larger show would be a good opportunity to pick up some hockey cards, especially of the Preds. I was disappointed that I didn’t see a lot of them.
One thing that I like to do is listen to conversations around the tables while sorting through cards. You get a pretty good feel for what is going on in the card world and sports in general.
Thank goodness we are back to playing baseball. The most talked about conversation on this Saturday was, now that players can sign, what was Freddie Freeman going to do? Who is he going to sign with? Back to the Braves? Or will he take the most money he can get and sign with the Dodgers or Yankees? By the time you read this article, we should all know the answer. (Two days later, the Braves announced they had traded for Oakland A's first baseman Matt Olson, presumably signaling the end of Freeman’s tenure in Atlanta.)
My hat is off to Roberts for what he has been able to build and put together for collectors in the Nashville market. If you can attend one of his shows, I’m pretty sure you will have a great experience.
— Barry Blair is an author/writer from Jonesborough, Tenn. You can reach him at email@example.com or check out his website www.rightfieldpress.com.