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After a long night of partying with fellow hobbyists in Southern California in 1991, Darren Prince drove past the Anaheim (Calif.) Convention Center.

From their limousine, they saw thousands of people waiting outside at 2 a.m. just to get into the National Sports Collectors Convention when it opened eight hours later.

“That’s when we knew the industry [had] arrived,” Prince said.

The 1991 National is still the standard bearer of sports memorabilia conventions. Not just of The National, but of all sports memorabilia conventions — ever.

The National: Schedule for 2021 show 

The 1991 National, run by the late Jack Petruzzelli and the late Mike Berkus, attracted an enormous crowd believed to exceed 100,000 for the five-day show. Free promo cards given away by card makers that year drew insane demand and sizzled when they were sold.

A crowd lines up to enter the 1991 National Sports Collectors Convention in Anaheim, Calif.

1991 National 

The National: 2021 show features star-studded autograph lineup

No National has ever compared to 1991, though the 2008 National in Chicago garnered the most pre-event mainstream media coverage ever. About a month before the 2008 event, organizers announced a detailed public relations and publicity campaign to attract media attention. Ultimately, media around the world reported on the 2008 National before the first autograph was even signed that year.

In fact, there was one autograph that sparked the hype.

Convention organizers in 2008 offered infamous Chicago Cubs fan Steve Bartman $25,000 in cash to show up and sign one autograph. The Bartman autograph would have been on a 16-by-20-inch photo featuring the dubious play from the 2003 National League playoff game between the Chicago Cubs and the Florida Marlins playoff game.

Ultimately, Bartman was a no-show.

It’s National season once again, with the 41st edition of the Super Bowl of sports memorabilia kicking off its five-day run on July 28 at the Donald E. Stephens Convention Center in Rosemont, Ill. It’s the same venue that did not attract Bartman, but featured an unannounced appearance by O.J. Simpson, who signed autographs inside the venue for about an hour before being asked to leave.

The 2021 National is expected to draw another insane crowd, probably not as large as the reported 100,000 who descended on Anaheim in 1991, but certainly numbers that will surpass any other year.

“I think the 2021 National can rival the historic 1991 National,” said Prince, 51, who still lives in Southern California and is an acclaimed author and president of the Prince Marketing Group. “Coming off the pandemic and the card/collectibles boom, this year’s National is going to be epic.”

The 2020 National in Atlantic City was postponed, and then ultimately cancelled due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“The year absence, plus Chicago being a favorite location for most [collectors], has everyone I’ve talked to extremely excited and optimistic,” said Randy Cook, 65, a card dealer from Lee’s Summit, Mo.

Cook, who has attended 25 Nationals, will arrive in Chicago with a wide range of collectibles for sale, most of Babe Ruth and Patrick Mahomes, including some Ruth pinstripe jersey swatch cards.

“A well-dressed gentleman stopped by my booth [at a past National] and said he really enjoyed seeing my Babe Ruth Collection,” Cook said. “The man came back five hours later and said it was the nicest overall Ruth collection he had ever seen … and then [made] a few purchases.”

“Everyone is really excited for The National. I think crowds will be insane,” said longtime Atlanta-based dealer Mike Stoner. “My best suggestion is, come early and plan to stay late. We have more dealer tables than ever and more new dealers.”

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Houston-based dealer Rich Gove, 70, who has attended all but five Nationals, added: “I think it will be a great show. There has been so much societal frustration, I think people are ready to let loose and have collecting fun.

“This National arrives during a surge of optimism: the warm [weather], the drop in COVID-related cases, the excitement of the baseball season, the unprecedented spike in trading card sales/prices, the popular Chicago sales market, and the unparalleled desire to get out of the house and do something.”

Gove said he’s looking to buy vintage (1956-1968) sets or bulk inventory of commons from those years at The National. And naturally for this longtime vintage card seller, one of his all-time favorite National memories centered on vintage cards: breaking a 1967 Topps High Number Vending case at the 1985 National in Anaheim.

A collection of vintage cards at the 2019 National.

Vintage cards at the 2019 National. 

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Gove also recalls playing shortstop at the softball game with fellow dealers and Dr. Jim Beckett at the 1985 National. And Gove’s team won, he said with a smile.

Stoner, 77, is attending his 30th National this year. A former attorney for Mickey Mantle’s agent, he once served on The National’s Board of Directors.

“It was always great when Mick was at The National,” he said. “Those were my favorites. I have some customers I only get to see at The National. I always look forward to reuniting with these folks.

“At my age, the social aspect of this business is as important, if not more important, than the financial aspect. I don’t know how many more years I will be able to endure the rigors of a National, so I relish the reconnection with these friends I have made over the years and will welcome them back joyously.”

Stoner brings an eye-popping array of framed autographed items to every National, and this year will be no exception.

“I have a long drive to The National, but I would not miss it, as long as I am healthy enough,” Stoner said.

Paul Furfaro, 52, of Parsippany, N.J. will be in Chicago for his 28th National, once again selling a variety of replica and authentic jerseys, jackets and more. His company, PTF Sports, will have “the best stuff for a show that we have ever had in the 30 years of business,” he said.

“We have been buying licensed sports apparel closeouts for the last year and a half and squirreling away most of the inventory for the show since there have not been any shows.

“Collectors are dying to get to a big show and purchase sports merchandise in person. Seeing collectibles in person is much different than buying them online. I think the 2021 National will be well attended and there will be lots of spending.”

Furfaro said his favorite National memory was when Johnny Bench, his favorite player as a kid, came to his booth and purchased a bunch of stuff. Furfaro took a photo with Bench, and the Baseball Hall of Famer now simply calls Furfaro “the jersey guy.”

Hall of Famer Johnny Bench signs autographs at the 2019 National.

Johnny Bench 

“It’s nice to meet your favorite player and they are friendly and courteous,” he said.

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Brandon Tolle, 35, lives in St. Louis and is attending his first-ever National. He started collecting as a kid, continued into high school and college, and then on and off until late 2018 when he got back into full-time collecting.

Tolle’s collection is a combination of slabs and raw cards, mostly rookies, prospects and a lot of Cincinnati Reds cards — he is a lifelong Reds fan and Barry Larkin is his all-time favorite athlete. He also has some authenticated lineup cards from various games, plus a PSA-graded Joey Votto rookie card.

Since May 2020, Tolle, a referee for IMPACT Wrestling, has had a YouTube channel called Zebra Breaks, where he conducts box breaks and discusses baseball and wrestling cards as well as his experiences as a sports fan and collector. He’s coming to Chicago to see different vendors, interact with major card companies, buy and trade with other collectors and put faces to names of people he’s interacted with in the hobby.

“It’s going to be a big [event], so I’m setting some high expectations,” Tolle said. “Given how big the hobby has become, all the new people I have met because of my YouTube channel and collecting the past couple of years, and the ability to see those who I’ve met, meet others and just see the vast collections of others, it makes the entire experience of going and being a part of The National, especially this year, something very special.”

Tolle said he will be on the lookout for vintage Reds’ rookie cards for his collection, but added, “I think this year is more about the entire experience before anything specific.”

R. Todd Williams, 58, a dealer from Cherokee, Iowa, will be at his 17th National. He refers to the event as “Christmas day for sports collectors.”

At the 2019 National, Williams asked collectors who stopped by his booth where they were from. Ultimately, 38 States and seven countries were represented.

“The saying, ‘If you can’t find it at The National, it probably does not exist,’ is so true. There is so much to see,” he said. “I really feel this National has the potential to be the best National ever. With COVID dominating people’s lives until about two months ago, people want to get out and be involved in a big show.”

Williams said his 2021 National will hopefully include some personal scores. He is always looking for unique Raiders items, Hall of Fame signatures, Buffalo Braves items, signed checks and tickets.

Williams will be selling framed canvas prints of such legends as Mickey Mantle, Muhammad Ali, Sandy Koufax, Ted Williams, Joe DiMaggio, Kobe Bryant, Walter Payton and many others. He also has vintage catcher’s masks and hundreds of Hall of Fame-signed index cards, checks, tickets and more.

Tony Gordon, 54, has just a 25-minute drive from his home in Lincolnshire to Rosemont. A vintage sports card dealer, he has been attending The National in Chicago since 1993.

“The sports collectibles hobby is more popular [now] than ever before, so I expect the 2021 National to be the best-attended National to date,” he said.

Gordon says he has sold more cards in the first six months of 2021 than at any other time since he started selling in the late-1970s. He promotes shows at the Salvation Army Community Center in Oak Creek, Wisc. and at monthly shows in Orland Park, Ill.

“At the April show I brought out one display case and early in the morning I sold the whole case that was filled with 1933 Goudeys,” Gordon said. “I had some Diamond Stars and Play Balls from the 1930s and 1940s, [so I] reloaded the display case. A short time later, I sold the entire case, again.

“I have never sold an entire case, let alone two. It has been crazy!”

Gordon expects this year’s National to be “an absolute mad house.”

“I usually just set up by myself at The National and spend a lot of the time sitting around chewing the fat, but for this year’s National, I have hired one person to help out and I have two others on-call just in case I need them,” Gordon said.

For Gordon, not all National memories center on sales. The friendships he has made throughout the hobby and select moments stand out. Take, for instance, the time he was standing in front of a display case featuring awards and memorabilia belonging to Julius Erving, one of his idols as a youngster.

“I was nose to nose with the glass staring at this stuff, [and then] felt someone walk over and stand next to me. I looked to my left, and it was none other than Dr. J,” Gordon said. “That was a great thrill.”

A thrill for Gordon at the 2021 National would be completing a 1966 Topps baseball set he has been working on for years. He is down to just eight cards, all difficult high numbers.

“I hope to find the cards and not break the bank,” he said, laughing.

Brian Schwartz, 41, of Northbrook, Ill. is ready to attend his 19th National — give or take — and is expecting the largest attendance he has ever seen, spawned by the card craze.

The National, Schwartz said, is like “an annual reunion.” It is, after all, the largest gathering of sports memorabilia collectors and dealers anywhere in the world.

“I have gotten the card bug this past year, so I will be looking for any great deals/packages, specifically [for] a nice Michael Jordan PSA 8 or 9 RC,” he said.