After a year off, the National Sports Collectors Convention returned to Chicago last week, and what a show it was.

Collectors of all ages showed up in what had to be record numbers. Though The National doesn’t release attendance figures, I can’t imagine a bigger show, and I’ve been attending since Baltimore in 2012.

Money was being spent like never before, a combination of post-COVID relief and the boom of the hobby in general.

I wandered the floor for three days, from Wednesday through Friday. Here are some thoughts and observation on people and things I encountered.

• First off, the floor in Chicago just keeps growing and expanding, now taking up two more sections of the convention center than the first National I attended there in 2015. Everywhere you looked it the 450,000-square-foot floor crowded, from the new sections that were added all the way to the back wall in the main hall. If you set up and didn’t have a good show, you probably didn’t have the right stuff to sell. The foot traffic was there, and it could be somewhat overwhelming at times.

A big crowd enters the floor of That National.

Collectors enter the show floor at The National. 

VIP tickets, long a staple of the show, were sold out and there were reportedly four times more general admission tickets sold than at the last National in Chicago. I believe it. The autograph pavilion seemed to have larger crowds than ever too.

PHOTO GALLERY: Huge crowds, big pulls, legendary athletes at The National 

• Phil Hughes is a former star pitcher for the New York Yankees. He earned a World Series ring in the Bronx in 2009 and was a member of the American League All-Star team in 2010, a season when he posted 18 victories. He won 88 games in his 12-year big league career. Today he owns Phil’s Pulls, an online and show-driven card business.

“We don’t need a brick-and-mortar store to do what we do,” he told me at his booth on Wednesday, which was already busy on the first day of The National.

Former New York Yankees pitcher Phil Hughes (left), who now runs Phil's Pulls.

Former New York Yankee pitcher Phil Hughes (left). 

He was not playing off of his baseball notoriety. I asked him how many people recognized him.

“Not a lot, and you won’t find many, if any, of my cards out here on the floor,” he said laughing. The next day I brought him one that I did find, and he graciously signed it for me.

• Pat Neshek, a long-time major league pitcher who just recently retired, is an avid card and autograph collector. He was on the floor with his young son, who was having fun finding his dad’s cards on the show floor, having him sign them, and then putting them on the Topps Card Wall for unsuspecting collectors to find.

• One of my favorite moments was watching former college and NBA great Bill Walton “warm up” before his turn in the autograph pavilion. Next to him was his former Celtic teammate Kevin McHale, who just looked at him and made no comment. I’m sure he is used to the exuberant center’s antics from over the years.

Former NBA star and current college basketball TV analyst Bill Walton.

Former NBA star Bill Walton 

I told Walton I enjoyed watching and listening to him do Pac-10 basketball games on TV, even when I had no vested interest in the two teams playing.

He gave me that big Walton grin and said, “You, my friend, may be one of the few, from what the network likes to tell me.” He has always danced to his own tune.

• Would you pay $10,000 for a box of Tom Brady memorabilia? That’s what Fanatics was offering. Signed helmets, game-worn jerseys and Super Bowl tickets were some of the items you might receive in the box.

“It’s worth every bit of the $10k, and some boxes are worth even more,” a Fanatics worker said, trying to convince me.

I liked the picture on the box of Brady wearing all of his seven Super Bowl rings. He was wearing a Tampa Bay jersey though, which probably didn’t sit well with New England fans.

The Brady Box sold by Fanatics at The National.

The Brady Box 

• Just for curiosity sake, I wandered over to the PSA booth and asked what it would cost to get a Michael Jordan rookie card graded and back before the show was over. The price was $250, and if you wanted same-day service, it was $600. Across the room at the CSG booth, the new players in the game quoted me $250 for same day and $100 by the end of the show. Despite the price difference, the line was always longer at PSA whenever I checked.

• At the Topps booth, I asked about getting a 2021 Baseball factory set.

“We don’t have those here this year,” a young lady told me. In the past, they were available at the show and they would throw in a couple of redemption cards if you purchased one.

Of course, in the past, you could afford to build your own set. Since I have not been able to buy any packs or boxes at retail stores where I live, I had hoped to purchase a complete set at the show. That didn’t happen this year. I did see a guy selling handmade Series 1 sets for $30, but he didn’t have Series 2.

• Speaking of set building, the chairs were always full at Uncle Dick’s Cards with collectors who had their lists for vintage cards.

Collectors look through vintage cards at the Uncle Dick's Cards booth at The National.

Collectors at Uncle Dick's Cards 

“I thought you had retired?” I asked Dick DeCourcy. “I’m still around,” he said with a smile. They had a prime position in the middle of the floor and it was obviously a great show for them.

• Several of the Topps artists for the Project 70 art cards were at the show. Most came with their cards and were signing and selling them, along with some other artwork they have done.

Topps Project 70 artist Ben Baller chats with a collector of his baseball art cards.

Topps Project 70 artist Ben Baller 

I have long been a fan of baseball card art, so I came away with three items: a Cal Ripken postcard signed by Chuck Styles; a Shohei Ohtani card signed by Blake; and a Project 2020 card of Mariano Rivera signed by Efdot.

Topps Project 70 artist Efdot shows off one of his cards.

Topps Project 70 artist Efdot 

All the artists I saw were very nice and accommodating. They seem to enjoy their work with Topps. Blake told me he was working with them on more projects for the future.

“It is exciting for me,” he said. “This is unbelievable.”

• While the show was blowing up, so were the Chicago Cubs in a much different way, much to the chagrin of the hometown fans. Thursday and Friday were the final two days of trading before the deadline and all over the floor fans were watching their phones and keeping up with what was going on. You could overhear pieces of conversations about the players traded. I saw one fan wearing a Cubs jersey looking at his phone and shaking his head, then loudly telling his friends, “First Rizzo, now Bryant, what are we doing?”

• Do you know who Steve Aoki is? No, he’s not a player from Japan. He’s a DJ and record producer with more than 8 million Twitter followers. Aoki was in town to perform at the Lollapalooza Music Festival in downtown Chicago and was on the floor Thursday at The National, where he created quite a stir with the younger crowd in attendance.

• Rodney Novak of Milestone Baseball Tickets deals in ticket stubs of all types, with his staple being major events in the history of the game. Season tickets for most teams contain pictures of their star players and they have turned into a pretty good collectible over the years. Plus, they can be a nice item to have autographed as well.

Novak’s tables were doing a brisk business. I asked if he had any Angels’ tickets with Shohei Ohtani on them?

“Everything I had with Ohtani got gone quickly,” he said. I settled for one with Mike Trout.

• I stopped by to visit Kit Young, one of the legends in the baseball card business.

“I have been doing this show going back to the first one in Los Angeles,” he said, referring to the 1980 show 41 years ago. He had a prime spot near the main entrance, which is good for those coming in to sell older collections, as well as those buying vintage cards.

I bought a beautiful Exhibit Card of Boston Red Sox star Frank Malzone in his batting stance. These cards were sold out of vending machines in the early- to mid-1900s and are hard to find in mint condition. I was also excited to say that I bought it from Kit.

• One of the things I have been looking for was a 1975 Topps George Brett rookie card, which are not easy to find in great shape due to the colorful borders. But I got one thanks to Ron Estes of Coach Estes Cards from Missouri. I asked him on Thursday how the show was going? “Lots of traffic and people looking,” he said, “and the sales are starting to come.”

• Thanks to Mike Botaish of MC Cards from the Boston area, who helped me find some cards I was looking for. He had music playing at his tables and I told him I liked it. “Come by here first thing in the morning and we kick everything off with Elvis,” he said, obviously enjoying what he was doing.

• I enjoyed checking out the high-end items at the auction houses. Heritage Auction always has an impressive display, with jerseys that the halls of fames would envy.

Memory Lane had a Lou Gehrig bat that kids were holding and taking swings with. They also had some of their auction catalogs, which are very well done and make for great reading and studying if you really enjoy the older stuff.

• At the TRISTAR Autograph Pavilion, I was amazed at the number of Chipper Jones black bats they had orders for and that Chipper had signed.

Chipper Jones black bats waiting to be signed.

Chipper Jones bats waiting to be signed. 

Speaking of Atlanta Braves memorabilia, I came away with a Bruce Benedict game-used bat from the former two-time All-Star catcher.

It was a great show, a great time, and very well run considering the onslaught of people. Chicago is a great venue for the show.

I hope to see you next year in Atlantic City.

Barry Blair is an author/writer from Jonesborough, Tenn. You can reach him at barryblair54@gmail.com or visit his website www.rightfieldpress.com.