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Sports programs are becoming an alternative for collectors who crave vintage material

As the cost of vintage sports trading cards continue to increase, more and more collectors looking for vintage material are turning to sports programs.

By Sal Barry

Suppose you want to own a vintage Babe Ruth baseball card. You could easily spend $6,000 for a mid-grade copy of one of his 1933 Goudey cards, which would have his photo on the front and bio on the back.

 1936 World Series Program (Images are from the Collection of Brian O'Donnell)

1936 World Series Program (Images are from the Collection of Brian O'Donnell)

Or, for around $800, you could buy a 1932 Yankees World Series program, which would also have a photo of Ruth somewhere within its pages, and his bio – as well as photos and bios of his teammates, too.

Sports programs makes a nice alternative for the collector who craves vintage sports memorabilia, but doesn’t have the discretionary income for a Mickey Mantle game-worn jersey or a Babe Ruth game-used bat, or even baseball cards from those two legends. In many cases, programs cost far less than a trading card of a popular player from the same year, and can give you more enjoyment.

“Programs serve a purpose,” said Brian O’Donnell of Skokie, Illinois, who has collected vintage sports programs over the past 30 years. “There’s a lot of reading and there’s a lot of photos, as opposed to a card where you can be done with it in 30 seconds. There’s a whole lot of information gathered right there at your fingertips.”

O’Donnell has hundreds of programs dating back as far as the early 1900s. Among his favorites are a 1936 World Series Giants vs. Yankees “Subway Series” program, a 1908 Boston Americans program with Cy Young on the cover, a Super Bowl I program from 1967, and a Chicago American Gears program from 1947, picturing future basketball Hall of Famer George Mikan – then just a rookie – on the cover.

“The first thing I look for is what historical instance this program represents,” O’Donnell said. “I would be much more likely to buy a 1919 World Series program if it was beat up because of its rarity factor, and because of the historical value to it, than, say, a Super Bowl XX program, which can be found with relative ease.”

Indeed, rarity is perhaps the most important factor to consider when buying an old program, but there are certain defects that collectors should look for.

Folds and Flaws

 1908 Boston Americans Program

1908 Boston Americans Program

Because programs are meant to be read and enjoyed by the fan who bought it, finding a program in pristine condition is many times an impossible task – especially with those made prior to World War II. No one who went to the World Series 100 years ago, or most likely not even 20 years ago, bought a program and immediately put it in a magazine-sized bag with an acid-free backer board, waiting for it to appreciate in value. At the very least, it may have been read once or twice, then stored away. Or, it could have served double-duty as a makeshift umbrella during a rain delay. When buying an old program, it’s just a matter of deciding what flaws you can live with instead of seeking perfection.

But the biggest defect to watch for is not torn pages or writing on the cover. Granted, those are flaws you should look out for, too. The biggest problem with old programs is that, many times, they were folded in half.

“You see this especially with football programs, where they have very adverse weather conditions like snow and rain,” O’Donnell said. “A fan would take the program, fold it in half lengthwise, and stick it in the breast pocket of their overcoat. The center crease is actually pretty typical.”

It isn’t so much that a program isn’t collectible if it is creased. But if it isn’t creased, be prepared to pay a premium, sometimes double, depending on the age of the item and its historical significance.

Another flaw to look for is if the owner tried to fix the program.

 Inside of the 1936 World Series Program

Inside of the 1936 World Series Program

“Stay away from anything that is taped,” O’Donnell said. “To me, that’s a very heavy-handed attempt to do some sort of restoration. If you see a torn page, just leave it alone.”

Like comic books, tape is a big no-no for repairing a torn cover or page in a program. Older tape will eventually yellow, and many times loses its adhesiveness, falling off and leaving a sticky residue or otherwise discoloring where it was applied. While newer, high-quality “invisible” tape is much better than it was decades ago, a repaired tear is not something that is looked positively upon by collectors.

Another problem to check for is if the staples are loose or missing. Most collectors will avoid – or pay considerably less for – a program if the prior owner tried to re-attached the cover. A standard stapler isn’t long enough to reach the spine of most programs, so new staples are usually applied to the front of the cover, about ¼” to ½” away from the spine. This is a noticeable defect, especially since the program won’t open all the way. 

“Spine condition is very important as well,” O’Donnell said. “Sometimes, online sellers do not mention if there is a spine tear, from the top of the cover to the top staple, or from the bottom of the cover to the bottom staple. Be sure to ask about that.”

Programs issued during World War II were sometimes printed on cheaper paper, which makes the pages more susceptible to yellowing or signs of aging. And while writing on a program is also a turn-off, there is one time when it is considered OK: if the inner scorecard of a baseball program is filled out neatly by the original owner, that can actually make a program more collectible than if it was left blank. Imagine having a 1956 World Series program from Don Larsen’s perfect game, with the scorecard filled in by the spectator who bought the program; that writing would be welcome by some collectors.

There are other flaws to watch out for (see “The Big 10” sidebar), but the cover crease, followed by the use of tape or loose staples, are usually the most prevalent.

Collection Protection

 1967 Super Bowl I Program

1967 Super Bowl I Program

Not surprisingly, what works well for keeping a comic book or magazine collection in great condition also works for sports programs. Heat, light and moisture are the biggest enemies of collectibles, so keep sports programs (or sports cards, for that matter!) in a cool, dark, dry place. Basements and garages, which can sometimes be damp and have vastly fluctuating temperatures, are usually the worst places to house a collection, while a bedroom or hallway closet – or even an attic, if temperature-controlled – is usually perfect.

Memorabilia supply companies like Ultra Pro and BCW make archival-safe magazine-sized bags, acid-free boards and sturdy cardboard boxes that will fit most programs. If your local sports card shop does not carry these, try a comic book store. BCW also sells a sliding drawer-like magazine box, which you can stack to save space, while also making your program as easy to find as your favorite pair of socks.

For odd-shaped items, oversized top loaders – made specifically for magazines and programs – can give your prized possessions a greater level of protection, as they are more rigid than a bag and board combo.

Another way to preserve condition is to take care when handling the program when browsing or reading it. Lay it on a table, but do not flatten it out. If you must hold it, fold the thumb on your left hand inward so that the left-hand page rolls over your hand; otherwise, the program can “bend” over your extended thumb, causing an indentation or crease on the front cover.

Just as the significance of the game that a program represents can affect its resale value, so too can a nice-looking cover.

More Than A Pretty Picture

 The inside of the 1926 Chicago Bears Program

The inside of the 1926 Chicago Bears Program

Programs are packed with photos and information about the players, and many times have additional articles or photos of the team’s top stars. Programs can also have some fantastic original cover or interior artwork. Even the ads can be fun to look at, as they give a great look at the culture and values of the time that it is from.

Unfortunately – or fortunately, depending how you look at it – there is currently no mainstream price guide for sports programs to serve as a frame of reference, though the older the program is, the higher resale value it generally has. Even old programs in poor shape can sell for thousands of dollars due to scarcity. What might not be worth $20 to a casual collector might be a steal at $200 to an experienced buyer of programs. Although past eBay sales can be a good starting point, there is no generally agreed-upon “high book” or “low book” value for a sports program.

It is for this reason that vintage sports programs are not something easily invested in. But that same reason can actually make program collecting more fun, similar to the early days of sport card collecting before the advent of price guides.

“There’s two old adages that I go by,” O’Donnell said. “Don’t buy something because you think it will increase in value. And buy what you like, and you’ll never be disappointed.”

Sal Barry is a freelance contributor for Sports Collectors Digest. He can be reached at sjb@puckjunk.com or on Twitter @puckjunk.

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