By GREG BATES
ROSEMONT, Ill. – Jim Dehem will never forget the first National Sports Collectors Convention (NSCC) he worked in 1982. The event, which was in its third year, was held at the St. Louis Marriott. There were just a couple hundred dealers with 8-foot tables.
“The big things then were people were still trying to do a lot with ’52 high numbers,” said Dehem, who runs J&M Card Co. in Michigan with his brother, Mark. “They were toughest: Matthews and Mantle. But they were nowhere near the price they are now.”
If Dehem recalls correctly, Mantle’s 1952 Topps went from about $150 to $200. That was pre-grading days, of course, and pre-out-of-this-world Mantle prices.
Dehem has never owned what could be minted the “holy grail” of the hobby. “I had chances to buy them and we passed up,” said Dehem, who admits he kicks himself every day for not pulling the trigger on the “affordable” ’52 Mantle cards.
If Dehem had the opportunity to turn back time, he certainly would. He’d be a multi-millionaire walking around the NSCC showroom floor. Instead, Dehem is just trucking along selling his vintage cards for the last 38 Nationals – the latest at the Donald E. Stephens Convention Center from July 31-Aug. 4.
The Dehem brothers are a pair of only about 20 dealers who have worked 38 or more of the 40 Nationals. The Dehems weren’t going to miss this year, which marked the 12th time the event has been in Chicago.
“The show has changed unbelievably since that first time,” Dehem said. “The amount of things out here that have come out, the prices, especially the Mantle cards is insanity. The Honus Wagner, it’s just insane. The grading, what it’s done to the cards. You would not be able to believe what it was like back then if you were around compared to now.”
The National now is comprised of 550 booths in the dealer area, 60 corporate booths and 65 case break booths. In all, the showroom floor is between 400,000-500,000 square feet.
On the Saturday of the event, the entire showroom was jam-packed with eager collectors trying to hammer out the best deals. NSCC Executive Director John Broggi called this year’s show in the top two to three he’s ever worked. That’s high praise since his first National was in 1984.
The 1991 show in Anaheim is still called “The Grand Daddy” of all shows. That’s the bar that all Nationals are put up against. Broggi has watched the hobby gain speed after some down years in the ’90s and 2000s.
“I think we are at where we were in the early ’90s,” Broggi said. “You can see by the attendance that we’ve had here that if you’ve heard about sports collecting and you’re anywhere near here, you try to make an effort to try and get into the show.”
In its sixth year, the Case Breakers Pavilion has become a hot spot for collectors. David Gelfman, the owner and president of RippingWax.com and co-owner of VintageBreaks.com, was excited by what he saw this year.
“It’s the beginning of the next phase,” Gelfman said, as he joked that he gave himself chills when he made that statement.
The next phase? “The explosion, the growth,” he added. “The crowds are evident of what’s happening.”
Broggi and his staff keep in tune with what’s going within the industry and set out every year to make the National a stronger event. Nowadays, a tweak here and there is all that is needed.
The Case Breaking Pavilion, with its 35,000-40,000 square feet, has been a pleasant surprise to all at the National.
“Nobody knew what case-breaking was four or five years ago and we had it at the National,” Broggi said. “It didn’t seem to be doing too much, but we stuck with it and now it’s a vital part of the event.”
The National really shows off the diversity of the industry but also the collectors and dealers. Wander the showroom floor and some dealers were selling entirely vintage cards and collectors ate it up. Others are heavy into prospects and feature the extremely popular 2019 Bowman Chrome and its autograph cards of guys such as Wander Franco of the Tampa Bay Rays and Joey Bart of the San Francisco Giants.
“I think vintage always drives the bus, but new cards and new card manufacturers – the Panini party, Topps had a big event the other night – it’s all aspects that are making the National the success that it is,” Broggi said.
Steve McGrath attended the National for the first time in 15 years. The reason he leapt back into the hobby was to bring his 10-year-old son, Charlie. The duo from Vernon Hills, Ill., was scanning the Case Breaking Pavilion and picking up some cards.
“We’re baseball guys, so we bought some Chrome,” Steve McGrath said. “Going for the rookies, going for the autos. We’re a White Sox family, so we’re looking for some breaks. We got a free White Sox break.”
Dad is more interested in picking up 1980s and ’90s graded cards from his youth, while his son loves the modern-day rookies and signatures.
“We knew we wanted to target certain boxes of cards, so going around and comparing prices, teaching him how to negotiate a little bit,” McGrath said.
Chuck Whisman, the owner of VSM Sports Card Outlet and Wheatland Auction Services, received the most interest from collectors in his graded rookies along with top-tier athletes.
“With football season starting from Drew Brees to Aaron Rodgers,” Whisman said. “Any of the big-name players and then a lot of baseball stars, Yelich, Bellinger, a lot of the up-and-coming rookies. We also do vintage, too, so doing well on the high-grade vintage stuff.”
Whisman, who runs the two businesses with his wife, Stacey, in Lancaster, Pa., attended the National 12 times as a collector and the last 12 as a dealer. He said baseball, football and basketball cards are really hot right now.
“I couldn’t keep enough Ken Griffey Jr. Upper Deck rookies in stock, we’ve gone through a lot of those,” Whisman said. “Jeter, too, with all his rookies are as hot as they can get now until he gets inducted next year.”
The Tri-Star Autograph Pavilion was also a gigantic hit this year. The 50,000-60,000-square-foot area was crawling with excitement for all the big-name signers.
Hulk Hogan brought his own Hulkamania circus to town with his extremely devoted fan base. Wearing his “Hulk’s Rules” T-shirt, Hulk was a showstopper on Saturday afternoon during his autograph session.
Houston-based Tri-Star also secured New York Yankees great Mariano Rivera one week after he elected into the Baseball Hall of Fame. Fans had to slap down a cool $500 for his autograph and another $100 for a photo with him as the first unanimous Hall of Famer.
Chris Freil from Dixon, Ill., didn’t have a problem spending that much money for Rivera’s signature. It was the first time Rivera had signed in the Midwest. “I don’t know if he’ll ever be around again and he’s Dad’s favorite player,” Freil said.
Freil got a beautiful jersey autographed and when the line thinned out – Rivera signed for an exhausting three hours – he planned on going back and getting five baseballs signed.
“You look at it, it’s a beautiful auto,” Freil said. “I can’t wait for the time when Jeter comes. Hopefully they’ll both be here at the same time so we can get Jeter and Rivera on the same things.”
Freil has gotten over 100 jerseys and baseballs autographs the last six times he’s attended the National. He couldn’t make it to Cleveland in 2018 for the event, so he saved his money for this year. Freil said he bought over $10,000 in autograph tickets.
Anthony Lunceford made his first trip to the National and was impressed with the scene. He traveled all the way from Nashville for one main reason. “All the autographs,” he said. “I’ve been getting all the guys from the ’80s, my childhood. These are my personal cards and that’s what I’m interested in.
“I got back into it. My son’s 8, and I was going to drag him up here, but he went to the beach with my wife.”
Lunceford was interested in getting guys such as Jerry Rice, Rickey Henderson, Barry Sanders, Deion Sanders and Greg Maddux. He broke open a 1986 Topps Jerry Rice PSA 9 in order to get Rice’s autograph.
Lunceford loved getting to see his childhood idols.
“A lot of the guys are still in the physical shape they were in (when they played),” Lunceford said. “Jerry Rice, Rickey Henderson, they looked like they could still play tomorrow. And they’re accessible, they’re friendly, jovial.”
Lunceford ended up pulling the trigger and purchasing two 1954 Topps Hank Aaron PSA 5’s for $4,900 total.
“It took me a day and a half to find them,” Lunceford said. “If you’re willing to dig through it and talk to people, you can get a pretty good deal.”
Just like Jim Dehem, Broggi was reminiscing about how much the National has changed over the years. What started in a small ballroom at a hotel has turned into a colossal event.
“We’re now at a point where five or six convention centers in the country that are large enough to fit us,” Broggi said. “We’re almost beginning to outgrow this building, but it’s such a good venue for us, we’ll make things work. There just aren’t a lot of big convention centers with 400,000 to 500,000 contiguous square feet and all the meeting rooms we need to do it. While people think we’re in the same locations all the time, it really isn’t because of anything other than the fact that those are some of the few buildings that can fit us.”
Some convention-goers wonder why the event never heads west. Broggi noted he and his staff have investigated possibly having the convention in such cities as Dallas and Denver.
“We would love to go back to Anaheim, but there are valid reasons on their parts, either schedule or facilities or requirements of guarantees of numbers of rooms and food and beverage that just don’t work for our event,” Broggi said.
Talking to dealers and a lot of collectors, Chicago is a great destination. The event will be back in Atlantic City next year – which is already a sellout for vendors – Chicago in 2021 and Cleveland in 2022.
“Chicago’s always good,” Whisman said. “It’s middle of the country and can get people from all over the place. Sometimes, I think Atlantic City can be a little harder to get people across the country, but the fact that we’re so close to a major airport really helps here.”
“It was a great week; the hobby looks really good,” said Texas-based dealer Paul Sjolin of The Batters Box, which specializes in vintage cards. Sjolin noted strong sales of rookie cards for Hall of Famers, particularly from the 1950s and 1960s. Mickey Mantle remains the most sought-after baseball legend, Sjolin said, also noting strong sales of Tom Seaver cards from the 1960s.
Rick Haskin, a Dallas-based seller of pennants and vintage memorabilia didn’t mix words about the 2019 National.
“This was the best National, ever,” he said, and this was his 30th. “The hobby is as strong as ever. Old pennants and memorabilia were really strong at this show. Everything I had sold.”
Paul Furfaro, of New Jersey-based PTF Sports, said his business was steady all five days. Cubs replica jerseys were in high-demand, naturally, Furfaro said. Cody Bellinger and Ronald Acuna Jr. jerseys also were brisk sellers. Replica jerseys for show signers did not sell well, surprising Furfaro.
Longtime Chicago show promotor George Johnson, who now lives in Scottsdale, Ariz., where he operates the sports memorabilia store Cactus League Sports, said the hobby is clearly on a resurgence. This year’s National was, he said, the first time in years that there were strong crowds all five days, including a large number of young collectors. And many of those younger collectors were spending money at the show, many on older cards, he added.
“It seemed like a lot of 20- and 30-year-olds were getting back into the hobby, and they’re enjoying it again,” Johnson said. “This was the best National in at least five years.”
Todd Williams of Iowa-based Williams Sports Memorabilia said the show’s attendance was phenomenal, particularly Thursday. “Sales overall were very good; a wide variety (of memorabilia) sold. It wasn’t just one thing selling. It was autographed helmets, signed and framed items, autographed checks and more,” Williams said. “There was just a lot of buzz in the building, all five days.”
Williams noted strong sales for Sandy Koufax and Walter Payton collectibles.
And one non-sale, but a very memorable story.
Williams sells old-time jerseys for $100 each. On Wednesday of the show, a customer told Williams that he liked one of his jerseys, a Little League jersey from the 1950s. The customer said he had the exact same one, and that team went to the Little League World Series. “Stuff like that, stories like that, are priceless,” Williams said.
Roger Neufeldt, a vintage card seller from Oklahoma, said sales were strong to “advanced collectors,” perhaps better than any past National. He reported strong sales of cards from the early-1950s, both Bowman and Topps, particularly mint and near-mint. He also said sales were strong of rookie cards from vending cases.
Neufeldt sold three Michael Jordan rookie cards (1986-87 Fleer). He also sold 10 complete sets from 1949 to 1967, plus 12 sets from 1973-79. “This year I had a lot of sets (for sale), and they were selling,” Neufeldt said.
Mickey Mantle remains Neufeldt’s top seller, and this year’s National also, naturally, led to strong sales of former Chicago athletes, including Ernie Banks, Ron Santo, Billy Pierce and Nellie Fox. Another hot-selling item was 8 x 10 photos of the San Francisco 49ers from 1946-60. Neufeldt moved about 200 of them.
The Zion Effect also reverberated at the National, according to Scott Prusha of Panini America. Zion, of course, is Zion Williamson who, following a dominant freshman year at Duke, he was selected by the New Orleans Pelicans first overall in the 2019 NBA Draft.
“The last time I can remember this much excitement and buzz at The National was 2006 because of that year’s (incoming) football class (of rookies) or maybe 2001, thanks to Ichiro,” Prusha said. “The energy around the hobby overall is as good as it’s been in years; it’s at another level.”
As strong as it’s been in decades. Marty Davis said his National sales were the best in 29 years. And not by a little. His sales were 40 percent higher than his next-best National.
Top-selling 2019 release included Topps Chrome Baseball hobby ($105) and Topps Chrome jumbo ($215). Other strong sellers included 2019 Topps Allen & Ginter ($94), 2019 Panini Certified Football ($124), Panini Luminous Football ($109) and Panini Legacy Football ($79).
“All high-end (card releases) were selling well. It was the cheap (boxes) that didn’t move,” Davis said. Boxes priced $175 to $400 were strong sellers.
“The industry is crazy right now,” Davis said. “If you polled 100 dealers at The National, I’d guess that 75 to 80 of them would say the 2019 National was their best ever.”
Greg Bates is a freelance contributor to SCD and can be contacted at email@example.com. Ross Forman contributed to this story.