The Stars Aligned

How the Home Run Chase saved the graded card industry.

Play Ball!

The oldest surviving baseball card dates back to the 1860s if you can believe it! And the first commercially produced baseball trading cards emerged in 1868, manufactured by Peck and Snyder as a form of advertising. The cards were quickly included in cigarette packs and other tobacco products and later in candy packs such as chewing gum. By the mid-century, Topps was the dominant producer of baseball cards until a 1975 lawsuit labeling Topps a monopoly allowed others into the market. By the 1980s baseball cards were incredibly popular and manufactured by multiple companies leading to lots of overproduction and a slowdown in the market. This is often referred to as the “Junk Card Era.”

1888 Goodwin Champions card of King Kelly
1990 Upper Deck Baseball Hi Series, Reggie Jackson Autograph Card

Special inserts or “chase” cards came on the scene in the early 1990s allowing for more expensive packs and card values. The 1994 players’ strike had caused a sharp decline in collecting and interest in baseball cards causing some companies to consolidate or stop production. In 1997 card companies began to create cards containing swatches of uniforms and other baseball equipment and began the production of the first “one-of-one” cards creating the ultimate chase cards. Suddenly collectors saw the value in opening packs and manufacturers were able to charge more for premium boxes containing a shot at a chase card.

A nation Captivated

We look back at the 1998 single year home run record race as a turning point for baseball in the modern age. Watching Sammy Sosa and Mark McGwire slug it out each night on tv brought fans back to baseball after the bitter feelings and disillusionment born out of the 1994 strike. Baseball became America’s game again as we watched Sosa and McGwire blow past Roger Maris’ single season home run mark of 61 (held since 1961). The 1998 home run chase changed the baseball card market and suddenly people were clamoring for Sosa and McGwire rookie cards. Prices began to rise and people looked at the cards as an investment that would only continue to grow in value.

Sports Illustrated Special Commemorative Issue, The Great Home Run Race

Getting the Grade

As any card collector will tell you, condition matters. Baseball cards, especially with their delicate corners and easily scuffed surfaces, are hard to maintain in good condition. Grading seems like the obvious answer, doesn’t it? Well, not so much… By the mid-90s, companies like PSA (Professional Sports Authenticator) which was founded in 1991, were struggling and PSA was even rumored to be considering closing up shop. The collecting boom of the 80s had faded and there was very little market for baseball cards especially after the 1994 players’ strike. People were pissed and not interested in buying, let alone grading baseball cards. (Also note that you could not grade as an individual collector the way we do today. Instead you had to send your cards via a dealer adding additional steps to the process.) Enter the 1998 home run race and everything changed. People suddenly saw the value in preserving their cards for the future and what better way to do that then grading. Grading also became the way that you authenticated cards and established a quantifiable level of condition (aka the grade).

Prior to 1998, PSA graded approximately 1 million cards but after… they’ve graded at least 1 million cards every single year with present day numbers going even higher! Take into account that SGC (Sportscard Guaranty) opened in the summer of 1998 and BGS (Beckett Grading Services) began offering grading in 1999, you can say grading was finally taking off. Coincidence? I think not.

The Missing Piece

But wait! There is still something missing here… If raw and graded card sales were relegated to brick and mortar card shops or trade shows, where was all the demand coming from? Enter… eBay! Although it was founded in 1995, it was growing in popularity by 1998 after an influx of funding and sports cards had been a foundational part of their market from the onset. eBay went public in 1998 and the rest is history!

While Mark McGwire admitting to using performance enhancing drugs definitely put a stain on how we look back at the home run battle and quite frankly, that entire era of baseball because of the prevalence of PEDs, the effect has been lasting. Our own recent history has seen yet another surge in prices, grading, and the online marketplace since the start of the COVID lockdowns in 2020 but we’ll save that for another day.

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