Last week, baseball fans were more likely to find a lump of coal in their Christmas stockings than they were to find a pack of baseball cards. Once a staple of baseball fandom, card collecting is a great tradition that has begun to fade into obscurity. This is unfortunate. Card collecting is an important part of baseball history and culture, and it’s a tradition worth preserving.
A number of factors contributed to baseball cards’ decline in popularity. A boom in production in the late eighties and early nineties decreased the value of cards produced in that era. The 1994 strike exacerbated that problem by alienating fans from the game and its merchandise. Finally, the rise of computer and video gaming made cards and collectibles seem obsolete. As a result, after hitting their peak in 1991, baseball card sales fell to just one-seventh of that level twenty years later.
This trend should be disappointing to any fan who, like me, used baseball cards to learn about the game. By poring over baseball cards as a kid, I was able to piece together a timeline of which players played for which teams, when they did so, what positions they played, and how good they were. I learned what constitutes “a lot” of home runs or what makes for a “good” ERA. I saw what different players looked like, how they swung the bat, or how they delivered a pitch. I read the random trivia, tidbits, and biographical information that many card brands liked to include on the backs of their cards. Baseball’s culture puts a unique emphasis on history and statistics, and baseball cards very much cater to—and reflect—both of those interests.
The Internet has no doubt made the idea of a “baseball card” seem archaic. Why collect cards when you can simply look up players’ information on Baseball-Reference, FanGraphs, and Wikipedia? It’s a fair question.
The answer is that baseball cards appeal to fans’ nostalgia and love of baseball history. It’s more fun to hold and flip through cards manufactured when players actually played than it is to click through their Baseball-Reference pages. It’s like the difference between seeing primary source material firsthand and reading a summary of events online. Baseball cards are like artifacts that help connect you with previous generations of players and the eras in which they played. If you ever go to a card show, you get a real sense of this history—and the deep appreciation of it that baseball-card lovers exude.
There’s a reason why many people still prefer books to Kindle, save their ticket stubs, and continue to buy CDs and records. When certain functions move from the physical to the digital worlds, things inevitably get lost in the process. Baseball cards allow their owners to participate in a longstanding baseball tradition that simply cannot be replicated in any other way. So the next time you see them sold in a store (or online retailer) near you, pick up a pack and help keep this seminal baseball tradition alive!