Sports card collecting, with and without the gum
by Steven Johnson, Staff Writer
Mabel would not have approved. For three years, Mabel was the most important person in my life, except for my parents and possibly Encyclopedia Brown. She was the proprietor of Mabel’s, a green-shingled market that we today refer to as a mom-and-pop store, although there was no sign that pop ever existed. Mabel was shipping manager, loss prevention specialist, marketing director and butcher, I suppose, since my mom bought meat there.
My interest was in Mabel’s role as cashier, since the packs of baseball cards sat just below her right hand, as she stood behind the wooden counter. Mom would give me a nickel to buy a pack of five cards; a dime for two packs, if my dad had a particularly good day with his bookie. “Hope you get a good one,” Mabel said cheerfully, as I raced to the Ford Falcon, stuck the pink slab of what passed for gum in my mouth, and ripped open the sealed wax. “Howie Koplitz? Not again. They must put him in every third pack.”
I thought of Mabel and my youthful, pack-opening exuberance recently as I sat on the floor of the Atlantic City Convention Center at the National Sports Collectors Convention. On a dais in front of me was YouTube star MMG, known to his parents as Matt Meagher, who was stoking a frenetic crowd and a global streaming audience by both opening a pack of 30-year-old basketball cards and consuming the gum (“Crumbly,” he decided).
Behind me, a soul who looked like Jerry Garcia, only blonder, opened a pack of Pokemon Supreme Victors for viewers with his cellphone camera. On deck was Drew Herndon of Vintage Breaks, who would succeed MMG on the stage and break a 70-year-old pack of 1952 Bowman baseball cards.
The trading card resurgence came as a result of pandemic shutdowns.
There’s no place for Mabel in the world of pack breaks, which consumed about one-third of the 400,000-squarefoot convention center. Breaks have been around for a while, but they really took off during the pandemic, when sports card collectors had a lot of money to burn and a lot of time on their hands.
The concept is simple. Participants shell out a certain amount of money to buy a spot in a pack, box or case of cards. Breakers open the pack on a live broadcast, and entrants get a randomized card. Advanced versions enable buyers to claim all the players of a certain team, league, division or, I suppose, left-handed shortstops whose middle name ends in a vowel. The permutations are endless.
Pack breaks have breathed new life into a hobby that seemed to be the exclusive provenance of baby boomers. Younger collectors sign up for them in the hope of getting a treasure they can flip for a profit; one youth, not much older than I was at Mabel’s, tried to entice me into buying a limited-edition card of Jayson Tatum of the Boston Celtics that he won at a break across the way.
It’s not just youth, though. The cover charge for one of five spots in the 1952 Bowmans was a cool $6,000 because of the possibility of pulling a pristine Mickey Mantle (estimated value north of $50,000, once hermetically sealed.) There were no Mantles on this day, however; just Walt Dropo and Joe Astroth, the 1950s’ equivalents of Howie Koplitz.
Recently, a pack of 1966 Topps football cards came up for a break, the very same cards that I bought from Mabel. It would be so cool, I thought, to buy a spot in the break and recreate my youth. But the $950 entry fee was on the high side by several orders of magnitude.
Plus, Mabel would not have approved.