Neoliberalism with a Stick of Gum: The Meaning of the 1980s Baseball Card Boom

Roundup
tags: economic history, baseball, Sports History, consumer culture

Like many of my generation, my first and only investment portfolio was made up of baseball cards. In the late 1980s baseball card collecting ate up my allowance and lawn mowing money, but I figured I was going to make it all back and then some. After all, my father lamented how his mom had tossed out his cardboard fetishes of Willie Mays and Mickey Mantle that now sold for hundreds or even thousands of dollars. I assumed that in thirty years my Will Clark and Mark McGwire rookie cards would be just as valuable, perhaps more so. 

Instead, thirty years later I can buy whole boxes of sealed baseball card packs of that era for only ten bucks a pop. Last year a friend casually shipped me two boxes of 1988 Fleer cards bought on the cheap in his Texas town. Opening and sorting them has become a comforting nostalgia drug in quarantine and a fun activity to do with my daughters. 

That decades-old unopened boxes of baseball cards can be acquired so easily and cheaply tells the story of speculation run amok. My first investment portfolio was an early lesson in capitalism’s shady promises, collapsing bubble and all. Ironically, so many people bought and saved so many baseball cards thinking they would be valuable that they made them worthless. This is not just another story of boom and bust, however. Baseball cards in the 80s are a fine metaphor for neoliberalism’s triumph in that decade, from deregulation to speculation to intensified stratification and inequality.

The old cards from the 50s and 60s were scarce and valuable because nobody ascribed any monetary value to them at the time, and treated them accordingly. Kids would jam their cards in the spokes of their bikes to simulate the sound of a motor, or play games by flipping them. This information shocked me as a child. How could you keep your cards in the all-important mint condition by treating them like this! In my mind I pictured a 1952 Topps Mickey Mantle, that era’s Holy Grail, flying off a bike spoke into a muddy puddle, six thousand dollars gone just like that. If that’s how children treated their cards, it’s no wonder that parents eventually tossed them out.

Baseball cards back then also reflected the highly regulated and centralized economy of the postwar period. Just as there were only three TV networks and three major auto-makers, there were only two major baseball card companies: Topps and Bowman. After 1955, it was just Topps. The bubble gum company had a monopoly on the business and later an exclusive contract with the Major League Baseball Players Association (MLPBA). 

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