I showed my college girlfriend Dana my 1986-1987 Fleer Patrick Ewing rookie card. The lone card I kept in a screw-down case rather than a bendable plastic top-loader or a nine-pocket binder sheet, and the lone card I brought to college rather than leaving it to collect dust back home. I began to mansplain Ewing’s significance as the Knicks' all-time leading scorer. The legend of him goal-tending five shots in the first five minutes of an NCAA Championship game. She rolled her eyes, seeing trading cards for what they were—two-and-a-half by three-and-a-half pieces of cardboard with action photographs. Toys for boys to look at after they’d outgrown the kind of toys we’d actually play with.
But trading cards—especially rookie cards—are not without value. In 2015, CNBC reported a mint condition, 1952 Topps Mickey Mantle rookie card sold at auction for $525,800. On a less exorbitant scale, imperfect condition Michael Jordan and Joe Namath rookie cards still fetch over $1,000. Compare these sums to mid-career, standard-issue Jordan cards, which price guides assess at five- to ten-dollar valuations.
What makes rookie cards so valuable? For older cards, scarcity matters. Collectors didn’t always hold these cards sacred and no kid would save cards of anyone but his favorite players. A rookie would have had less time to establish himself with young fans, and so be all the more likely to get discarded. Also, favorite cards would more likely get fed through the spokes of a kid’s bicycle than kept in pristine condition.
So, for a player’s rookie card to have survived the mid-1980s and earlier is a minor miracle. Add onto that legendary blunders. Topps got into the mass production of baseball cards in 1952 and their first set sold so well that they doubled down on their second print run. As Rich Mueller from The Bleacher Report postulates, Topps failed to account for fickle boys losing interest in baseball by fall. In an era when trading cards were marketed to kids, the value of inventory dwindled as months and years went by, so Topps loaded several hundred cases of unopened cards—surely, hundreds of Mickey Mantle rookie cards still embedded in wax wrappers—onto a barge to be disposed of at sea.
Collecting has changed. Even for my generation, a kid of the 1990s, Dad warned me about keeping cards orderly so the corners didn’t bend. The trading card market was oversaturated, though, with more cards produced than ever, and more conscientious collectors preserving them.
The value of rookie cards has grown increasingly arbitrary. They’re worth more simply because collectors still feel they ought to be.
Still, flipping through top-loaders—preparing to sell most of my collection—I remembered Dana. One memory gave way to an earlier one. We’d slept together for the first time on my squeaky, extra-long dorm bed, over a fitted sheet that always curled up off of the mattress. Her hands reeked of bleach after wiping down tables for minimum wage at a café off campus.
We called our virginities our V cards. Dana teased that she’d taken mine. I reminded her of the awkward high school boyfriend who’d taken hers. She wrinkled her nose and claimed, After he fell asleep, I stole it back.
It was quite the thought—stealing back that piece of oneself. To reassert that innocence, like the joy of opening foil wrappers to get at the cards inside. Fumbling fingers and the temptation to open the edges with scissors, tempered by a memory, early in my collecting days, when I did so and clipped the top of card before I could even get it out of the pack. That feeling, like slicing into an orange, rather than peeling and pulling it apart. Juice wasted with each incision, dripping from fingers, a sticky mess.
She said, I wish we could stay here forever, neck propped over my upper arm, her head on the pillow, my arm bent at the elbow so I could cup her breast in my hand. I understood here was not a place—beneath the gaze of my roommate’s poster of two models in their underwear, adjacent to my desk cluttered with Chinese takeout containers, textbooks, and computer printouts of essays from my Western Humanities class, and a seminar on Willa Cather, not to mention a Patrick Ewing rookie card perched on my clock radio. Here was a moment in time and space we couldn’t steal back or screw down.
Mueller, Rich. “Thousands of Mickey Mantle's First Topps Cards Were Dumped into Ocean.” Bleacher Report, bleacherreport.com/articles/1674457-thousands-of-mickey-mantles-first-topps-cards-were-dumped-into-ocean
“Rare Mickey Mantle rookie card sells for $525k.” CNBC, http://www.cnbc.com/2015/12/11/rare-mickey-mantle-rookie-card-sells-for-525k.html
Michael Chin was born and raised in Utica, New York and his hybrid chapbook, "The Leo Burke Finish," is available now from Gimmick Press in Three-Way Dance. He won Bayou Magazine's Jim Knudsen Editor’s Prize for fiction and has work published or forthcoming in journals including The Normal School, Passages North, and Hobart. He works as a contributing editor for Moss. Find him online at miketchin.com or follow him on Twitter @miketchin.