By Mike Russo
Special to Independent Newsmedia
Spring training stirs feelings of optimism in the hearts of baseball fans for the prospects of their favorite team in the upcoming season.
It also provides a prime opportunity for the segment of the baseball-card collecting hobby to obtain a prized autograph on the cardboard likeness of their favorite players.
Players are readily accessible for autograph signing in stadiums before the games and outside practice fields before or after a workout.
Peoria Sports Complex has designated the area just past the first-base foul pole leading back to the clubhouses as Autograph Alley.
“There is a path right along the fence,” said Tommy Hoppin, Peoria Diamond Club volunteer coordinator. “It provides easy access to the players for the fans. Players all have to enter the stadium and go out that way.”
Directions to Autograph Alley are printed in the ballpark’s and city’s publications, Mr. Hoppin said.
“The autograph geek kind of knows where this is,” he said.
While getting cards autographed is one segment of the collecting hobby, most collectors horde the cards for nostalgic or investment purposes.
The ages of card collectors run the gamut, from youngsters to those who have witnessed a number of decades of baseball seasons.
Phoenix resident Mike Vechiola, has been involved in the hobby “on and off for 40 years.”
He got interested in card collecting “just like any other kid.”
“You hang out with your buddies and go the 5-and-10 (store) and pick up a pack of cards,” Mr. Vechiola said.
Nostalgia plays a major role for some collectors, like Dennis Ostapczuk of Phoenix.
The sexagenarian used to live in the Chicago area, where he developed his affinity for the Chicago White Sox, before relocating to Phoenix.
“I was always a Nellie Fox fan,” Mr. Ostapczuk said.
Fox, a member of the Baseball Hall of Fame, was the White Sox second baseman and American League Most Valuable Player in 1959, the year the White Sox played the Los Angeles Dodgers in the World Series.
Ostapczuk used to collect cards as a youngster but lost interest as he grew older. He returned to the hobby in 1987.
“I was looking for something to do,” Mr. Ostapczuk said. “I used to run but I got hurt, so I was looking for something to do to replace running. One of the guys I ran with had a son who collected cards.”
While the number of youngsters involved in the hobby has diminished in recent decades, there still are some avid collectors.
Kylan Teunissen, 13, of Cave Creek has been collecting cards for 4 years. He took a familiar route to the hobby
“I had a friend who influenced me,” Kylan said. “He taught me about it.”
He collects baseball and football cards. His favorite teams are the Arizona Cardinals, Arizona Diamondbacks, Oakland Raiders and New York Yankees.
In addition to collecting cards of his favorite teams, Kylan has a pair of favored players.
“I collect Mike Evans (Tampa Bay receiver) and I also like Derek Carr (Oakland quarterback),” he said.
While he presently has no favorite card, he does have his sights set on a particular target.
“I would like to get a Larry Fitzgerald card,” he said.
Evolution of baseball cards
Baseball cards first appeared in the late 1860s. Cards were primarily used as premiums in cigarette packages from their debut through the 1920s. Mass production increased when U.S. Carmel produced a set in 1932 and that was followed the following year by the popular Goudey Gum issue.
The modern era of card production came after World War II as Bowman and Leaf began producing cards, followed by Topps in 1951.
Topps had a monopoly in baseball card production through an agreement with the Major League Baseball Players Association until Fleer sued Topps, seeking to break the monopoly. Fleer emerged victorious in its lawsuit after several years of litigation, and began printing cards in 1981, joined in the production of cards by Donruss.
The card-collecting hobby rose in popularity, reaching its zenith in the late 1980’s and early ‘90s. By that time Topps, Fleer and Donruss had been joined in the production of cards by Pinnacle (which was later purchased by Score) and the return of Bowman (which had been acquired by Topps).
Presently, Topps is the sole company licensed by the MLBPA to produce cards.
In the early years, youngsters purchased packs of cards hoping to gaze upon the visage of a favorite player. If unable to obtain the desired card through those means, they would trade with friends to obtain a coveted card.
Long gone are the days when youngsters flipped cards in an effort to win someone’s cache, or used the cardboard portraits to simulate a motor sound in their spokes of their bicycles.
Today, collectors want the cardboard treasures in pristine condition, enhancing their value.
Mr. Vechiola, who in addition to collecting cards formerly owned a sports memorabilia shop, currently operates a monthly card and coin show at a Phoenix motel.
He has witnessed changes in the hobby in recent years.
“It has gone from a hobby to more of a business,” Mr. Vechiola said. “I think there are fewer kids in the hobby because it has gotten so expensive. Now, a kid has to make a decision to spend up to $15 for a pack, or spend the money on something else.
“If we don’t get enough kids into the hobby, it will eventually die, like stamp collecting. I think a lot of it has to do with sports in general. If kids get more involved with baseball, they will be more interested in getting cards autographed.”
The proliferation of card products has also contributed to a decline in the hobby participation, Mr. Vechiola opined.
“In the early ‘90s, so many products were introduced, making it expensive to collect them all,” he said.
Another change is the current emphasis on collecting insert and autographed cards to the detriment of the vintage-card segment of the hobby.
As interest in card collecting has ebbed, the number of outlets to purchase cards also has diminished.
The number of memorabilia shops has been drastically reduced over the last 20 years, dropping from an estimated 5,000 in the early 1990s to approximately 50 by 2010, according to a Forbes magazine report
The number of card shows has also declined. Card shows in the Phoenix market have dwindled significantly since the hobby’s heydays.
However, in addition to occasional shows, hobbyists can purchase cards at the reduced number of sports memorabilia shops remaining or online through sites such as eBay or craigslist.
While collecting cards may not serve as a retirement nest egg, it should not be ruled out as an enjoyable avocation,
“I think the big thing for me is to enjoy it as a hobby but don’t take out you life savings (to buy cards).” Mr. Vechiola said.
Editor’s Note; Mr. Russo is a Peoria-based freelancer