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How COVID-19 helped bring baseball card collecting back to life

It’s a clear, crisp, late-January day in the middle of the Major League Baseball lockout, but the hot stove is on fire.

“What’s it going to take to get me Ohtani?” a voice from across the table inquires. “I’m willing to overpay for that guy.”

A few feet away, a small group watches with great interest as numbers are traded and then punched into cellphone calculators. In the end, negotiations for another of the game’s biggest stars fall apart before it really gets serious: “I’d love Trout, but you’re just asking too much; people are starting to figure out he’s kinda overrated.”

No, this isn’t a scene from the baseball’s winter meetings. Welcome to the world of baseball card collecting 2.0.

Those colorful, cardboard treasures have existed in one form or another since the late 1800s. They were a pretty big deal in the early 1960s and a REALLY big deal in the early 1990s but were mostly forgotten at the start of this century because they were barely worth the cardstock they were printed on.

But if you haven’t collected since the days when chewing gum came with your packs, let alone before the age of serial-number autograph cards, you may be surprised to learn the hobby is enjoying a historic revival.

It’s one nobody saw coming – and was fueled by, of all things, the COVID-19 pandemic.

“The lockdown put us kind of all in a place where we had to sit down, stay home and do nothing,” recalled Keane Dasalla, a memorabilia collector and vlogger from Fremont. “It didn’t take long before everything kind of went crazy.”

Jim Bernardini opened Lefty’s Sports Cards in Burlingame in 1987 and has seen it through the Bash Brothers, the Loma Prieta earthquake, two Gulf Wars, the baseball strike, 9/11, the stock market crash and three Giants World Championships. But the pandemic era has been something else.

“We’ve had some ups and downs in our industry over the years,” said Bernardini. “This is an up. For the first time, we are debt-free.”

Vintage cards. New releases. Prospects. Everything took off, virtually overnight.

“Five years ago, I was telling people the hobby would be dead in 10 years,” said Ray Krause, who has owned and operated MVP Sportscards in Pleasant Hill since 1991. “Basically everybody who used to collect who were in their 20s, 30s and even 50-year-olds jumped back in.”

They were not alone.


Baseball card collecting began showing signs of life in the mid-2010s with the emergence of instant-impact rookies from big-market teams like Mike Trout, Kris Bryant, Cody Bellinger and Aaron Judge.

Then a couple of seemingly unrelated events brought the real heat.

The pandemic created an abundance of spare time during the lockdowns as well as an influx of spending money from stimulus checks. Around the same time, several prominent social media influencers started turning their attention – and their followers – from buying and selling sneakers to sports memorabilia.

The final element was nostalgia, which baseball is practically built around.

Extra time meant more screen time for many. But we all know people – or ARE those people – who during the pandemic began rummaging through closets and sheds to organize and declutter. For many, hidden – or simply forgotten – under those old sweaters and school papers were cardboard treasures.

Jennifer Starks from San Francisco said she was a big collector as a kid. Her dad gave her rookie Joe Montana and Jerry Rice football cards for her 16th birthday, but, “I kind of forgot about them.

“Then I decided to get my old cards out. Everybody else was doing it.”

Practically everyone has heard the collecting horror stories about someone’s childhood stash that might have been worth thousands – Willie Mays and Mickey Mantle cards almost always seem to be involved, right? – that was thrown out or lost during a move or spring cleaning, or simply because the collector had outgrown the hobby.

Modern collections, by and large, didn’t meet the same three strikes and you’re out fate. Millions of cards have been safely stored away because parents and kids alike swore that “one day these will pay for college or a down payment on a house.”

During the pandemic, some of those bold financial claims actually came true. Or at least helped pay some bills and cover some Starbucks runs.

“I saw (some of the prices vintage cards were getting) and said, ‘Wait, I have a stash of cards in the closet, let me look into those,’” Vanson Nguyen of Alameda said of his return to the hobby, which included rediscovering a Mookie Betts rookie card worth more than $100.

“I was a collector in the early 2000s, and I got back in during the pandemic because I was looking for a community. I found it. I’m a kid again. But to be clear, I’ve always been a kid.”


Interest in the hobby was surging by the late spring of 2020. By the end of the year, eBay reported that more than 4 million sports cards had been sold on the site, an increase of 142 percent from the previous year. Card shops couldn’t keep up with demand.

It wasn’t just the volume of cards being bought, sold, and traded that was off the charts. Prices for cards, and especially unopened materials, suddenly made the Bay Area housing market appear reasonable.

At least two dozen baseball cards are believed to have been sold for more than $1 million since the spring of 2020, including a legendary Honus Wagner T-206 card that went for a record $6.6 million.

But it wasn’t just vintage or rare autograph cards that were getting huge bucks.

Take Trout’s 2011 Topps Update card for example. It has been one of the most valuable baseball cards since the Angels star debuted and was going for about $500 in February 2020. A year later, collectors were asking for – and getting – $2,500.

“The hobby was just on fire,” said Dion Noriega, a card dealer for The Card Attic and promoter from Vallejo.

Even the popular grading services that for a fee will determine and log the overall condition of a car, which can increase value significantly, weren’t ready for the boom. The two largest, PSA and Beckett Grading Services, suspended operations temporarily when they faced a backlog of more than 11 million cards. Cards submitted last year still haven’t been processed.

When the pandemic hit, card shop owners were understandably concerned. In the 1990s most towns had multiple card shops. There are about 1,000 left nationwide, including about a dozen in the Bay Area. The pandemic wiped out many small businesses, but card shops largely survived. Many thrived even though customers couldn’t come inside the doors for most of the card boom.

But owners had to hustle. Krause of MVP Sportscards stayed in touch with customers via email and delivered orders to doorsteps. Bernardini and his staff at Lefty’s would pack up phone and online orders, spray the plastic covering with disinfectant and then leave the cards at the front of the store for the customers to pick up. As it did for everyone else, mail and delivery orders became a lifeline.

As prices soared – it wasn’t unheard of to “flip” a $40 box of cards for nearly 10 times that – new products became scarce.

Not only were kids and adults being priced out, hoarding was a big problem. Almost overnight, the retail store displays that for years were overflowing with boxes and packs of sports cards were reduced to empty wire racks.

“It was like the toilet paper problem all over again,” Starks said with a laugh.


The hobby was at its hottest last August, when prices for some of the most valuable cards on the secondary market doubled – or much more – from just months earlier. Demand for new products was so high that finding unopened packs of cards was virtually impossible unless collectors were willing to spend like the Los Angeles Dodgers or New York Yankees. Major retail stores stopped selling packs of cards because fights were breaking out in the aisles and parking lots.

“They’d cut in front of you and start taking everything off the shelves,” said Dominick Rodriguez of Newman, describing one of his card-purchasing experiences. “Then you go outside to the parking lot, and they try to sell it to you for twice as much!”

Tempers – and prices – have started to cool, leading some investors to leave the hobby. But it wasn’t only finances that had people flocking back to the hobby. There’s more reason to believe the card market will remain healthy.

“The joy of opening the packs, we enjoy doing that together,” said Jeff of San Mateo while attending a card show with his youngest son, David, adding that he wasn’t a big collector growing up, but, “I wish I had kept them; Mom kind of threw them out.”

Collectors have never had more access to cards – just type in “Buster Posey Topps rookie card” on eBay and see how many results pop up. Even social media sites like Instagram and Facebook are places fans can buy and trade cards online. And there are the old standbys – neighborhood hobby shops and card shows, which are beginning to pop up again as COVID-19 guidelines loosen.

Hundreds of collectors gathered for a two-day show on the concourse at Serramonte Center in Daly City in January, with the tables bustling with activity as names big and small were bought, sold, and traded.

One of the first big shows in the region was staged last April in Fairfield by Noriega. He figures about 3,000 collectors showed up for the 75-table event. Because of COVID-19 restrictions, only 100 people could be in the building at a time, and the wait to get in for some was 2 ½ hours.

“They weren’t happy to wait that long, but they all stayed,” Noriega said. “You couldn’t find product anywhere else.”

Collectors are still on the hunt. Topps released this season’s Series I cards in mid-February and, with budding superstar Wander Franco’s rookie card as the centerpiece of the set, the site was sold out within 24 hours.

“I still get new people to the hobby about every day,” Krause said. “A lot of people who got into the hobby during the pandemic had fun and will stick with it. The guys who were trying to become instant millionaires without actually doing any work are all starting to leave.”

Many returnees to the hobby are now parents. They want to share their card memories as well help make new ones by chasing after cards of the stars of this generation like Shohei Ohtani, Fernando Tatís Jr. and Ronald Acuña.

Will the cards of today pay for college tuition and down payments down the road? Is another bust like the post-90’s era on the horizon? Who knows? Why worry?

“Collectors who love the hobby are going to stick with it no matter what,” said Union City’s Craig Queyrel, owner of Vintage Cards & Collectibles in Newark. “My advice has always been buy what you like.

“Then, you can never go wrong.”

Timothy Wong, of San Francisco, holds up a baseball card that former San Francisco Giants' Matt Duffy signed at Lefty's Sports in Burlingame, California, on Saturday, Jan. 29, 2022. (Shae Hammond/Bay Area News Group/TNS)

Timothy Wong, of San Francisco, holds up a baseball card that former San Francisco Giants’ Matt Duffy signed at Lefty’s Sports in Burlingame, California, on Saturday, Jan. 29, 2022. (Shae Hammond/Bay Area News Group/TNS)

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