THE MASKED MEN ARRIVED hours before the doors opened.
They lugged boxes stuffed with old cardboard legends -- Walter Johnson, Frankie Frisch and Willie Mays, to name a few -- each safely tucked in plastic sleeves.
They carried stacks of the newest unopened cartons, with cover images of Juan Soto and Clayton Kershaw sealed under cellophane.
Some wheeled dollies stacked with display cases, to be laid out side by side across a maze of more than 50 table-tops, each 8 feet long.
Watching it all was another masked man, who couldn’t contain his excitement.
“The floors were still wet, I barely finished mopping, and they were trying to get in,’’ John Schudel, organizer of the West Palm Beach Baseball Card Show, said this past Sunday morning as he directed dealers to their places inside the American Polish Club on Lake Worth Road.
“This is probably going to be my biggest show yet.’’
In more ways than one, the masks worn by everyone in the hall are a sign of the times. Sure, their main function is COVID-19 prevention. But the masks also serve as reminders about why shows like the one Schudel hosts each month have been busier than ever.
Baseball card collecting in the time of COVID-19 is a lucrative business. Juiced by a pandemic booster shot, the hobby has taken off over the past year like a Mike Trout home run.
Stuck at home and burned out on Netflix, casual collectors in search of safe entertainment options are pulling their old baseball card collections out of the attic.
Along with serious investors not lacking in disposable income, they're fueling a card collecting resurgence that has led to record sales of both new and vintage cards.
Some dealers wonder if COVID-19 stimulus money is playing a role.
“People are cooped up at home with nothing to do and they’re turning to hobbies. They’re flipping their cards and making a fortune,’’ said Riviera Beach dealer Mike Trimbel.
Many collectors used the quarantine to get back into the hobby and share it with their kids while others are jumping in for the first time.
When card shows were canceled and brick-and-mortar card shops shuttered in the early days of the pandemic last year, collectors flocked online. E-commerce exploded, with record sales on virtual auction blocks.
“It has gotten completely crazy since the pandemic,’’ Trimbel said. “eBay is taking off. It’s beyond crazy.’’
And now that life is returning to normal, thanks to a greater availability of vaccines, card shows have resumed, attracting bigger crowds than ever.
“It’s unbelievable,’’ said Schudel, whose most recent show March 21 featured 56 dealer tables. “I could have added 30 more tables. I've got a waiting list a mile long and shows are popping up right and left. It's like night and day.’’
From May to early June last year, more than 40 cards sold on eBay for at least $50,000, according to ESPN. From mid-May to July, that number jumped to 96, with more than 35 percent fetching at least $90,000.
“Since November, it really went straight up,’’ Schudel said. “There have been record sales in higher end stuff not only with vintage but with modern day cards. That’s the amazing thing. It’s a complete 360 from the way it was three years ago.’’
In January, a 1952 Mickey Mantle card in mint condition sold for a record $5.2 million. That topped the August sale of an autographed 2009 Trout rookie card that sold online for a then-record $3.9 million.
“It’s a frenzy. It’s ‘stupid money.’ For a piece of cardboard,’’ collector Vinny Davis of West Palm Beach said as he browsed tables.
A few minutes later, he plunked down $1,000 of his own cash for a box of ‘50s and ‘60s cards featuring the likes of Yogi Berra, Nellie Fox and Warren Spahn.
“It’s better than the stock market,’’ Bob Davis, Vinny’s dad, said.
Considering the damage the pandemic inflicted on the economy, with the number of first-time jobless claims hitting 60 million in September, many dealers are amazed that people have so much money to spend.
“I swear it’s COVID- and stimulus-related. I can’t see any other explanation,’’ Boca Raton dealer Frantz Schlottman said, referring to the relief checks American have been getting from the federal government.
While baseball has long ruled the card collectibles market, they haven’t been the most popular sports cards since the pandemic.
That honor goes to basketball cards, with sales spiking more than 130 percent from March through May compared to the last three months of 2019, according to sportscollectorsdaily.com.
Many dealers say the hoops-card frenzy ignited when the Michael Jordan documentary, “The Last Dance,’’ aired in May 2020. And a marijuana entrepreneur helped spark it.
Clement Kwan, a founder of Beboe, an upscale line of cannabis vaporizers, heard about the documentary in 2019 and started buying sets of Jordan rookie cards for around $30,000 each. In May 2020, he sold a Jordan rookie for $100,000, according to a New York Times article headlined “Bored Rich People Spend Money.’’
An autographed 2003 LeBron James rookie card fetched $1.85 million at an auction last July. A 2013 Giannis Antetokounmpo signed rookie card sold for $1.81 million.
In 2019, a 1996 Allen Iverson Topps Chrome rookie card was selling for $150 to $175. “Now it goes for $5,000 and some are asking for $9,000,’’ Schlottman said.
Baseball card sales are up more than 50 percent followed by football cards at 47 percent, according to sportscollectorsdaily.com.
Golf and wrestling cards also are gaining in popularity.
But for many collectors, baseball will remain the Babe Ruth of sports cards.
And no one at the West Palm Beach card show on March 21 saw any signs of a bubble bursting any time soon.
“You have investment companies telling you not to invest in stocks and bonds and real estate. You want to invest in baseball cards. Even the ‘junk era’ ‘80s cards are rising in value,’’ Trimbel said.
Tom Zappala, a North Palm Beach snowbird who has written books on baseball cards, said serious collectors are getting younger and younger.
“Three years ago, the average age here was probably 45. Now, look at all these kids,’’ he said, gazing at groups of 20-somethings grazing over the tables.
“We have a whole new generation of buyers.’’
They may be pieces of cardboard, but dealers and collectors treat their wares like fine wine and rare gems.
A collector browsing Boca Raton dealer Scott M. Goodman’s table asked about Al Kaline cards.
“I have a ‘67 that’s gorgeous,’’ Goodman replied.
Another customer asked Goodman what cards he was looking to buy.
“Anything,’’ Goodman replied.
The demand and the growing availability of COVID-19 vaccines have spurred increases in card shows.
Many dealers and collectors already are looking forward to Schudel's next show on April 18 along with the Fort Lauderdale Sports Card & Memorabilia Show April 30-May 1 and a show being planned for May at the Palm Beach Kennel Club.
“In the past few years there might have been two, three or four card shows a year. Now there’s 15,’’ Trimbel said.
Zappala, who co-hosts "The Gr8 American Collectibles Show" on WCAP 980 radio in Boston Red Sox great Rico Petrocelli, said he was pleased to see the West Palm Beach show doing so well.
But he didn’t lose sight of the somber reason for the success.
“It’s a double-edged sword,’’ he said.
“Unfortunately, it’s a pandemic, but it has really helped the industry.’’
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