Thursday, February 27, 2014

Baseball Card Grading Services: Why I don`t Like Them

Baseball card grading services are one of those hobby phenomenah that appeared during my post-1993 hiatus from the hobby.  This may explain why I don`t like them, but I think it also goes beyond my subjective feelings - there are a lot of things that make me objectively question why graded cards are so prelevant in today`s hobby.

I have a handful of cards that are graded, like my 1964 Topps Pete Rose up there.  I did not have these graded myself, they are just cards I bought off of Ebay which came that way.  I gave absolutely zero value to the fact that those cards came graded, I was willing to pay no more for them than I was for an unslabbed card.  With Charlie Hustle I was  just looking for the cheapest copy I could find from a reputable dealer who would ship to Japan for a decent price and, coincidentally, the one I found happened to be graded.

I should acknowledge before getting into my critique that grading services like PSA and SCG do have a useful place in the hobby, given the nature of the market.  This is particularly the case with high end stuff like say a 1952 Topps Mantle where the difference between a single level of grade (which can often be a highly subjective call) can be hundreds or thousands of dollars.  If you are purchasing cards at that level then you would be foolish not to want a 3rd party to have  graded it (unless you can physically inspect the card yourself before purchase, which often isn`t the case these days).  Also PSA in particular provides some quite useful information on their website, which is a valuable hobby resource.

What kind of motivates this post though is the fact that there are so many cards out there which have been graded for reasons that are beyond me.  I mean, why bother getting a 1964 Topps Pete Rose with heavily rounded corners graded VG in the first place?  If you have one in near mint or better I can see the attraction of grading, but nobody is going to pay more for this Pete Rose card of mine just because it is in that slab (I didn`t).  And there are a lot of cards out there that follow this pattern - being permanently encased in plastic even when it doesn`t make much sense to do so.  I think there is a negative cost associated with that excessive grading of cards, which I`ll get into below.

When I look around the internet for criticisms of card grading services, pretty much the only thing I see are people complaining that they either have inconsistent standards or, particularly with autographs, they just plain screw things up.  These are valid points, but I think they miss the bigger picture: for most cards ( excepting the high end stuff) these services are largely superfluous and seem to have little more than a parasitic relationship with the hobby.  I`ll try to enumerate a few of the reasons why I think this is so.

1.  Ebay has changed

I know there are a lot of shady dealers still out there online, but  it is way easier to spot and avoid them today than it was in the late 90s when grading companies started to appear.

The orginal raison d`etre of grading companies was to facilitate trust in online transactions. We simply didn`t need them before the growth of e-commerce because most transactions took place in person and you could easily judge the condition of a card yourself. Because you can`t do that with cards purchased online, having a third party vouch for their condition gave you the assurance you needed to make a purchase. 

In an environment where you only had one tiny grainy picture  and the word of someone you  know nothing about to go on,  this made sense.  But Ebay today is way different.  Dealers have a lot of ways of providing you with assurances of the condition of cards without the need for third parties.  They can put high resolution photos which allow you to zoom in on the card, both front and back.  A lot of them have now been doing business on Ebay long enough to have established business reputations - giving them an incentive to be honest.  Ebay`s reputation system has also improved, eliminating the possibility of retaliatory negative feedback from sellers for example, to make that a more trustworthy system.  Plus you have multiple levels of dispute resolution through both Ebay and paypal to fall back on in the event that a transaction does go wrong.

Of course there are still sellers out there who just put grainy photos up and don`t have an established reputation but you can easily avoid them by simply not buying from them.  Which raises the question: why does the hobby as a whole need to be paying these grading services to provide a service that can now be  provided by dealers themselves for free?

This question of course mainly applies to lower value/ lower grade stuff like my 64 Pete Rose.  Given the (at times ridiculous) difference in prices between a PSA 8 and a PSA 9 (or a PSA 10) card and the fact that even a  totally honest dealer can`t guarantee which of these rankings a raw card would recieve given the miniscule actual physical differences between them, it kind of makes sense to rely on PSA (and others) at that end.  Well, actually no it doesn`t since in a sane collecting world nobody would really care about such trivialities (see point 3 below), but given the market that exists I can at least accept there is a rationale for grading services at that level.

With lower stuff though where the differences in price aren`t that big and the physical differences between grades are a lot easier to determine (a VG card is a lot easier to distinguish from a G card than a NMT card is from a MT card even though they are both only one grade apart)?  I think it is no coincidence that there are a lot of established, reputable dealers on Ebay with 99.9 - 100% positive feedback who don`t bother with grading companies (like this guy, who I buy from all the time).  If they say a card is EX, and you can see in the photo that it is, then people will usually accept that.  Dealers with  lesser reputations, like 99.5% or less, seem to sell way more graded cards probably because: people don`t trust them not to label a card that is actually VG as Ex.

In a way it is actually a kind of perverse result: grading companies are more useful to dishonest sellers.  Honest sellers don`t need them because they can demonstrate their credibility in other ways.  Solely viewed in terms of overcoming trust in online transactions, grading services don`t seem to have much use anymore.

2. I hate the cases

This is an admittedly subjective view, but I hate the cases graded cards come in.  All of them, regardless of the company, are aesthetically unappealing.  My PSA graded Pete Rose is enslabbed in a case that looks like it was designed by the same firm which designed the cases my contact lenses come in.  It looks sterile and when displayed it totally ruins the appeal of the card by drawing attention away from it.  If I knew how to do it without damaging the card I would smash this thing in a second and let Pete run free for a bit, then put him in a regular card holder that doesn`t look as bad.

Vintage baseball cards are made of cardboard. Vintage cardboard has a pleasing tactile feel to it and gives an actual sense of innocence and nostalgic memories of the good old days when viewed. Encasing that in a plastic tomb with a  label that has a bar code on it completely destroys that. Particularly with vintage pre-war cards you have the added problem that the plastic cases are anachronistic.  You are looking at a piece of artwork from a by-gone era, but it is now physically inseparable from a material (clear plastic) that was not in use at the time the card was made and is clearly modern.   I truly despise these things.

3. They Encourage the Most Obnoxious and Anal Retentive Elements of the Hobby

I`m very reluctant to criticize other collectors and I don`t want to rub anyone the wrong way by saying this, but I think it is a fact.  The way in which we collectors obsess about condition is probably the most annoying and anal retentive element of the hobby.  I am guilty of this myself - if I ding a corner on a nice card I just hate myself for it.

Our concern with condition makes sense when it is taken in moderation - cards in nice condition just look nicer so naturally we want them more than beat up ones.  I think the obsession with condition is kind of a destructive force when it is taken to the extremes that the grading companies have driven it to.  Objectively, a near mint card is not noticably different from a mint card from an aesthetic point of view.  When I see on Ebay graded 1978 Topps commons actually selling for 10-20$ each just because someone at PSA has decided they are gem mint instead of just mint, I have to roll my eyes.  Really?  I know this is stating the obvious, but are you really willing to fork over serious money for a worthless card of a nobody player just because it doesn`t have even a speck of corner fuzz on it?

When I see these population reports and registered sets and the ridiculous amount of money and attention that the hobby is pouring into things that are neither important nor interesting, it kind of makes me a bit depressed.  Collectively they look like little more than a perfect storm of unimaginative rich people vanity projects run amuck.

4. They also Encourage Investment Bubbles 

Looking around the hobby it is pretty obvious that graded cards are the new speculative bubble that is going to burst at some point.

The sad, basic economic fact of collectible markets is that they are little more than a pyramid scheme.  The first people in make money off the next group of people in, who in turn make it off the next group of people in and so on until you run out of new people to induce to put money into something and then the price of everything collapses.

This is of course what happened in the last bubble - people who bought cards in the 70s made a fortune in the early-mid 80s when more people entered the hobby and drove prices up.  Those people who entered in the early-mid 80s in turn made money, albeit less money as the pie had to be cut up among more people, off of the larger group of people who entered the hobby in the late 80s/ early 90s.  Those people who entered in the late 80s/early 90s got screwed because no subsequent, larger cohort of new collectors entered the hobby in the mid-late 90s for them to sell their cards to and the whole bubble collapsed. Some people blame this on the 1994 player`s strike but I think the real reason was just that the prices of stuff were so out of whack with any reasonable assessment of what a baseball card was worth that people just didn`t want to enter the hobby anymore.

Pretty much the same story is playing out with graded cards and nobody seems to be noticing this.  People who had their mint cards graded before prices took off made a fortune selling them to people newly indoctrinated with the idea that collecting top graded cards was a great investment.  The hobby has sustained this bubble for a while, but it is bound to collapse soon - the prices are about as detached from any reasonable assessment of what they could possibly be worth that they cannot be sustained at that level.


Anyway, that is just my take on things.  Probably I have gotten a lot of things wrong as this is a sort of off the top of my head type of post, but I thought I would put this stuff out there. 

Monday, February 24, 2014

The Real Mr. Baseball?

Mr. Baseball starring Tom Selleck has long been one of my favorite movies about both baseball and Japan.  I`m not sure why that is.  As a comedy, its only somewhat funny with most of the gags being pretty obvious and I don't think I ever laughed out loud at it.  As a sports drama its not quite up there with the classics in the genre.  Still though, this is one of my faves. 

I may be biased since it was filmed in Nagoya and I live there, but I think its mostly because its just an enjoyable movie that does a decent job of simplifying differences between Japanese and American cultures. That is a delicate thing to get right without being offensive or annoying.  I sometimes compare it with Selleck`s Magnum P.I.  I love the character of Magnum, but if you ever watch an episode when they have an `Asian` guest star then you are going to see an example of how awful it can be when they get that balance wrong.  Those episodes are cringe-inducingly awful.

Another good thing about the film is that it is mostly filmed on location.  They actually went to Dragons games and filmed the fans in the stands.  Hardly any of it was shot in a studio and so you get a pretty good look at 1992 Japan in the movie, which gives it a more authentic feel than others.

Anyway, I have a baseball card in my 1987 Calbee set that features a player named `Gary` (no other name given) who bears an uncanny resemblence to Selleck`s Jack Elliot character.  Almost every detail is right.  He is wearing a Chunichi Dragons hat which has the same design as the one they wore in the film (they have since changed the logo a few times).  He has dark hair and a Magnum moustache.  Even the look in his eyes says "Yup, my girlfriend is the daughter of the manager and we went through a rough patch after I found out but, you know, its all good now."

I have no idea who Gary was, or even what his full name is.  I wonder though if his stint with the Dragons was anything like Jack Elliot's.  Did he not want to be in Japan at first, but then have a change of heart?  Did he lay down the sac bunt for the team in a clutch situation even though his instinct told him to swing away?

These questions come to me as I look at this card.  Perhaps one day we will learn the truth of the real Mr. Baseball.

Friday, February 21, 2014

My 1987 Calbee Set and the Difficulty of Collecting Japanese Cards from the 80s

Behold my partially complete set of 1987 Calbees.  It is the crown jewel of my Japanese baseball card collection and the only vintage set that I am anywhere near close to actually finishing.

Close is I guess a relative term, I have about 3/4 of them so there are still plenty to go.   I keep track of them the old fashioned way, with a hand written paper checklist that I mark off with each one I get:

I started on this quest a couple years ago when I bought a starter set of 60 different cards.  Since then I have been painstakingly tracking them down one by one, which is the only way to find them.  I love doing this because I feel it is the closest you can get to a `pure` baseball card collecting challenge these days.  There aren`t any gimmicky rare insert cards to track down, it is all just about finishing the set.  They are hard enough to find that it poses a challenge - singles pop up every now and then, usually just a handful at a time, and I have to whip out my checklist and go through them to find ones I want.  At best I might luck into 3 or 4 that I need at a time.

Fortunately despite their rarity, the prices aren`t too steep.  I pay on average between 50 and 100 yen per card, a bit more than that for some of the short printed ones (the Japanese collector term for those is レアブロック - `rare block`). 

 The 1987 set is probably the ideal vintage set to try to collect.  Unlike some of the other pre-1990 sets it doesn`t have any near-impossible to find cards (the 1989 set in contrast is notorious for those). Also the player selection is pretty good.  If you have read Robert Whiting`s You Gotta Have Wa, he wrote that shortly after 1987 so a lot of the players mentioned are in it.  That includes some former MLB stars who only played in Japan for one season like Ben Oglivie (Kintetsu Buffaloes):

 And Bob Horner with the Yakult Swallows:
In terms of condition, 1980s Calbees are very hard to find in top shape.  My set has a fair number with corner wear and other blemishes.  As I`ve mentioned before, I`m pretty flexible about condition with older cards, I just try to avoid ones with heavy creases or names written on the backs of them (which a lot of Calbee cards from the 80s have).

There is a Japanese collector who is trying to finish all the Calbee sets from the `mini card` years that lasted throughout the 1980s, right up to the 1990 set, and kept an interesting blog about it.  I thought some of what he said was interesting enough to be given an English explanation, so I thought I`d mention a few of the highlights.

According to him, the easiest sets from those years to collect are, in order:

1990 Calbee - due to its small size, they only released 55 cards that year.

1986 Calbee - There are only 250 cards in total, which is a reasonably small number, and none of them  were short printed.  The Kiyohara rookie card and Ochiai cards sell for a bit, but otherwise there aren`t any particularly expensive cards in the set.

1987 Calbee - The cards between number 76 and 100 are short printed, but they aren`t too hard to find relative to short printed cards in other sets from the 80s.  There are some parrallel cards , but he doesn`t take those into account.

The above 3 sets are the ones that collectors have the most realistic shot at being able to complete.  He also mentions the 1981 set as being only somewhat harder, with more short printed cards (201 to 250, 401 to 450), but that they can still be found, while a couple of other series (1 to 50, 150 to 199) are a bit tough to find.

In contrast he puts the 1989 Calbee set as the hardest to complete. The gold border cards from 391 to 414 are incredibly hard to find, with some people expressing mixed opinion as to whether they were eveer actually available in packs at all, or just distributed as presents to people who contacted the company.

His blog has a few other interesting bits and pieces, I might introduce some more later.  Anyway, for now I am content to just focus on my 1987 set!

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Blog....ON! 2014 Baseball Card Collecting Season has Begun

 The blog is back!  As always happens in about November I tend to put my baseball card collection to the side when the season ends and distract myself over the winter months with other pursuits.  This naturally spills over into blogging about baseball cards, hence the lack of recent posts.

In about February each year though I start to get a bit antsy about things.  Sometimes in Japan you get these days in February when the climate plays tricks on you - throwing you the odd sunny day with a daytime high of about 15 degrees.  Spring weather.  It throws my internal clock completely off and makes me think of springtime activities, which ever since childhood has meant baseball.

Being too old to play baseball anymore (except maybe in a beer softball league, but there aren`t any around here that I know of), that naturally leads me to the next best thing which is my baseball card collection.

This is all just a roundabout way of saying that I have officially kicked off my 2014 collecting campaign.

 This is several weeks early for the 2014 Calbee baseball cards, which I am eagerly awaiting the appearance of on my local convenience store shelves (or stores I should say, there are about 7 convenience stores within walking distance of my place.  As I am fond of saying, we live in a very convenient location).  So for now I am satisfied to dust off my sets from years past and see what I need.

I have never actually succesfully completed a Calbee set.  I think the only sets I have ever actually completed in my life were some Topps and Donruss sets from 1989 and 1990.  Except for those I have a ton of 90-95% complete sets that I could never be bothered finishing.

The closest I am to finishing a Calbee set would be the 2009 one, which is pictured at the top of this post.  I only need 22 more of the regular cards to complete it, plus about 30 of the subset cards and inserts.  I am going to make an honest try at finishing that this year.

This 600 card box here has all my other Calbee sets from 2008 - 2013 (minus the 2009 set).   If you can do the math you will realize that means I have just over 100 cards each from those years, well fewer than half of each set.  I will try to work on those too.

One thing that I hope to avoid this year is what happened to me last year when trying to piece together the 2013 set.  When series 1 came out all of the convenience stores in my area had bags of them.  Then when series 2 came out they had them for about 2 weeks and then - poof!  They vanished.  Not just from one convenience store but from every one of them.  Even the ones near my work, which had also carried the series 1 cards, stopped carrying them.  And series 3?  I never saw a bag of them in any of my convenience stores.  The only place that I could get them at was at the big Max Value supermarket, which I hardly ever go to.  As a consequence, while I put together a lot of my 2013 series 1 set bag by bag, I only got about 4 or 5 bags of Series 2 and a grand total of 1 bag of series 3.  Much to my shame, I had to turn to Yahoo Auctions to satisfy my need for those series, which to my mind constitutes a form of cheating (though I do it all the time).

 I don`t know if that was the same in other parts of Japan or only a Nagoya thing.  In general it seems like Series 1 Calbees are usually a lot easier to find than the higher series, which is an interesting echo of how things worked in North America back in the 50s and 60s when Topps would cut down the print runs with each series as the season wore on and interest waned.  I hope Calbee doesn`t do that this year, I really enjoy being able to buy a bag of baseball card ships whenever I want to, even in September or October!

Anyway, the 2014 collecting (and blogging) year has officially begun!!