Metropolis: Wednesday, August 24, 2005
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Al Melnick’s ‘pitiful pack’ of Donruss cards included this George Brett offering. (Photo by Jeff Prince)
A D V E R T I S E M E N T
A D V E R T I S E M E N T
Out at Home Plate

An Arlington company is shut out of the baseball card business.

By JEFF PRINCE

Al Melnick’s last box of 2005 Donruss Elite baseball cards beckoned from a shelf at Al’s Sports Cards on East Lancaster Avenue. The longtime hobby shop owner broke the cellophane, pulled out a $5 pack of cards, and peeled back the foil. Alas, no good rookie cards were inside, only a limited edition George Brett card that “booked” in price guides for about $6, but would likely sell for much less on the internet.

“That was a pitiful pack,” Melnick said with a chuckle.

Eventually, all the packs in that box will be opened. And then, perhaps, a few decades down the line, every card in that now-pitiful pack will be valuable — because they were the last of their kind. Or maybe they’ll be worth less — or worthless. Who knows? The Major League Baseball Players Association last month decided against renewing a licensing agreement with the Arlington-based company, meaning Donruss will no longer produce baseball cards featuring active players. The 51-year-old company initially made its name churning out cards based on popular television shows such as “The Monkees” before entering the baseball card market in 1980.

“We were stunned,” Donruss spokesman Ted Barker said. “To the best of our knowledge, we were the number-one selling baseball card brand for the last two years.”

That claim isn’t as impressive as it would have been 10 years ago. The baseball card industry has been shrinking faster than the manly equipment on a steroid-fueled centerfielder. An industry that generated more than a billion dollars a year in sales during the late 1980s and early 1990s has been decimated, generating an estimated $300 million a year now, and still falling fast.

Youngsters who supported the industry from the 1950s to the 1990s have been priced out of the hobby by speculators clamoring for a quick buck and an industry that has been more than willing to cater to their greed. The number of collectors shrank as the number of cards produced each year grew. The lure of video games, iPods, and other new technology also reduced the money spent by kids on cards. The laws of economics finally caught up to the once-sizzling-hot hobby.

Saving the industry was going to require drastic change — and now Donruss finds itself benched, dazed, and bleeding. This month, the company laid off almost a third of its 100 employees, along with some part-time workers. That leaves two card companies standing — Upper Deck and Topps — and hardcore collectors crying foul ball.

“The only choice I have now is to stop collecting baseball cards,” said Kurt Larson, a sports card enthusiast in California who favors Donruss cards. “I don’t find it appealing anymore.”

Larson, with the help of a California card shop, created the web site www.savedonruss.com to give collectors a place to vent. More than 700 people have signed a petition calling for the reinstatement of Donruss’ licensing agreement. One post on the site lauded Donruss as the industry’s best card company and called the players association’s decision a “huge injustice” to collectors.

Collectors say they still don’t understand why Donruss was axed. The players association said, without elaboration, that its intention was to attract more children to card collecting and to “simplify the retail experience for consumers.” That statement was met with skepticism and confusion by collectors, who wondered how reducing competition would help the marketplace or attract children. Angry collectors have flooded chat rooms and blog sites with accusations about possible collusion and other nefarious conspiracies.

An industry insider, however, said the players association was vague in its explanation because telling the truth would have meant throwing a 100-mph beanball directly in the face of the consumer group doing the most to prop up this ailing hobby — middle-aged men with discretionary income trying to earn a fast buck. Until the industry can return to a child-friendly, family-oriented, affordable hobby, those middle-aged consumers will be relied upon to keep this listing ship afloat.

Donruss is headquartered just a few blocks east of Ameriquest Field in Arlington. The company produced intriguing, high-end cards that featured autographs of current players, swatches of famous players’ jerseys, or splinters of wood from game-used bats. The company produced the first set of Spanish-language cards in 2002, affordable at $1.99 a pack. But other Donruss packs topped $100 and could sometimes bring much more on the secondary market. Topps and Upper Deck also made huge varieties of cards. Each year, about 80 different kinds of baseball cards were being issued, and most collectors were overwhelmed.

This was a far cry from several decades ago, when cards were simple pieces of rough cardboard featuring fuzzy photos of badly posed players. Back then, a pack cost a few pennies, and the cards were merely incentives to buy gum. By the 1980s, gum was phased out because it left residue on the cards, lowering their value.

Kids who grew up in the 1950s and ’60s idolizing players such as Mickey Mantle and Hank Aaron realized that demand for their cards had skyrocketed by the 1980s, fueled by their fellow baby boomers. A Mickey Mantle rookie card in mint condition could fetch $25,000. Those kinds of prices attracted speculators who treated baseball cards like stocks or real estate. Manufacturers, seeing the expendable income being waved at them, began flooding the market. When collectors complained about the glut of product, card makers turned to “insert cards” — limited-edition cards that were randomly inserted in packs. When that craze waned, autographs and game-used equipment cards became the rage. Now, even those cards are becoming old hat.

“It grew so swiftly and massively; how could you prepare for that, going from a kid’s hobby where you put cards in bicycle spokes?” said Tracy Hackler, a former Donruss spokesman and currently associate publisher of Beckett Media, which put out some of the first baseball card price guides. “It exploded. It became an industry with too many products and not enough people to collect.”

Card makers now had to buy game-used equipment and pay star players for autographs, and prices skyrocketed. As profit margins shrank, less money was spent on product development and marketing, meaning fewer new collectors. Meanwhile, much of the profit from selling cards was being made on the secondary market, fueled by the advent of online trading.

Donruss continued making low-end cards, but the company was more often appreciated for its high-end products. For instance, a Roy Campanella “Prime Cuts” card that contained a vintage autograph and a bit of cloth from one of the catcher’s game uniforms sold on eBay for $2,020 on Aug. 7. The card, manufactured in 2004, was marked 1/1, meaning it was the only card of its kind. On that same day, an eBay bidder paid $42 for a 1957 Roy Campanella card by Topps — a card manufactured 48 years ago when the Brooklyn Dodgers catcher was still in his prime.

That kind of success might have put Donruss in a squeeze play.

“The fact that we are known as the company that dominates the high-end trading card industry might have hurt us,” Barker said. “I don’t think it’s the correct perception. We have a number of products that are $1.99 or $2.99 a pack. But that perception probably worked against us.”

The players association wanted fewer cards, lower prices, and more innovation and marketing and decided Donruss didn’t fit into those plans.

Some collectors were glad to see Donruss booted. Too many different cards and too much high-end product were hurting the industry, and collectors welcomed any attempts to reverse that trend. “It killed the business,” Melnick said.

Al’s Sports Cards is perhaps the last sports card shop left in Tarrant County. Ten years ago, a couple of dozen shops could be found.

Hackler said the loss of Donruss has shaken baseball card collectors and generated “raw emotion and hyperbole and conspiracy theorizing” but will ultimately be looked back upon as a positive step. “As an industry I think we’ve known there was too much product on the market,” he said. “We’ve talked about losing kids for 10 years. To rectify that, the players association had to make some tough decisions, and this was one of those.”

You can reach Jeff Prince at jeff.prince@fwweekly.com.


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