Stephen Strasburg has already revived a moribund baseball franchise, and now he’s breathing new life into a related industry. Not bad for a 21-year-old just wrapping up his first month in the major leagues.
Strasburg, perhaps the most aggressively hyped pitching prospect in baseball history, has attracted national television coverage and huge crowds for every appearance since joining the Washington Nationals in early June.
He’s also sparked something of a frenzy in the baseball card world with tales of the one-of-a-kind Stephen Strasburg Bowman “Chrome Superfractor” card that was sold for more than $16,000 by a Virginia collector. The buyer then turned around and sold it for $32,000.
A quick check of auctions on eBay showed 50 Strasburg items with prices of at least $1,000. Most are variations of the Superfractor cards — glittery plastic cards with extremely limited production and many with autographs.
And it’s not just Strasburg who has the sports card enthusiasts all excited. A similar one-of-a-kind 2008 Bowman “Chrome Superfractor” card of Atlanta Braves rookie outfielder Jason Heyward is priced at $27,000 on eBay, with about 20 more cards topping the $1,000 mark.
According to Beckett Media, which tracks the pricing of sports memorabilia, the Strasburg card is the highest-priced non-autographed card in the modern era, surpassing a 2008 Tim Lincecum card that sold for $4,000.
Such frenzies are nothing new in the world of sports cards. Tom Daniels, owner of the Baseball Card Shoppe at Westgate Mall, has witnessed plenty of ups and downs in his 37 years in the card business.
“This year is really big because you have the rookies, first Heyward and now Strasburg,” said Daniels. “Strasburg is in the news all the time and that’s what gets people interested.”
Richard Schaffner has been in the sports card business for 13 years and runs Sportscards Plus, 21 West Spring St., in Chippewa Falls.
“Baseball has picked up tremendously right now,” Schaffner said. “He’s doing so-so right now. It should keep the price down a little bit, but if he has a heckuva game, it’ll probably jump a little bit.”
Of course, you don’t survive in a volatile business like sports cards by concentrating on the most speculative, highest-priced end of the hobby.
Schaffner has diversified his business. His store is bursting with singles cards from front to back. From opening pack after pack, he can either sell the hot card such as Strasburg or compile a team set to sell to fans around the globe via eBay Inc. His username is cromeman.
“I’ve been throwing more stuff on the Internet now more than ever before, just to keep going,” Schaffner said.
He’s also planning a sports card show for Sept. 25 at Micon Cinema in Chippewa Falls.
Daniels said the peak of the sports card business was around 1990, fueled by stories touting baseball cards as supreme investments. That peak included sports card shops dotting the country. The decline of the business forced some of the number of the retailers to dwindle.
Companies also cut their production of cards, with the professional sports leagues generally going to exclusive arrangements with card companies. In the boom years, as many as 81 billion baseball cards were cranked out by a variety of producers. Now Topps, which dominated the business in the ’50s and ’60s, is the only producer licensed by Major League Baseball. (Bowman is owned by Topps.)
“A lot of dealers didn’t like it when there were so many producers because they said there was too much product,” Daniels said. “We looked at it differently. If you could control your spending it was nice because you could find something you really liked. When I was a kid you either bought Topps or you didn’t buy anything.”
Deron Martin, of Martin Sport Shop in Monroe, thinks it is a positive that the industry is streamlining its distribution processes. Panini America, which took over Donruss, now distributes NFL, NBA and NHL cards.
“It’s like anything, there’s a lot of corruption in distribution,” said Martin, whose family has been running the sports card shop for about 20 years. “The distribution channel in sports cards has been flawed for like 10 years. It’s a big positive step, probably the best thing that’s happened in the sports card industry in years.”
It also doesn’t hurt when some rookie phenoms come along.
“Strasburg means great sales,” Martin said. “Whenever there’s a strong rookie crop in a sport, the products just take off. I bought a lot of Bowman this year. I sold out, restocked, sold out and restocked and now I’m sitting on them for a while on purpose.”