Dave Czuba sees three reasons why baseball card collecting is not as popular as it once was.
"It was mass-produced cards, the steroid scandal, and simply, kids would rather play on their phones now than play with baseball cards," said Czuba, who owns Dave's Sports Collectibles in Duncansville.
But, even though the market is much cooler than in its "heyday" - which, according to Czuba, was in the late 1980s and early 1990s - trading cards are still capturing collectors' imaginations.
Mirror photo by J.D. Cavrich
Dave Czuba of Dave’s Sports Collectibles in Duncansville, shows off his 1965 Topps baseball cards and the collection’s original box.
Mirror photo by Gary M. Baranec
Steve Springman, owner of Juniata Cards in Altoona, locates a card for a customer on Wednesday morning.
"A lot of people say the business is over, but it's not," Czuba said.
He now sees collecting being driven by an older generation.
"Kids don't collect like back then," Czuba said, "and kids don't collect current players. They may come in to my shop with their dads, but their dads aren't buying Barry Bonds. They are buying Roberto Clemente."
With the specter of performance-enhancing drugs hanging over the so-called "Steroid Era" of baseball, it, by association, also casts its pall over that era's baseball cards. Czuba said there's hardly any demand for those players, such as Bonds, Mark McGwire, Jason Giambi and Rafael Palmeiro.
"It tainted the players of that era," he said. "There is a shadow over those guys now. The prices of those cards have gone down."
The market has turned to vintage cards.
"People still collect the decades of the '50s, '60s and '70s," said Czuba, whose business focuses mainly on cards from 1909 to 1969. "Hank Aaron, Willie Mays, Roberto Clemente; those are the legends for the kids today.
"Back when I was a kid, collecting cards in the '60s, my dad and grandfather talked about Babe Ruth, Ty Cobb and Lou Gehrig. Now, Mickey Mantle, Roger Maris, those are the kids' legends. Those are the ones they hear their dads and granddads talk about."
Steve Springman, the owner of Juniata Cards on North Fourth Avenue in the Juniata section of Altoona, doesn't deal much with older cards, choosing to sell "a lot of new stuff, by the pack, by the box."
While he doesn't do it himself, Springman has seen the majority of the business move to the Internet.
"Most of the stuff is now sold on eBay," he said.
Czuba agreed. "Most of us all sell on eBay. I send cards to every state in the Union. I actually just sent a card to Montana. I'd say eBay is 25 percent of my sales."
Internet sales unfortunately have issued a death sentence to many small-town baseball card shops.
"Every town used to have baseball card stores," Czuba said. "There's not enough collectors now to keep businesses open."
Another difference on the baseball card landscape is the lack of brands. At its peak, the market was flooded with varied companies competing for collectors' dollars by releasing their respective sets each season. However, in 2009, one of the premier brands, Topps, obtained the exclusive rights for Major League Baseball, keeping any other company from using the MLB or team logos or properties. Another company, Panini America, now holds licenses for the NFL, the NBA and the NHL, along with the baseball players' association.
"Panini bought the Donruss brands," Springman said. "They can do individual players, but not with the team symbol. Upper Deck is still around, but they don't have a license with the players or the league, but they have an NCAA football license. Fleer went out of business."
Topps also has branched out to include digital apps, such as Pennant, which can search for any play in any game for any team from 1952 to the present, and Bunt, a simplified version of fantasy baseball.
Springman, however, doesn't see a future for trading baseball cards in a virtual world.
"It seems like holding the physical card is more important to the collector," he said.
Another stalwart of the collecting heyday, the omnipresent Beckett baseball card price guide, is still around; however, with the rise of Internet sales, many prices are now determined by demand.
"I still use price guides in the store, but mostly, auction determines the value," said Springman, who does not sell cards on eBay.
And while, as Springman said, "most prices are set on the computer," Czuba finds that isn't always a bad thing.
"What I have found is common card prices are dropping, these mass-produced cards," Czuba said, "but the harder-to-get cards, eBay has increased those prices. I could put up a 1909 card, expecting $50 or $100, and I could actually get $500 for it.
"I use price guides to get a price, but in reality, that card can sell for $10 or $1,000. You get a pleasant surprise every once in a while."
Rick Pettenati, the owner of the Sports Shop in the Logan Valley Mall, has an altogether different perspective on baseball cards.
"For the longest time, for years, we've displayed individual ones, but we've had more people coming in to sell their old ones. They're not buying," Pettenati said. "I have no market for it. All they did was take up showcase space.
"I got away from that because the Internet has taken over. People put it on eBay, cards have gone on eBay. People see what they can get for them. It's nothing I put a lot of money into."
Pettenati only sells packs of current cards.
"But with the packs, you don't know what you're going to get."
Despite the drastic changes in collecting, baseball cards have brought nothing but joy to Czuba.
"I started selling in 1977," Czuba said. "I've seen it when the hobby was nothing, to its peak and back down again. But for me, it's been a combination of hobby and business, and that's the best of both worlds."
Mirror staff writer Cory Dobrowolsky can be reached at 946-7428.