From a 1910 Shoeless Joe Jackson card selling for $492,000 to a 2010 Bowman Christian Yelich one-of-one card selling for $111,000 and ample price points less jaw-dropping, the baseball memorabilia market is skyrocketing during the pandemic.
“We can definitely see that there is more interest, more participation in our recent catalog auction, and this May was stronger than ever,” says Chris Ivy, director of sports auctions for Heritage Auctions, the firm that sold both the Shoeless Joe and Yelich cards.
As the auction game remains undoubtedly strong—Lelands president Mike Heffner says the upward trajectory before the virus has become even stronger and Goldin Auctions had a $922,500 sale of a Mike Trout rookie card—baseball memorabilia, from signed bats, jerseys and balls to baseball cards runs the gamut.
At Fanatics, which has one of the world’s largest collections of sports collectibles, Victor Shaffer, executive vice president of the memorabilia and collectibles division, says April and May were up 77 percent in his division from the same time period in 2019. “The demand has been significant and wide,” he says.
Emily Kless, spokesperson for Topps, which has seen success with its recent Project 2020 effort, says she believes people being inside their homes has allowed them to revisit past collections and “rekindled an interest in collecting. It’s great that Topps can still provide a connection to the game and the players in a world otherwise void of sports.”
The Project 2020 collection captures an audience beyond the brand’s card collectors, blending culture and cards together in a new way. With the fans of the 20 artists designing the cards over 2020, Topps has reached a new market there.
Whether old or new, the collectible market is growing across multiple areas.
The reasons for the increased interest in auctions are plentiful. Ivy says with people stuck at home, there is an element of people digging back into collections and enjoying them. Some folks see investing in collectibles as a tangible—and pleasurable—hard asset. Then there are the folks who simply want to relive a bit of the nostalgia from their youth. Some of the rise, too, can be attributed to the Michael Jordan “The Last Dance” documentary sparking reflections on the 1980s and 1990s. As Jordan stuff is selling for five times the amount, such as the $93,000 sale Heritage Auctions had of a Jordan-worn pair of cleats from his Birmingham Barons days, both Ivy and Heffner say the ‘80s and ‘90s have seen strong growth.
That said, other areas haven’t fallen off. “It has been strong across the board,” Ivy says. “The top-tier guys are always strong. The first Hall of Fame Class with Babe Ruth, Ty Cobb, Lou Gehrig, those guys are always what I would call the gold standard. They are performing as strong as ever.” In fact, a Babe Ruth bat used in 1921 to hit his 52nd home run of that season sold for $930,000, “a nice number for a Babe Ruth game-used bat,” he says.
Heffner is seeing people not able to get their fix of baseball and reliving their youth via memorabilia as a way to stay connected to “fond memories.”
While new collectible fans who grew up in the ‘80s and ‘90s may bring collectibles from that era back to a regular pace soon, Ivy still expects those eras to remain strong. “It has been a game-changer for stuff from that era,” he says. Lelands has seen everything in the ‘70s through ‘90s going up in value, from Jordan products to baseball game-used jerseys and signed bats.
From an investment point of view, Heffner says that the graded baseball card world has done nothing but go up in value. “People are taking money that they would put in the stock market and investing it in tangible goods like baseball memorabilia,” he says. “That serves two purposes. They get so much enjoyment, holding the bats and looking at photographs, it gives them great joy, but it is something they know that if they needed money and needed to sell, they would make money.”
Credit the advent of professional grading entering the market in the past couple of decades to really make people feel at ease placing trust in the value of collectibles. “Having a professional, independent authenticator, it gives people comfort,” Heffner says. “The stuff that is graded, the higher the grade, those nines and 10s seem to really be experiencing growth because they are so limited.” Take a Hank Aaron game-used bat, for example. There may be 500 of them out in the world, but only a dozen or so graded at a 10, the best condition. “The really great ones are really limited,” Heffner says. “People are beginning to understand the relevance of those high grades and how few there are.”
Known for its on-demand creation and turn-around of fan-oriented products, Fanatics has invested in acquiring one of the largest inventories of collectibles—just last year it bought the inventory of Steiner Sports Memorabilia—and has heavily invested in exclusive athlete deals to ensure a wide array of signed items from sports’ most popular players. Add in the fully ecommerce and mobile network with a warehouse that creates custom-made shadowboxes, frames and more for collectibles, shipping custom-made products within 48 to 72 hours, and Shaffer says Fanatics is set up better than most to “respond to things happening in the marketplace.”
With a growing list of athletes signed to Fanatics deals, from Aaron Judge and Cody Bellinger to Pete Alonso and Mariano Rivera, the list goes on and Fanatics is growing it aggressively. “You wrap all of those factors into one nice package and you have a place that fans and collectors can go to and feel good about their purchases,” Shaffer says. “The icing on the cake is knowing they are getting the real thing. We are aligned with every single league and players’ association and everything is authentic.” Fanatics has an entire team dedicated to keeping the process and product secure and authenticated.
Shaffer says that as a data-driven company, they can adjust to trends quickly, even in memorabilia. For example, last year when Alonso products started getting hot, Fanatics tracked which items were selling at a greater rate and shifted future Alonso singings to include more of those items.
And while the Fanatics product inventory is substantial, Shaffer says that without any signings in the last couple of months they are starting to see some shortages in some of their offerings. But Fanatics now believes it can create an environment safe for the players and the authenticating team to make signings happen again, even if it means taking up more space with less staff and having the process last longer to ensure the disinfecting of rooms for the safety of everyone involved. Shaffer expects to start having its team drive—not fly—to create new items in June and July.
When it comes to popularity, Fanatics isn’t seeing the collectible market trending in any certain direction, other than up. They’ve still seen the same balance between historical and current players and the same items that were popular at the end of 2019 are popular now.
During the downtime, though, Fanatics didn’t lose touch with its athletes. Instead, the brand used its relationships to create an All In Challenge, which offered auctions and sweepstakes for one-of-a-kind experiences and products with and from athletes, with proceeds going to help fight food insecurities across the country. The types of offerings have been unique with the likes of Anthony Rizzo offering to spend an entire day with someone, including going out to eat both before and after a game, and Alonso chartering a boat and stocking it with food for a fishing trip with a winning fan. So far, Fanatics has raised $52 million for charity in an effort that is ongoing.
“Some of what has happened took fan experiences to another level,” Shaffer says. “Strategically it fit with our business, but to be very clear, Fanatics was in a unique position to pull this off, host it on its ecommerce platform and have the connections to bring the athletes and entertainers so they would contribute these amazing experiences and items. It has been an incredibly rewarding experience for those people who have dug in and worked so hard on it. The athletes have all made amazing contributions to the All In Challenge.”
While Fanatics has future plans for its fundraising effort, Shaffer says data shows the collectible and memorabilia market won’t slow. In fact, the first sport to restart, NASCAR, has seen an even greater uptick in collectible sales since racing started again. “It is our belief,” Shaffer says, “that the sales trends we are experiencing are probably going to strengthen as sports move back.”
Tim Newcomb covers gear and business for Baseball America. Follow him on Twitter at @tdnewcomb.