While fun, there's no doubt that card shows can indeed be overwhelming.
With stacks of cards everywhere and signs shouting DEALS! and BARGAINS! and THE BEST VINTAGE SELECTION ON THE PLANET! at you, it's all too easy to get sidetracked. And while getting distracted at a card show isn't the worst thing in the world, it's still worth it to feel like you're at least trying to keep yourself on task.
That's why I've taken lately to selecting a few choice cards to search for before every large card show I attend. With the sheer size of the place, I liken it to a glorified game of Needle in the Haystack. Much like I did at last year's National, I again chose a set of Elusive Three to hunt for last Friday.
This year's selections: a 1976 Topps Dennis Eckersley rookie, a 1970 Topps Hank Aaron, and the granddaddy of them all, a coveted 1975 Topps Robin Yount rookie.
Would the Elusive Three remain elusive, or would I capture them once and for all?
I'll answer that question in due time, but let's get to all those pesky "distractions" first.
This show may be somewhat overwhelming, but Dad and I maintain a bit of continuity by always hitting the same vendor first. There's a guy right near the entrance that has been setting up at this show for years. He always has a big bin of, well, everything on display.
His cards are usually $1 each or 40/$20, but this time around they were 50 cents each or 50/$20. Better yet, since Dad and I were among the first to be admitted on the show's opening day, I can say with certainty that we were the very first customers to dig through that bin. (I was so excited that I forgot to snap a picture of it in the moment.)
As a result, I got the Babe here...
...and a smattering of other 1961 Golden Press oddballs for an astounding 40 cents a pop.
The Babe is the most desired card from this set and usually runs a pretty penny, but don't sleep on other legends like Lajoie and Mathewson I unearthed on the cheap.
Turns out the 50/$20 bin fun was just getting started.
This more than doubled the existing amount of Permagraphics cards I had in my collection before last Friday.
These look and feel very much like credit cards, and they triggered a memory my dad hadn't recalled in a while. He remembered purchasing a handful of them during his later adolescent collecting years.
Along with the stack of Golden Press singles, these got the evening off to a delightfully odd start.
The vast majority of the 55 cards I ended up purchasing from this vendor (which he still let me have for $20) ended up being oddballs.
The 1960 Leaf Don Newcombe qualifies as a sunset issue of the former Dodger great, and my dad still argues that the Brock -- an ad for Sporting News from 1982 -- isn't a baseball card. Advertisements are not cards to him.
We'll close the 50/$20 bin out with the 1941 Play Ball of the not-so-politcally-correctly nicknamed "Indian Bob" Johnson you see on the left.
While the edges might be trimmed, it is indeed authentic, which made it a truly staggering 40-cent find. It's also my first card from Play Ball's color years.
The '51 Topps Kluszewski came from the vendor whose table you see me perusing at the top of this post. He's also a regular at this show, and one of his bins advertised 90% OFF vintage. You don't have to tell me twice.
Klu found his way into my purchase pile for a mere $2.50.
This miscut PATP (sorry Jeff, I'm keeping it) of Ernie Banks set me back three bucks, and is probably the cheapest vintage card of Mr. Cub I've ever found.
Here's one I've had on my wantlist for a while: Ralph Kiner's sunset card from 1955 Bowman.
Add the fact that Kiner spent just a single season in Cleveland, and you have a no-brainer buy at $2.50.
Also among my 90% Off scores was what is now my oldest Jimmy Piersall from '54 Bowman, another $2.50 purchase.
Eagle-eyed readers may notice that I'm digging through a stack of Hostess singles in the "action" image of yours truly at the top of this post.
That's because this vendor had something I'd personally never seen before at a card show: an entire shoebox-sized box filled with nothing but Hostess.
Between big names, fan favorites, and even some uncut panels, that box was a Willy Wonka wonderland of pure imagination, containing just about anything and everything Hostess-related you could ever dream of...
...and you better believe I did some serious damage to it.
The cards were unpriced, which worried me a bit. Still, despite the vendor pulling out his Beckett when I brought them up to him (which I think was only to check if any of the ones I'd selected were SPs), I ended up getting the two-dozen-plus Hostess singles I wanted for less than 50 cents each, impressive considering some of the stars (Gibson, Morgan, Sutter, etc.) I picked out.
Dad and I were only a couple aisles into the show at this point, and already my bag was filled with an evening's worth of glorious vintage oddballs.
A couple more oddities before we get back to the standard Topps protocol.
The Greenberg is a terrific 1961 Nu-Scoops oddball I couldn't pass up for $3. The Home Run Baker/Ty Cobb/Zack Wheat trio (how's that for some serious star power?) was part of that aforementioned 50/$20 bin.
An extremely cheap price tag considering it's Card #1 from the '61 Fleer checklist.
But back to Topps, and specifically to a couple Chicago legends.
Surefire steals at just 50 cents a piece.
I never knew Don Zimmer had a Topps card as a Cub issued during his playing career, which was enough for me to jump on his '61 Topps semi-high-number for $2.50.
I made a shocking discovery while perusing my binders a few weeks ago: I didn't own any vintage Pumpsie Green cards. Green is notable for being the first black player on the last team to integrate (Red Sox, 1959), and he closed out his career with a brief 17-game stint with the '63 Mets.
Sunset card and a short-term stop: can't do much better than that from a 6/$1 bin.
The Hammerin' Hank was $4, an historic card I couldn't believe I didn't own before last Friday.
Same goes for the Griffey, which was a Dime Box Dozen suspect I somehow hadn't captured during my many digs through discount bins filled with '75 Topps over the years.
I forked over two bucks for it, which was a bit more than I wanted to shell out...but still a small price to pay to end the frustration of not having it.
One of the better tables of the evening presented itself in the later aisles of the convention hall.
It didn't look like much, only a single 3/$1 box and a small pile of various other scattered vintage tucked into a corner. But that just proves one of the prime rules of a card show: never judge a table by how it looks on the outside, because you never know what it might contain on the inside.
That 3/$1 box turned out to be the stuff of legend. Among the gets was an awesomely titled highlight card from the '64 Topps checklist as well as a Bobby Murcer PATP, a steal made all the more sweet by the fact that it's an uber-high-number/hero number (#700) from '72 Topps.
I'd say that's 66 cents well spent.
A couple cards I picked up just for kicks.
The Schneider is a strong contender for the Worst Baseball Card Ever Made (the possible captions are endless!), and I actually remember reading about the '58 Cimoli in one of my old baseball books as a kid.
The overenthusiastic Topps artist ended up airbrushing the bat right out of poor Gino's hands.
The oddball theme of the day kept right on going with these '60s Post singles from the 3/$1 box.
Podres, Torre, and Gibson are all great, but I know you can't take your eyes off Ryne Duren and his Coke-bottle shades.
A young artist appeared to have been a previous (original?) owner of these 3/$1 cards at some point.
Several of the cards I found had faux-eyebrows and mustaches drawn on them, as you see with the Piersall and Skowron here. Others fell into the 3/$1 box due to their poor condition: creases, soft corners, and the like.
Either way, I was all too happy to take them home with me for nothing more than loose change.
Steal of the Day honors have to go to this '59 Roger Maris, which I found in the small pile of individually priced vintage next to the 3/$1 box.
This isn't a card I ever planned on owning. Heavy creases or not, I felt my heart jump into my throat when I saw the price tag on it: $4.50. Maris cards have a tendency to carry a premium, and you'd be lucky to find anything of his at half that price.
Much less his second-year card, and the only Topps card to feature him as a Kansas City Athletic.
Now that those doggone distractions are out of the way, let's get down to it: The Elusive Three.
Full credit for eliminating the first suspect -- this 1970 Topps Hank Aaron -- goes to Dad. He wandered off early in the show while I was in the midst of a dime box dig...and, to my complete and utter surprise, came back with none other than Hammerin' Hank himself.
Aside from being an Aaron I didn't already have, this is also the earliest example I know of which features a ballplayer signing autographs on a baseball card.
The second member of the Elusive Three went down without much of a fight.
As a young collector, I had a chance to purchase Dennis Eckersley's 1976 Topps rookie at a fair price, but passed. It's a decision that's haunted me ever since, and one I finally put to rest last Friday.
I found this copy of Eck's rookie in a vendor's glass case with a $12 price tag. I asked if he'd take $10 on it, and he graciously accepted. Two down, one to go.
I stopped at table after table, searching for the hallowed '75 Topps Robin Yount rookie. The couple I saw were well out of my price range. I went back through the entire card show a second time looking for a more affordable copy. I even asked several vendors if they had it, which is something I almost never do.
It was starting to look like the last of the Elusive Three might have to remain elusive.
Until it happened.
I spotted a copy of the '75 Yount in a glass case near the end of the show, priced at $22. I initially balked, but after a few minutes of contemplation, offered $20, which was met with a blissful yes from the vendor.
I may have overpaid a bit (one vendor informed me that the card carries a bit of hometown inflation due to Milwaukee's proximity to Chicago, which was news to me) and it's the most I've spent on a single card in years, but I just wasn't leaving that convention hall without Robin.
Finally, one of the most iconic cards of the '70s -- and all of cardboard history, for that matter -- was mine.
There I am with Yount and Eck at the edge of the convention hall, two of my new favorite rookie cards in my collection.
Big card shows are susceptible to sensory overload, and I've gone on record before saying that I enjoy smaller, hotel-type shows a bit more. But there's no denying that gargantuan shows like this one are like Mecca for collectors such as myself, and you won't find the sheer amount of cardboard housed in a single convention hall like this anywhere else.
All I can say is: I urge any of The Hobby Is Dying! talking heads to take the time to attend one of these gatherings someday.
Shows like this one make the hobby come alive again.