This past Sunday, for the first time in over a year, I got to dig through real, actual baseball cards.
There was never much doubt about what my first card event would be in the post-vaccination era: a trip to the local flea market seemed obvious. It's outdoors, it's spaced out, and it's just generally a good reminder of the oh-so-beautiful cards and card people I've been missing over the past year. Despite the temperatures being a bit chilly last Sunday, it felt so warm to be back among actual tactile card experiences, and enjoying at least a tiny slice of whatever "normal" might look like in the world from here on out.
Of course, things have changed in the past year, and a lot has changed with cards. One reason I wanted hit the flea market because it was my first chance to really observe in-person how and if the card scene has changed, a bit of a test run. And yes, I'm here to report that it most definitely has. I counted no less than a dozen different vendors with cards on Sunday - about double the pre-COVID count - and huge crowds of young dudes swarming around tables where I'd had plenty of elbow room in the past.
Halfway into the very first aisle, I spotted a vendor I recognized - I've bought a few cards from his dollar boxes in past years. This time, however, he had a slew of new binders on display - the cards inside also a buck a piece, with volume discounts for bigger purchases. The guy told me he'd bought a collection from someone, took out all the "good" cards to be graded, and left the rest in the binders to sell. I leafed through those binders while he was regaling a few curious youths with tales of PSA, rookie cards, and other card boom happenings.
Oh, and while that Ted Talk was going on, I pulled this orchestral Dizzy Dean card out of those "leftover" dregs for what amounted to a 50-cent purchase with my eventual volume discount - a card that's recently sold for no less than $100 on eBay in the past.
That is what we in the real world would call irony.
One table in, and I'd already unearthed one of the greatest treasures in my long flea market history. The magic was back - I just couldn't believe how quickly it happened. And it didn't stop with Dizzy - I found just about two dozen legend variations in those binders, most of which are damn near impossible to find in the wild for anything near affordable numbers.
These cards aren't going anywhere - Dizzy Dean on the Sousaphone will be in my binders for all of eternity! - but I can't help but find it funny that all this happened in the middle of a lecture on "value" since lot of these are of the gimmicky "super short-print" variety and easily fetch $20-30 a pop.
I still wonder two things: whose collection that vendor bought (who has this many super short-prints?!) and what the "good" cards were that he specifically removed to get graded.
The guy obviously knew about the monetary side of the hobby, but I guess if some cards don't have MIKE TROUT plastered across 'em, they're as good as dirt to that crowd.
End result: more short prints for me, including not one but two Sandy Koufax legend variants from 2011 Topps(!!!).
Here's a staggering run of four different Stan the Man variants - yes, all mine for 50 cents a piece.
It seems like a good time to note that even among this 50-cent madness, I did see some retail flippers in the flea market crowd - I spotted a couple people trying to hock 2020 Chrome Update blasters for $40-50 a pop, and standard 2020 base cards for a dollar each.
It's one thing to laugh at it on Twitter and wherever else, but it's quite another to see that thievery up close - and if they're already invading the flea market, I can only imagine how bad it'll be at the card shows to come...
But in the end, I guess all that won't matter much to me if I'm still able to find gargantuan stuff like this for loose change.
As you've probably already noticed, these binders were heavy on legends, and I stand by my statement that putting magazine covers on baseball cards is one of the greatest things ever.
If you would've asked me to conjure up a list of things I would've most wanted to see in those binders, it would've looked pretty darn close to the cards I actually ended up finding.
I absolutely love anything and everything from Topps Retired Signature, but they're tough to find on the cheap, which made this excellent batch of 50-centers all the more thrilling.
My interest in the whole Topps Living Set phenomenon is minimal at best, and I've bought exactly one of them (Ichiro) in the few years it's been going on.
But I'll certainly take them for 50 cents, because apparently the world's gone mad all over again.
This is just insane: all these Throwback Thursdays for 50 cents a piece?!
Anyone who's read my COMC posts in the past knows how much I love scooping these up on the cheap, and this single dig just about doubled the number of 'em in my collection - I'm especially fond of the Lou Brock/Grease mashup.
All this felt like something close to robbery, and I had quite the sly grin on my face as I was leaving that table - not that anyone could see it under my mask.
The rest of this post might seem a bit underwhelming in comparison to that table, but I basically still had the whole afternoon ahead of me at that point, and an entire flea market parking lot left to go.
I was happy to see my main card guy from the past few years set up at his usual spot as if nothing had changed, and he still had his usual box of 50-cent vintage - as usual, it'd mostly been picked through by the time I got there, but I still managed to find a few fun team-card oldies.
I'm admittedly a bit late in recognizing the greatness of Ryne Duren's Coke-bottle shades, but this table helped me make up for a bit of lost time there.
That '63 is even more glorious since Topps accidentally slapped Duren's picture onto a card of a completely different guy.
As the day wore on, I started to spot a few of the same twenty-something dudes following my own trail of card tables throughout the flea market, and I got the sense that a lot of them didn't really know what they were looking at - they'd grab a couple stacks of cards, turn them over curiously in their hands, and put them back without buying anything.
Heck, I actually had to wait for a spot to open up at one card vendor's table midway through the day, and I don't think that's ever happened at the flea market before - still worth it, because in addition to these 25-cent finds...
...came an entire box of Kellogg's!
Granted, most of these were from the late '70s/early '80s era, which I already own way more of than the earlier '70s stuff. But I still managed to nab a few 3D greats I didn't already have, reaching past a couple card youths who seemed to be especially confused at the sight of these weird cards of guys named Hooton and Easler.
And even though the vendor originally said they were a buck a pop, he gave these beauties to me at 50 cents per.
I made another brief stop on the trail to sift through one vendor's small basket of quarter cards - nothing spectacular, but I can't stress enough how good it felt to dig through random cardboard again.
This vendor, and all the others I talked to throughout the day, said to a T that they were selling more stuff at the flea market now than they ever did in the past - another sign the card boom is still going strong, for better or worse.
Whether it's because of the boom or not, the flea market's always good for some laughable prices along the way - one guy tried to sell me a box full of '88 Topps singles and unopened packs of '89 Topps Big for a scant $200 because, and I quote, "there's a lot of rookies in there."
So you can understand why I'm a bit wary when I see baseball cards without a price attached to them - midway through the day, I saw a few small boxes of singles sitting on a table that seemed halfway interesting, and preparing for the worst, I hesitatingly asked: How much are these?
I let out a deep sigh of relief when the vendor said: a nickel a piece.
Tables like these were the kinds of hidden goldmines I'd missed so much in the quarantine era. I ended up buying 80 nickel cards in all, and while there weren't any super short-prints or anything, it was just a generally fun tour through a couple boxes of complete randomness. It truly felt like the card universe was back again.
Sure, it gets dull flipping through stacks of '88 Donruss along the way, but if I can find even a few Pokey Reeses or dudes wearing absurdly loud shirts in the mire, it's all worth it.
I also unearthed a small treasure trove of '82 Fleer in the nickel boxes at one point, and I will fight anyone who calls this set ugly.
Maybe more than anything else, it just felt great to be part of the card community again.
One vendor who my more veteran readers might remember as the Penny Box Guy was there on Sunday (sans penny boxes), and I was shocked by the fact that he actually remembered my name. I didn't end up buying much from him - this nifty Roger Maris insert was one of only three or four cards I wound up purchasing - but we still had a nice chat, and in that single moment it was like the past year had never happened, that everything was back to normal, almost.
And really, after the first glorious Sunday I've spent at the flea market in a long time, all I can say is: it's good to be back.