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Middleton, Elliott: When we were kings of cardboard

Two kid collectors still crazy after all these years

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Images courtesy of Topps
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Long-time West Central Tribune sports writer Rand Middleton and current sports editor Tom Elliott are both avid vintage baseball card collectors.

Middleton’s love of collecting began as a child of the 1950s in Michigan. Elliott’s collecting began in the 1970s in Flushing, New York.

The two write about their love and how they got involved here.

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Rand Middleton

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RM: The summer after fourth grade at Breton Downs Elementary in East Grand Rapids, Michigan, I was awarded every two weeks a 50-cent allowance. Big money. I was 9 years old and sports were big. Doak Walker excelled and was my favorite football player. He was a running back for Detroit Lions, who were, believe it or not, the dominant NFL team, along with the Cleveland Browns. Ray Boone was my baseball idol. He played third base for the Tigers. His son and two grandsons also became major leaguers.

I'd pedal my bike down to Boston Square for a haircut. Around the corner was a drug store that sold Topps baseball cards. I spent my entire allowance for 10 packs. With each came a big slab of pink bubble gum. Those were quickly chewed with devastating dental results. It took time for my parents to connect the dots. By the time they abolished my stipend, I had accumulated a shoe box full of 1955 cards.

It seemed every fourth pack contained a card of an unknown kid named Sandy Koufax. It was a somewhat muddy print of Sandy in a Brooklyn Dodgers cap and to the right him standing on some steps with the team name on the uniform rubbed. That card, No. 123, in VG-excellent condition today is listed between $520-to-$650.

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Tom Elliott

TE: In second or third grade, I probably saw friends show up to school with their newly purchased baseball cards.That seemed pretty cool.

The first year I had a lot of cards was in 1970. I was on a meager allowance of about 25 cents a week. In those days, that's about what a pack of cards cost. So, I probably bought three or four packs of cards a month. Packs had 10 or 12 cards, a stick of bubble gum and some kind of an insert.

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In my neighborhood, we had a couple of games we played. We flipped them against a wall and if your card landed on my card on the same side (top-seys and bottom-seys), you got to take the card.

RM: During the holiday break in 1955, our family moved 90 miles north to Cadillac, a town of 10,000 in lake country. We were now near my mom’s parents and my step-father could trout fish on the Pine River. I was halfway through fifth grade.

My cardboard survived the move. Just before the move, I must have found nickels to spend on ‘55 Bowman football. Those cards remain the centerpiece of my hobby. They are in good condition with many of the stars. Otherwise, of the thousands and thousands of cards in the attic, only a few retain much market value.

My first summer in our home on Chapin Street, I bought ‘56 Topps baseball and Bowman football at Bessie’s neighborhood store. For several more years I collected but in junior high other interests, like team sports and “American Bandstand,” grabbed my attention. We did get Sports Illustrated and I read every article on football and baseball and taped the great action photographs to my bedroom wall.

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TE: We also had a matching game that we played before school started and during recess. We'd each have a set amount, usually 20 cards. You'd do a rock-paper-scissors to see who would go first, since going first wasn't an advantage. Then, you'd shuffle your cards and drop one on the table, or the ground. The other player would drop his. if you matched the card exposed on the top of the pile, you got to keep it. The game ended when one player was out of cards. It was cutthroat.

I remember baseball cards being banned at my elementary school (P.S. 22 in Queens) because several teachers thought it was a form of gambling. Maybe it was, kind of. Anyway, I had a lot of 1970, '71 and '72 cards, but nothing close to a complete set.

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RM: I went to college and then moved far away from home. Mom, bless her heart, didn’t toss those boxes of cardboard. But on one of our many trips to Michigan for visits, mom said the time had come. I think it was 1984. We packed the 1950s treasury of Topps, ’55 College All-Stars and Bowman football and baseball into our Mazda station wagon along with two kids for the 740-mile return trip to Minnesota.

TE: We went to a woman's house after school. She would babysit us until my mother got off work. She noticed I played with baseball cards and she gave me her son's collection.

Talk about luck. The collection was from the 1950s. He had Topps cards from 1952-58. It was less than 100 cards. Wow! Old cards were keen, maybe even better than new cards.

Things changed when I turned 12 in '73. I got a newspaper route. I delivered the Long Island Press seven days a week in my neighborhood. Suddenly, I was rich. With tips, I was making $10-20 a week. It was a fortune. My mother made me put half of it into a savings account. And the other half? Cardboard dreams. You have to understand, Flushing seemed like the center of the sports universe. Shea Stadium, home of the New York Mets and New York Jets, is in Flushing. It was a couple miles from our house. Flushing Meadows, home of tennis’ U.S. Open, is nearby.

RM: In the mid-80’s card collecting roared back. Perhaps it was a craze like Beanie Babies or Precious Moments. Topps had the market to itself 1959 to 1980. But Donruss and Fleer issued complete sets beginning in 1981, though I hadn’t noticed. Donruss hit a knockout punch with a graphically superior card in 1984. I didn’t catch on until 1985, but after that I couldn’t get my hands on enough.

At least two card shops sprung up in Willmar. I traveled to a couple of shows in the Twin Cities. I remember at one Dave Mono pushed hard to buy my ‘55s, but I demurred. I believe I started organizing card shows just so I could see more cards.

TE: We moved to Minnesota in the summer of 1974. I had thousands of '73s and '74s, not only in baseball, but also football, basketball and hockey, plus non-sports issues. They could have been left in a dumpster, I suppose, but they were part of the move. I started ninth grade in South St. Paul. My collection faded into boxes and a toy chest in the back of a closet.

In 1983, I was working at the St. Cloud Times and Kevin Oklobzija, a fellow sports writer, came into the office with a bunch of cards. He said he was at Woolworth's in the Crossroads Mall and saw them for sale. I believe it was 99 cents for 52 cards, cello-packs. Next thing you know, myself and several other sports guys were going to Woolworth's and wherever and buying cards. We'd sit in the office and trade them. It was juvenile, but hey, we were the sports department. I was back in the game and have been hooked ever since.

RM: I arranged to use the high-school cafeteria on 7th Street. Right away, the shows were wildly popular with adults and youth. Dealers signed up from Mankato, the Metro and the Dakotas. Dave DeLand, sports editor at the St. Cloud Times, was a regular dealer. So was Bird Island-Lake Lillian football coach Jack Gomarko.

Craig Giles of Granite Falls never failed to buy several tables for the three, and one time four shows, in a calendar year. He was easy-going in an aw-shucks way and eventually talked me into selling my mid-‘50s baseball. The money was fair, perhaps $400.

Demand for tables outgrew the cafeteria and the shows moved to the little gym, renting tables from the Civic Center. Donna, my wife and partner in these shows, took the one-dollar admission. By 8 a.m., the line to get in was well out into the parking lot. I bought cards like everyone. The price guides, like Beckett, fueled speculation. We were mini-stock brokers caught in the fever of the moment.

TE: I slowed down some when my kids were growing up and involved in activities. I also was a little disillusioned about cards after the 1980s-90s boom wore off. Perhaps it was the players' strike in 1994-95. I also realized that all the money I spent on those late '80s and early '90s cards was a waste. Those cards today still don't have any value. There were too many companies printing too many cards for too many sets. They were worthless and still are, for the most part.

RM: In 1989, Upper Deck debuted with a gorgeous set. The Ken Griffey Jr. rookie card was the keystone of the set. It blew me away. The card stock was firmer than anything before with outstanding photography front and back. Some of the 1950s issues now have the quality of fine art but Upper Deck, I believe, paced the ‘90’s movement into peak-moment action photographs, superb portraiture, imagination and superior card stock, not to mention higher priced packs.

TE: I turned my attention to the old stuff, pre 1980. I had those 1950s cards from the babysitter, a good base. Over the years, I also picked up a lot of 1960s cards.

The internet has changed everything. I'm in an internet collecting club called "Old Baseball Cards." It's a group of people spread out across North America, even Europe. We trade cards over the internet, sending them to each other through the mail. Everyone has their want lists posted on the website. I've been in this club since 2010 and it really has made me a kid again.

RM: Yes, by 1990 the market was flooded with penny stocks. I had quit cold by the mid ‘90s and so had most everyone else. I have probably bought less than a dozen packs this century and none in the last 10 years. But I have no regrets. Well, except burning up those Koufax cards in my spokes.

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Images courtesy of Topps

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