On New Year’s morning I wrapped up my read of Tanner’s book, “Confessions of a Baseball Card Addict.” Having gotten engaged on Christmas, I was even more drawn to the book’s subtitle: The Story of a Man who Acquired Ten Million Cards and Managed to Stay Married!
Aside from simply supporting another collector/writer, there were several reasons why I was excited to buy Tanner’s book. Questions I was hoping the book would answer, with even more depth than Tanner’s videos, were–
- How did Tanner amass such an awesome Jose Canseco collection?
- How did Tanner balance his obsessive collecting with his family life?
- What made Tanner decide to retire from supercollecting?
I can definitely say his book answers every one of these questions and more. If you haven’t bought it yet, I’ll provide the link again!
There are three aspects of Tanner’s book that I will elaborate on here, connecting them to my own collecting journey.
This is a term I encountered for the first time in Tanner’s book. He uses it to refer to deals were he is able to not only get his money back but also keep the cards he likes “for free!” I intentionally put “for free” in quotes here based on my own recent alchemy.
As a collector, I have never been in it for the money. I buy cards because I like them, not because I think I can turn a profit someday. I admittedly got sucked into the financial side of the hobby in 1985 and 1986, and the focus it forced me to have on players I’d never heard of–the hot rookies–over established superstars is one of the reasons I largely left the hobby for decades.
Things changed briefly for me in late 2018 as I began planning my proposal to my (now) fiancee. It bothered me to think that her ring, the wedding, or our married life would take a financial hit in any way due to my card buying, which had averaged about $100-200 a month over the four years we’d been together. I was not ready to abandon collecting, so I decided the next best thing to do was set a goal of “budget neutral” collecting: For every dollar I spent I’d need to bring in a dollar from selling.
Things got off to an awesome start when I ran across a collector selling his vintage Hank Aaron collection at a rock-bottom price. I knew I could recoup the total purchase price with almost no effort and very likely generate a healthy profit. Some of you probably participated in my “Hammer Time” sales on Twitter and grabbed some awesome deals in the process.
Having come away with over $200 in profit from my Hank Aaron purchase, I was ready to shop guilt-free for a mega-card to add to my PC. Because I was such a huge fan of the 1958 Topps All-Star subset but I could never justify paying “real money” for the Mantle, I decided this was my big chance to add the Mick and perhaps ultimately collect the entire subset. Sure enough, I found this beautiful Mantle card for $150 and jumped on it.
There was only one problem with my Mantle purchase. Once the card arrived, I wasn’t convinced it was really THE big money card I wanted after all. I posted it for sale on eBay the day it arrived and went about looking for a new mega-card. I realized the problem with my Mantle purchase was that Mantle just wasn’t one of my favorite players. If I was going to spend $100+ on a card these days, it had better be Hank Aaron, Jackie Robinson, or Ted Williams (and perhaps someday Ruth/Gehrig). As luck would have it, my compulsive searches and refreshes turned up a raw version of this beauty, which I felt 99.9% sure was authentic based on some heavy due diligence.
Soon enough I was the proud owner of an incredible card of Ted Freaking Williams! And better yet, I got the card for free! (In addition to #HammerTime I managed a few other smaller sales on Twitter. As you can imagine I did NOT get this Williams card for “only” $200.)
I didn’t know the term at the time, but I was now a full-fledged cardboard alchemist. Was it possible I could keep this going? I spent more and more time searching eBay for deals, and I can definitely say I found some. The two biggest didn’t involve cardboard, but my other collecting specialty: Hank Aaron bobbleheads. In one case I turned $10 (including shipping!) into $80, and in another case I turned $50 into $175! Along the way, my profits allowed me to start a Dwight Gooden collection, renew my Negro Leagues Baseball Museum membership, significantly upgrade some lesser condition HOFers in my Top 100 display, and still have money left over. Some additional “shoebox sales” of cards I’d had for years built up my cash reserves even more.
There was only one problem.
According to my spreadsheet, I was sitting on $450 in “free money” AND a 1949 Leaf Ted Williams card. (Side note: the 1948 Leaf set actually came out in 1949.) That’s a good thing, isn’t it? The problem is I had more or less checked out of real life for a solid month. Long conversations in bed or on the couch with my fiancee were replaced with my non-stop eBay searches and Twitter sales, lunch with co-workers turned into solitary trips to the post office and a quick fish sandwich from Burger King, and don’t even ask me what my 11-year-old son was up to that month. I wasn’t there for any of it, at least not mentally or emotionally.
I had become a “budget neutral” collector (or alchemist) in an attempt to make my hobby cost-free for my fiancee. What I realized after a month was that my time and attention were much more valuable to her than any money I could spend on cards. I knew I was dumping a ton of time into my searches, sales, and post office trips, and I often suspected my hourly rate was far less than if I’d simply taken a part-time job at McDonald’s. I shrugged this off initially because this kind of “work” was fun for me. It just wasn’t fun for the most important people in my life.
I feel lucky that despite my love of all things cardboard and what had quickly become an obsessive pursuit for me, I was able to walk away cold turkey. Of course, on my way out the door there was no way I wasn’t buying this Jackie Robinson rookie card with my winnings!
The lesson here sounds obvious, but it’s an easy one to ignore. The most valuable thing we have is our time with others. Whatever the ledger shows on the dollars and cents side, our cardboard alchemy doesn’t really get us anything for free. Awful as it sounds, our “free” cards simply come at the expense of the important people in our lives.
You Won’t Ever Have All of Them
This was the second takeaway from Tanner’s book that really got me thinking. With all the time, effort, and money that Tanner put into his Canseco supercollection, there were still cards he was never going to have. This same thing is not just true for Jose Canseco but pretty much any player.
Many of us got our start in the hobby opening packs as a kid. Once I had the requisite Garvey card, my next goal was always the same: collect the whole set. As collectors that’s largely in our DNA. But what happens when you can’t? If I knew in 1978 that no matter how many packs I bought I would never get all 726 cards, would I have bought packs with the same vigor? (Okay, bad example. Of course I would!)
Collecting is nearly always directed toward a goal, whether it’s the basic Topps run of Johnny Bench or every Jose Canseco card on the planet. You don’t meet many collectors whose goal is “most of the 1968 Topps set” or “all of Hank Aaron’s cards except the expensive ones.”
Yet the reality, especially these days, is we really won’t ever have them all. This doesn’t just mean our collection is minus some cards. It means our collecting can be minus a purpose. The two most common responses to this are to deny it as long as we can or to give up, usually in favor of a new collecting goal. I think very few collectors can exist happily in the middle.
Enjoying our collections
I was really struck by Tanner’s admission that he spent more time looking at his collection online–i.e., his website–than he did looking at his actual cards. This struck home for me in that I realized several years back that nearly every card I bought ended up in a box, rarely to be seen again.
At that time, I made a major change to my collecting. I decided I would only buy cards I planned to display. This proved to be a great decision as I genuinely do enjoy walking past my framed Hank Aaron collection, my framed 1956 Brooklyn Dodger team set, and–most of all–my Top 100 gallery on a daily basis.
These days I’ve more or less used up my quota of wall space in the house, so binders are the next best thing. As I hold out for the Ruth and Gehrig I won’t be getting any time soon, I’ve enjoyed moving my sets and near-sets from the 1980s into binders and flipping through the pages from time to time. My Dwight Gooden collection also became a ton more fun when I did the same.
I think all collectors struggle with emptiness from time to time, whether it’s from not being able to meet our goals or (even more often) from meeting them! A common phrase in Tanner’s book is, “Now what?” Whether it’s sharing your collection online, turning your favorite cards into displays, or turning sets into binders, most of us need ways to keep our collections fun beyond just packing things away into boxes.
Bonus lesson – Stay decent
There is intense competition when you’re chasing 1/1s as Tanner was. In the short run, cutthroat and underhanded tactics might get you the card you want. But in the long run, you’ll always do better to put decency above all else. As Tanner notes, this isn’t just to boost your collection but because it’s the right thing to do, plain and simple.
You know who makes more money than any of us selling cards? It’s those assholes on eBay knowingly selling fakes but dodging liability with their bullshit stories of storage locker finds and “looks real to me but I’m selling it as a reprint.” I absolutely guarantee you I could make $2000 in a month doing the same. But of course I don’t because it’s an absolutely shitty way to make money, and I’d know I was a total cancer on the hobby.
I was lucky enough to attend a presentation by an incredible mountain climber who had climbed Everest several times. He stressed that the goal was never just to climb the mountain. After all, there were numerous climbers who made it to the top only to die on the way back down the mountain. That stuck with me, but what he said next stuck with me even more. It’s not enough to climb the mountain or even make it back down. After all, he knew climbers who only made it back down by stealing the equipment and supplies of other climbers who literally lost their lives when they lost their gear. So no, making it down is not enough. The goal is to make it back down with your soul intact.
As I think about this in light of Tanner’s journey, it’s easy to see his attainment of the world’s top Canseco collection as climbing the mountain and his ultimate liquidation of same at a profit as making it back down alive. Most importantly, however, is the way he went about his collecting. He wasn’t there to rip anyone off or steal cards out from under them. He collected with integrity and decency and allowed his fellow collectors and supercollectors to share in his successes and his joy.
Whatever our cardboard aspirations are in this world, they are literally paper thin compared to the ability we all have to exit this world or this hobby with our souls intact. As much as any Wagner or Mantle, this is the Holy Grail we should all seek as collectors. It’s not only far more valuable but in our own lives we could even think of it as the ultimate 1/1.
Thanks, Tanner, for a great read. And if you haven’t bought the book yet, here’s the link again!