The woman, a cellular biologist, carefully inserts a PSA 8 card — that’s high-grade — into an envelope to be shipped to a man in Parma, Ohio.
She does this in an unmarked storefront in Overland Park. Only the light says somebody is inside. Outside, rain falls, cars pass, nobody looks.
Good grief. Do people at Homeland Security know what’s going on in this place?
“Don Drysdale,” the woman says of the card. “Topps, 1957, $369.95.”
Oh. So that’s what cellular biologists do.
And that’s what the baseball card business has become.
Fifteen years ago, the Kansas City metro area could count more than 50 card shops, the kind where people hovered over glass cases and looked down at ballplayers like from high in the bleachers.
Cards were going deep back then: McGwire, Sosa, Bonds. Baseball was blasting out of its post-strike slump.
Now? Gone. Collectors around town say maybe only two of those old shops remain. And those two couldn’t be much farther apart: The Baseball Card Store, 9637 W. 87th St. in Overland Park, and Show Me Sports Cards at U.S. 40 and Missouri 7 in Blue Springs.
So what happened to everything in between?
The economy tanked. Baby boomers aged. Steroids. Kids in the digital age don’t really get into cards — “You just, like, hold them?”
Those old card packs used to fill a void. Today, there is no void. Every game is on TV, followed by “Baseball Tonight” on ESPN, followed by a repeat of “Baseball Tonight” on ESPN2.
“And if I want to know what Albert Pujols hit in 2008, I can just punch it up on my phone — I don’t need cards,” said Tom Bartsch, editor of Sports Collectors Digest. “That time is over.”
But baseball cards still pack a wallop — as an investment thing.
Those in the know say a portfolio of stars from the 1950s and 1960s — Mays, Mantle, Banks, Ford — will earn more than a money market account, and people use it for that purpose.
As Scott Neal, owner of The Baseball Card Store, said: “Ninety-nine percent of cards aren’t worth anything. One percent is worth a lot.”
Which gets us back to the cellular biologist in Overland Park. OK, Michelle Jones’ degree is in cellular biology. Her field is baseball cards. She and her husband, Craig, benched the corporate world a long time ago and started All Star Cards.
No foot traffic. No sign on the door. Just a gazillion cards, a website and a phone. Oh, and old bank vaults that look as if they could stand up to nukes.
According to Michelle Jones, their business is the only one in the country that puts out a monthly magazine of inventory and prices. The April edition has 104 pages. The back cover features a Bowman brand 1948 Yogi Berra priced at $3,250.
On page 29, of note to Kansas City boomers, is a mint-condition 1967 Topps brand Campy Campaneris for $99.95.
Craig Jones runs the business. Longtime employee Charlie Teegarden takes phone orders all day and handles Internet sales.
Michelle Jones sends out orders, 25 to 30 a day.
“They leave here and go all over the country,” she said.
Still want to gaze through glass at old ballplayers?
You could go see Marilyn Williams at Show Me Sports Cards, a little-bitty place sitting cockeyed at a busy Blue Springs intersection.
She’s been there 26 years. That makes her new. The barber next door has been cutting hair 65 years.
Williams is 77. Tell her about those baseball cards you bought when you were 12. Five-cent pack, flat piece of bad gum.
“Shouldn’t have opened them,” she’ll say with a smile. “Probably be worth some money today.”
Her story wouldn’t seem to be the basis for a shop to outlast all those others. She used to run a flower and greeting card store. Then in 1989 her son suggested she add his old baseball cards to the inventory.
“It was the thing to do back then,” she said.
Business took off. Flowers got left behind. During the baseball card boom in the late ’90s, she had two registers going.
Things have slowed, but the kids still come in. Just not as many, and they’re in their 50s and 60s.
Like regulars Dave Siegfried and Bill, who didn’t want to give his last name. They started collecting cards as kids, even the ones on Post cereal boxes.
“Wish I still had those,” said Bill, 63, of Blue Springs.
He and Siegfried, 52, of Grain Valley, each have well over a million cards. They still like the old shops, especially Bill. No eBay for him.
“I don’t even have a cell phone,” he said. “Don’t have cable either. I listen to ball games on the radio.”
So these two come in to Show Me two or three times a week to see what’s new. They never leave empty-handed.
Not that they don’t see the value of online browsing. That’s the only way to know that someone in Cincinnati has a George Brett card to sell, Siegfried said.
But they like Show Me because you leave with it in your hands.
“I want to open it right now,” Bill said.
“Yeah,” Siegfried said. “We’re just like 10-year-old kids.”
Same thing cross town at The Baseball Card Store. Neal opened the place in 1988.
“Up to the early ’90s, you couldn’t lose money on baseball cards,” he said. “Then the strike came in ’94 and it seemed like half the collectors got out.”
The bounce back came in the late ’90s when Sammy Sosa and Mark McGwire made a run at Roger Maris’ home run record. McGwire got it first.
“And everyone wanted a graded Mark McGwire card,” Neal said.
Boom time again and shops popped up in just about every mall and strip center. Neal said the bubble began to burst about the time of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. Then came news those sluggers were juiced.
Another problem, Neal said, is that the card companies overproduced in that era. He recently paid $750 for a collection of 3 million cards.
These days, he sees more collectors than fans.
“But Mickey Mantle is still the king,” Neal said in his store.
The Mick held a prime spot in the glass case, flanked by the likes of Roberto Clemente, Hank Aaron, Whitey Ford and Willie Mays.
“And here’s Ernie Banks,” Neal said. “Everyone wanted him when he died not long ago.”
Unlike Williams in Blue Springs, Neal buys and sells on eBay, but he has store regulars, too.
And those older customers?
“In the last 15 months or so I’ve had several pass away,” Neal said.
Way back, Craig Jones’ mother wanted him to get his card collection out of her house.
So he started selling them at garage sales. Business was good. Good enough it got him thinking. Before long, he quit his corporate job.
“The whole thing, 8 to 5, suit and tie — that was totally not him anyway,” Michelle Jones said.
The couple and longtime employee Teegarden all put their college degrees to work selling sports cards. Early on at retail sites. Now out of the unmarked storefront in Overland Park.
“Collecting is just so different now,” said Craig Jones, 49. “Now it’s about the truly scarce and the truly valuable.”
The phone rings all day long at All Star Cards.
So how about a Yogi Berra 1948 rookie?
Teegarden motions to follow him to the back room where he thumbs through long files.
“Yeah, got four,” he said.
He explains the PSA — Professional Sports Authenticators — grading system, which rates cards, 1-10, on condition. The Yogi Berra “4” was $400. An “8” listed for $3,250.
The person who buys it may or may not be a baseball fan, but at $3,250 it’s a fairly safe bet it won’t be a kid.
“I don’t think the kids are ever coming back to cards,” said Bartsch, the Sports Collectors Digest editor. “The culture’s changed too much. That part of baseball is gone.”
Or maybe Yogi said it better himself: “The future ain’t what it used to be.”
And apparently it doesn’t come with gum.