Monday, July 18, 2011

Thoughts on The National

(As this year's National Sportscard Collectors' Convention gets closer, I figured I'd share some things I wrote about my very first trip to one, in Cleveland in 2004. this is from a hobby newsletter I once wrote.)



Collectors simply call it "The National."  The 25th annual National Sports Convention was held from July 21-25, 2004 at the International Exposition Center in Cleveland, Ohio.  The center's 400 thousand square feet held over 700 dealer tables and 50 corporate displays, and more than 50 athletes (from past greats such as Joe Namath, Jim Brown, Pete Rose and Johnny Bench to then-current Indian players Travis Hafner and Victor Martinez) were on hand to sign autographs for a price.  This year, I was able to attend the show.

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When my wife agreed to take a trip to Cleveland, I was surprised.  When I first met her, I was in college and away from the hobby.  She never knew me as a card collector until a few years into our marriage, when eBay dragged me back into the hobby that had consumed me as a boy.  For much of the time since, she always seemed to look at my collecting habit with a mix of distress and amusement.  Though I never let the hobby eat into our bill money, she appeared to hope that the collecting bug would wear off.  To her, it was interesting to see a grown man engaging in a child's pursuit, to say the least.

Unfortunately, she never knew me as a kid.  She never saw me with my collection; she never noticed that I read voraciously about the subject and picked up every hobby magazine I could get my hands on.  She never had the opportunity to see me work the tables at weekend card shows, nor did she ever see me behind one as a seller.  In short, Ellen never had the time to let it sink in that the hobby was part of my lifeblood.  That's why it surprised me when she agreed to take a trip to Cleveland for a big card show.

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Card shows mirrored the growth of the hobby.  During the early 1970s -- a time when many collectors past the age of adolescence simply kept their hobby to themselves -- card sellers often showed up at larger antique shows and often sold a variety of things.  As the hobby grew throughout that decade, a few gatherings were organized in larger cities once or twice a year.  They were called "card conventions" then, and sellers were usually supplementing the incomes they received from their day jobs.

By 1975, some shows were so successful they became regular events.  One was held in the Philadelphia area beginning in September of that year.  The "Philly Show" expanded through the years, moving from Spring Garden College to the George Washington Lodge and later the Ft. Washington Expo Center.  It not only expanded to larger venues, but also became more frequent; in '78 a second annual show was added, then a third in the 1980s and a fourth in '90.  The Spring '80 show became a part of hobby lore when three '52 Topps cards of Mickey Mantle each fetched three thousand dollars at auction at a time when the card normally sold for $800.  The show is still held four times a year at Ft. Washington and always attracts a large crowd even after many of the smaller shows have closed their doors.

The first National was an outgrowth of a regular card convention that had been running for nearly a decade.  Mike Berkus, Gavin Riley and Steve Brunner had been staging a Memorial Day show in L.A. since 1971, and added a Labor Day show in '76.  As the show expanded, Riley came up with the idea to make the 1980 Labor Day show a "National Convention."  Brunner and Berkus were hesitant.  The promoters of the Philly Show scoffed at the idea because they felt their own show was the true "National."  In the end, Riley won out and the first National Convention opened on August 28, 1980.  The show had a smaller turnout that expected -- 5,700 collectors showed up to check out the 156 dealer tables -- but it was successful enough that another convention was scheduled for Detroit in '81.

(During an early National, here is Dr. Jim Beckett at his table)


As the hobby expanded, so did the National.  Each year, the venues got larger.  More dealers set up for the show, and more collectors showed up.  The largest National was held in 1991 in Anaheim.  There were an estimated 100 thousand collectors attending over the four day event.  It was marked by long lines and fire inspectors constantly threatening the promoters that they'd close the show.  Once the hobby began to cool down in 1992, the crowds began to get smaller for the National as well.  It was estimated that about 35 thousand collectors attended the 2004 show.

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Before this year's convention opened, I took a couple of days to see some of Cleveland's attractions.  We took our daughter to the Zoo and saw the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.  We took a special trip to Canton the day before the show and visited the Pro Football Hall of Fame, where this longtime Steeler fan was quickly reacquainted with some fond memories.  My wife and I are are both types who like to see the parts of a city that don't get included in the travel guides, so we went into the same parts of Cleveland the locals did.  We stopped by a Giant Eagle supermarket and ate at regional chain restaurants like Big Boy and White Castle that aren't around our home in Florida.

Since turnabout is fair play, I also went with Ellen as she searched out some of Cleveland's thrift stores for Fisher-Price toys to add to her own collection.


(My profile pic was taken at the Football Hall of Fame during this trip.)


The I-X Center was certainly large, but I had a few problems with how they ran the show.  My main problem was the way they handled parking.  It cost $7 to park -- which seemed reasonable -- and they gave a receipt when you paid.  On the first day of the show, I left to grab lunch elsewhere because the price of food at the Center was more costly than I wanted to pay for cafeteria-style food.  Upon returning to the Center after 45 minutes away, I went to the ticket booth and showed my receipt from earlier...and was told that I would have to pay seven more dollars to enter!  The lady at the booth explained that I might have gotten the receipt from somebody else who had left, and her supervisor walked over to my car and sternly explained that I was free to complain about it inside...after I paid the money.  I finally relented and went inside.  The office I had been directed to by the supervisor had been closed, and I was told by another staffer that I shouldn't even bother with trying to get the money back.

The next morning, I was dropped off outside the gate closest to the entrance.  I jumped the fence and walked 800 feet across the parking lot.  They weren't getting another $7 out of me.

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As a kid, I was in awe of "Mean" Joe Greene.  He was the most visible member of my favorite team's defense.  He played hard, hit harder and always seemed to make the stop in the eyes of this author as a 7-year old.  I wanted to attend a Steelers game and give him a bottle of Coke so I could get his jersey, just like the kid in that commercial.  Even after he retired, I played his position in high school and wore number 75 in his honor.

The 7 year-old Chris Stufflestreet has long since grown up and no longer holds professional athletes in that same type of awe.  I still admire Joe Greene, although for different reasons.  He was incredibly gifted with speed and strength and used those talents to excel in his craft.  You never saw Joe Greene doing a rap video with his teammates and telling everybody how great they were; he just let his work speak for itself.  He stood out as a leader among one of the best defenses the NFL had ever fielded (virtually every Steeler defensive starter of the mid-70s was named to the Pro Bowl at least once).  He also had enough business sense to market himself...the Coke commercial he filmed is still viewed as one of the best Super Bowl spots ever.

At the National, I was happy to discover that Joe Greene would be signing autographs along with the rest of the famed "Steel Curtain" defensive line: L.C. Greenwood, Ernie Holmes and Dwight White.  I don't usually bother with autographs, but this time was different.  Autographs aren't free: Joe Namath's signature cost at least $150, Pete Rose's was $50, Reggie Jackson's was fetching $75 and Joe Greene's was $40.  I usually wouldn't have paid $40 for somebody's autograph, but this was Joe Greene.  I brought along the 1981 Marketcom mini-poster I bought as a high school student for his signature, and bought the autograph ticket a day in advance to avoid the line.

Despite my attempts to avoid the lines, I still found myself in a mob.  While waiting to meet my boyhood idol, I had to stand in a crowd of people waiting for their own chance.  In addition to the Steel Curtain players, Pete Rose, Jack Lambert, Antwan Randle-El and Rocky Colavito were signing at the same time.  While waiting, I pointed out the signers to my wife and daughter.  Some bushy-haired jerk with a bullhorn called for ticketholders and barked his instructions in a condescending manner, and the fans came out of the crowd to be herded like sheep into their lines.  Did I mention that I paid for this privilege to be treated like livestock (though I must admit that ending up with a signature on a treasured card is much better than what happens to cattle after they reach their destination)?

When my time came to join the line to meet with Joe Greene, I asked my daughter if she wanted to come with me.  She had been to the Hall of Fame with me and remembered that I called him "Mean Joe," and told me that she wasn't interested in meeting anybody they call "Mean."  As I approached the front of the line, a kid reached out to take my card and hand it to Mr. Greene, and I told him that I was capable of handing the card to him myself.  He started to tell me about time constraints, but I ignored him.  Once my turn came, I handed over my card for him to sign, then reached out to shake his hand.

"How are you doing today, Mr. Greene?" I asked.  He looked up at me and shook my extended hand.  I had always read that he was a big man, but still was amazed how huge his hand was.  "I'm doing well, thanks" he replied.  I quickly explained about how I wore his number, played his position and was happy to meet him.  Ellen got a quick picture of us just before Pete Rose stopped by to have a few words with him.  We were then directed toward the exits by the same assistant I had just ignored.

 (Here's my signed mini-poster, along with the ticket stub from that day)

Don't get me wrong.  I enjoyed the opportunity to meet one of my all-time favorite players, but really wasn't impressed by the way I was shuffled through the line in the most efficient, time-saving manner.  For $40 I got to stand around for an hour, just to meet someone for twenty seconds.  I remarked afterward to a friend that if I really wanted to stand around for a long time waiting for some guy to tell me where to go -- and then being serviced quickly and efficiently, I'd have never left the Army.

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One of the best things about attending the National was the chance to meet with other collectors, old friends and longtime hobby figures.  The familiar sellers were all there: Bill Henderson, Bill Mastro, the Wentz brothers and Kit Young among them.  Alan Rosen (known to hobbyists as "Mr. Mint") had the first table past the entrance, where he had no cards but was giving away one of his books to anybody who wanted one.  I had no trouble adding a book by Mr. Mint to my reference shelf at that price.

Among the newer hobby faces were Lyman and Brett Hardeman, who run the Old Cardboard website.  They were preparing to begin printing a full-color magazine and were soliciting subscribers.  I had the chance to speak with both and their magazine proof looked sharp.  While visiting their table, I got to speak with them about writing an article or two and met with Robert Silverman of vintageball.com.  When I handed him my business card and began to explain my site to him, Silverman stopped me short.  "I know your site...I've been there several times."  I know I've had hobby exposure since 2000 with my site, but it's still a humbling experience when a person I've never met knows me by name.

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The National is the card collecting hobby's annual convention.  Those words -- "National Convention" -- might bring up images in the mind of Shriners wearing their distinctive fezes or of a national organization's members getting together and having a great time, even if they don't bother actually attending any business meetings.  There is a group of collectors who treat the National that way.  OBC (www.oldbaseball.com) -- of which this author is a member -- saw about 30 of its members attend over the four days the convention was open.  For those who don't know, OBC is known among hobby dealers for collecting cards in low grade.  It can be said that OBC helps the hobby because its members take all of the bad cards off the hands of dealers.  Among the many online groups of card traders (including Vintage Card Traders, Trading Bases, O-Pee-Chee Traders and Old Card Traders), OBC is the only one to be so visible at the National.

OBC members usually wear a white baseball cap with the group's logo on it.  This cap not only identifies OBC members to each other, but a number of sellers know the group is made up of great hobbyists and will often give discounts to its members.  In fact, a few sellers keep boxes of cards for OBC members and break them out whenever they see one of the hats on a browsing collector.  Despite rumors that the 10-cent boxes are a part of hobby history like free autographs, OBC members seem to find them.

(Here I am at a later National, wearing my OBC cap.)

The National is one of the few chances for OBC members to get together, and the group plans several events during the weekend to give old friends a chance to meet again, and new members an opportunity to meet some collectors they had only known through emails.  A "throwback" group like OBC is great for the hobby because its members try to keep it fun. 

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I spent three days at the show.  My collection got a tremendous boost, and I spent more money than I was expecting.  I didn't mortgage the house to get spending money, but I ended up exceeding my planned $150 budget.  My biggest single expense was $23.50 for a subscription to "Old Cardboard" magazine, but I found some good deals on cheap cards.  I passed on a '54 Topps Warren Spahn card for $5 and a trimmed '55 Topps Harmon Killebrew rookie card for $20.  I picked up a '58 Topps Stan Musial All-Star card for $2, while my wife found a Mickey Mantle All-Star card from the same set for $20.  I found a stack of 156 cards from the 1950s and '60s in a box for ten cents apiece.  I picked up a bunch of common cards from Bowman and pre-'57 Topps for around $1 apiece or less: my kind of price.  Thanks to the generosity of other OBC members, I also took home my first cards from the M101-4, '61 Signal Oil, E120 and W575-1 sets.  For around $200, I brought home almost 500 cards...none of which were more recent than 1978.  Not a bad haul.

(I've posted this card here a few times...but this gem was picked up at that show)

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