Hagen: Baseball cards ready to rebound

The baseball card market got too big for its britches in the 1990s, creating an environment that offered too many sets and squashing the collecting bug in many collectors.

The baseball licensors – the licensing representatives from Major League Baseball and the MLB Players Association – dealt with that problem in 2005, cutting licensees from four to two and reducing their brands from 90 to 40 brands for 2006. They also required the two licensees, Topps and Upper Deck, to promote the category as never before.

Colin Hagen, MLB VP of licensing/hard goods, was a key cog in that decision-making process. He spoke to SCD about his collection, his view on baseball cards and his hopes for the future of the category.

SCD: Did you collect as a youngster?

Colin Hagen: I was a big collector as a youngster. I collected cards for every sport, plus ticket stubs, pocket schedules, RC Cola cans, the Hostess three-panels … everything that was out there, I collected. Baseball Digest and Street & Smith from every year. In fact, my mom tells the story that she still thinks I learned to read from the back of baseball cards. Every sport, as soon as something came out, I was collecting it. Cards were how I got to know the players, to know their stats and who played for who. I’ll never forget when the Senators moved to Texas to become the Rangers, I didn’t learn that from the newspaper, I remember opening up my cards and asking the kids at school, “I got these Rangers cards … how did the New York Rangers hockey cards get in here?”

Cards can be a lot more important than what the dollars and cents are. For many kids and fans, it can break down their first barrier of entry, it can break down the barrier between kids and the game, and being able to learn about it and experience it. We need to make sure everybody can do that.

SCD: How much of your collection survives today?

CH: None of it. I bought everything when I was younger, and as I got older, in the 12-13-14 range, then I got more involved in completing older sets. I would go to shows trying to fill commons for the 1960 set, or the Bowman TV set, or whatever it might have been. I loved buying that older stuff. I went away to boarding school, and that’s when it kind of stopped. I can’t remember, but I don’t think the stuff got thrown away, my mom wasn’t like that. Maybe I traded it away for a bunch of Rolling Stones albums.

SCD: Everybody seems to remember their first set, the first one they completed and really loved. What was yours?

CH: The first one I can remember completing, with card sheets in a binder, was 1975 Topps. The first old one that I can remember going back to and finishing was the 1960 Topps set, and I did that because I remember my friend and I got a lot of cards from older kids who lived on our block. There was a bunch of 1960 cards in there and me and my friend split them up, and that gave me a huge start into that set, so I went backward after that to finish it.

SCD: What about autographs – did you do mail requests, or go for autographs at the hotel?

CH: I didn’t do the hotel thing, but I mailed out for autographs on 3-by-5 index cards. I also did the cards that had the Hall-of-Fame plaques on them, and I would send those out with a self-addressed, stamped envelope and get them back. I kept those until probably the mid-1990s. My favorite one was Pete Reiser, because I loved Pete Reiser, having read about him.

SCD: I’m guessing in your position, you’ve met guys who you sent autograph requests when you were young?

CH: I did that in the 1970s and ’80s, so it was those players who aren’t around as much anymore. I got a really obscure autograph once when I was down visiting my uncle in Florida, and happened to notice that a guy named Al Kozar lived on his block. The name struck me, or maybe my uncle told me a story, but I called up my friend and he looked him up in the Baseball Encyclopedia and he had played a few years. So I got him to sign a 3-by-5 card when I was down on that visit.

SCD: I imagine you have access to some really neat stuff in your position with Major League Baseball. What are the more interesting items in your den or office?

CH: The kinds of things that I keep now are game-used items or items from an event that mean something to me. I think lineup cards are phenomenal, so I have a lineup card from a Mets game. I have a base from a Yankees-Red Sox ALCS game in Fenway, which I went to with my dad and my son, so it was the first time the three of us had ever been to Fenway together, so that held special meaning. It’s stuff like that.

My two favorite things are a pylon from each of the Broncos’ two winning Super Bowls, each signed by John Elway. And I’ve also got my credential from his second Super Bowl, down in Miami when he was MVP, and I was with him when the game ended, in the locker room, and he signed my credential. I was the first person to have him sign “John Elway Super Bowl MVP,” so I remember that.

SCD: In baseball, what is your favorite team?

CH: Red Sox and Mets. If they were playing each other, it would be the Mets, but Fred Lynn was my favorite player, so I was a fan wherever he went.

SCD: You’ve probably met Fred Lynn.

CH: I’ve met Fred Lynn, and that was really cool. One thing that I still have from my collection is all of my Fred Lynn cards, in a little box that I’ve had since I was a kid. I’ve got multiples of every year up through about 1981.

SCD: How often do you draw upon your collecting background in making decisions at work?

CH: It definitely helps when you start thinking about the different options for a collector and what they would enjoy or not enjoy, and how you can craft something that might appeal to them. I loved collecting sets. I also collected players, with my Fred Lynn cards. So there are things I remember doing that I can tap into. But the biggest thing is just the passion that you had for it. I still love collecting and opening new product. That thrill you get when you open up a pack never goes away.

SCD: Tell us about your professional background. You started in football, correct?

CH: I started at the NFL in the club relations group, and I switched over to licensing and was the brand manager when NFL Properties produced Pro Line Portraits. I was basically doing all of the brand work for Pro Line Portraits – going on all of the photo shoots, the production things, the packouts, everything from soup to nuts to produce that product – while also being the licensing contact for the football licensees. The Pro Line Portraits experience was probably the best thing that could happen to me at an early time. It gave me an understanding of what the licensees go through. Then when I was dealing with licensees, I would know what was possible, how things worked, because I had to do that for Pro Line Portraits. We then did Profiles and GameDay the following year. Those went away when Classic took Pro Line and Profiles, and Fleer bought the GameDay line. Then it was back to regular licensing stuff before coming over to baseball.

SCD: What are your primary duties?

CH: There’s a lot more going on than just cards. It was kind of nice with cards as the focus. Now, I oversee all of the “hard goods,” so it’s pretty much anything that you can’t wear – video games, toys and games, gifts and novelties, the household category, in addition to cards and collectibles.

SCD: Across all categories and across all leagues, there’s been a reduction in the number of licensees. For instance, in video games, the NFL is down to one and you’re down to two. What happened?

CH: The business is now maturing. When things are hot, everybody wants to jump in. When they jump in, for a while they can differentiate themselves, but at the end of the day, everybody needs to try to be profitable. Then everybody battles each other on price. As that price battle keeps going on, companies are not able to make money and they’re not able to reinvest back into the category and to grow the category because they’re trading at the lowest common denominator. That’s when you get shakeouts and reductions, and then companies try to get back to reinvesting. At one point with the NFL, I think we had 11 card licensees, and the business wasn’t big enough to support everybody. Consequently, they can only do so many things beyond putting out the product.

SCD: Cards are still a viable product for kids, aren’t they?

CH: We are absolutely viable and there are several things that have proven that over the past few years. One was Pokemon and Yu-Gi-Oh! Kids still love to collect and they still love the socialization of collecting. It can still be cool to collect and trade and play with cards. The numbers that those products sold show you that kids still want to do that.

The other evidence is that any person that you give a pack of cards to – every single person – is psyched to open it up and find out who they got. It’s that little blind rush, that thrill, when you open up a pack and see who’s inside. You see it when you give out sample packs, or when you give packs to your son’s Little League team, or when you give out cards for Halloween and people come to your door and ask, “Is this the place that’s giving out baseball cards?”

When we give out cards in-stadium, there is not one sample pack thrown on the ground or left in the garbage can. There will be all kinds of other paraphernalia given out in-stadium that’s just dumped on the ground. Everyone still gets that little charge from opening up a pack. We just need to give them a reason to collect and make it so it’s not overwhelming to get back involved in collecting.

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To see the entire interview with Colin Hagen, see the May 12, 2006 issue of Sports Collectors Digest

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