Hall of Fame misses are a big part of the story

It used to be that the card-collecting hobby was a pretty good barometer about who was going into the Hall of Fame, primarily because the purchases of collectors figuratively amounted to periodic little “votes” about a player’s worthiness for enshrinement.

   Ah, for the good old days.

   If the assumption is that eventual Hall-of-Fame induction is one of the major determinants of card value, then the events of the last decade or so have been truly difficult times. It’s a reasonable conjecture that many hundreds of thousands of dollars have been invested in players who were once regarded as likely HOFers, only to find that – for a wide variety of reasons – the likely enshrinement had either been greatly diminished or in some cases had even evaporated entirely.

   Don Mattingly is quite fairly admired in hobby circles because his rookie card(s) did so much in the mid-1980s to install the idea that a card fresh off the printing press could have significant value. Like a number of his contemporaries, “Donnie Baseball’s” cards first took a hit as the hobby itself leveled off in the 1990s, then suffered once again as it became clear that the injuries that dogged him for much of his career may have sent him into retirement with numbers just short of the magic number needed to get a Hall pass.

   The curiosity of a player with an historically weak rookie card now seemingly on the threshold of being elected (Goose Gossage) doesn’t necessarily conflict with conventional wisdom about rookie cards, it’s just a reminder that there are a number of factors that contribute to the “value” or a card.

    Ripken has long been one of the most popular players of the modern hobby, but even his rookie card(s) have taken serious bumps with the hobby’s rough years since the early 1990s.

   There was once a time when Ripken’s HOF chances were described in terms not wildly different than those applied to Dale Murphy, Jim Rice and even Andre Dawson. Rice figures to have his best shot next year, trailing only Gossage as a front-runner, and Dawson would be a long shot, given the rarity of a player making up nearly 20 percentage points in one year.

   Dale Murphy’s dizzying fall to barely more than four dozen votes is a matter of great curiousity – and genuine angst verging on despair – to a vast contingent of fans that believes his exemplary behavior on and off the field and rather convincing career numbers should make him a member of the club. Those cynical sportswriters seem to demur.

   Mark McGwire, of course, is the most compelling story of the formerly boisterous rookie cards. Arriving in the 1985 Topps Olympics subset, the card reached giddy, dare we say unbelievable heights around the time of the Great Home Run Race of 1998.

   These days, even the highest-graded specimens of the card are selling for relatively pedestrian prices. McGwire’s HOF vote total of roughly 24 percent was startling, but it’s a fair statement to suggest that the vote next year will be more interesting and vastly more instructive.

   He will be the marquee name again next year, and it will be informative to see how much of a jump he gets from the writers. Clearly, folks wanted to send a message by witholding what would have likely been first-ballot election based on the world as we knew it at the time he retired.

   And it’s not even guaranteed that he will get a bump, because it’s very likely that there are going to be more steroid-related developments over that span, and in the very best journalistic tradition, McGwire’s cautionary tale will get regurgitated each and every time. Call it a curse.

   And speaking of curses, there’s still the most interesting rookie/HOF debate example of all: Pete Rose. Despite the major adjustments that the hobby faced over the last 15 years, Pete’s rookie, once the granddaddy of them all for post-1960 players, has hardly moved despite the increasingly gloomy prospects for HOF enshrinement over that span.

   More evidence, I guess that there’s more to the equation than just somebody’s HOF chances. It probably doesn’t hurt being a high number in the classic 1963 Topps set, either.  

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