Score one for an historic collectible

A-Rod 339.jpgAfter it’s filled out and hung on the dugout wall, it’s at the manager’s mercy. Names are scratched out as strategies are deployed, and notations are scrawled in code next to opposing players.

No other piece of memorabilia provides a better glimpse inside a skipper’s head than a game-used lineup card.

“It really is quite a thing because you see all the manager’s thoughts. It’s the chess board in a way,” said Seth Swirsky, a highly regarded author and a California-based hobbyist who owns lineup cards from two perfect games.
Brian Marren, vice president of acquisitions at Mastro Auctions in Burr Ridge, Ill., agrees. “There’s really a game feel to it (a lineup card) because it actually hung in the dugout.”

For years, managers (or coaches on their behalf) have exchanged lineup cards at home plate prior to each game. Phyllis Merhige, Major League Baseball’s senior vice president of club relations, says it’s the official lineup cards that are changing hands in this ritual. 

These official cards, which surface infrequently in the hobby, contain each manager’s lineup, and are often used to fill out larger cards that are then hung on the dugout walls. Merhige says that the current model of larger cards has been employed for the last “three or four years.”

More visually appealing than the official cards, the larger models include the team names, the date, the location of the contest, space for both teams’ lineups, and official major league branding.

“They (the larger cards) get authenticated at the end of the game by a hired authenticator,” said Merhige.

These larger cards are now featured regularly in auctions run by Major League Baseball. As a whole, however, lineup cards have been slow to take off as a collectible.

“They don’t have great eye appeal,” said Marren, when explaining why lineup cards have not been widely embraced by collectors. The savvy hobbyist also adds that until recently people didn’t think about selling lineup cards. 

Mario Monteleone, vice president of marketing with Elite Sports Marketing in Oldsmar, Fla., who has auctioned off a number of these collectibles, has also found that there is not a huge demand for them. “It’s not really a big, big collectors piece. I guess they’re really unique, but you’ve got to have the right buyer in order to really get the interest that it deserves,” he said.

Monteleone says that a number of factors impact the value of these cards. “The significance of what happened on that day, that would be the No. 1 important thing,” he said.

Swirsky’s lineup cards from perfect games tossed by Len Barker and Tom Browning are evidence of this. “The fact that these are the actual lineup cards that the manager filled out, and the pitcher that did it went and signed the card, it’s like Picasso signing his work,” he said.

Also affecting the card’s value are the player names are on it, its condition, and if it is autographed. “It’s not going to hurt the value by having a major guy’s autograph (on it),” said Marren.

Dean Zindler, owner of Zindler’s Sports Memorabilia in Norcross, Ga., agrees. “When they are signed, they cross over into autograph collectors as well.”

One problem vintage lineup cards pose is that they can be difficult to trace to a specific game.  Often the older cards showcase solely the team’s lineup and few other details.  This lack of data and provenance has made collectors hesitant to purchase them. “The older ones that you don’t have a real trace of if it’s legitimate or not, really raise questions,” said Monteleone.

Potential methods of confirming authenticity include comparing the manager’s handwriting to other samples, becoming acquainted with a particular skipper’s idiosyncrasies (symbols they employ, etc.), and checking the lineup against box scores.

Past auction sales seem to indicate that if the card can be traced to a specific, historic game, it can command a lofty sum. In November 2005, for example, a lineup card from Babe Ruth’s first major league game fetched $22,000 in an auction held at the Louisville Slugger Museum. 

It’s believed that the highest price ever paid for a lineup card was the $165,010 that hedge fund firm partner Sky Lucas forked over for the Red Sox lineup card from Game 4 of the 2004 World Series. That was sold in a Major League Baseball auction in December 2004.  The lifelong Bosox fan hopes to sell licensed replicas of the card.

Other recent, but less historic lineup cards have sold for considerably less. Monteleone, for instance, sold an autographed card from the game in which Alex Rodriguez belted his 334th career home run for $176 on eBay.

If you are looking to purchase lineup cards from historic games, your best sources are likely the dealers quoted in this article, high-end auction houses or, for more recent cards, Major League Baseball auctions. 

For lower-end lineup cards, eBay can be a good source.  Recent sales on the online auction giant reveal that you could have purchased a batch of five Minnesota Twins’ lineup cards from non-historic games played in the 1990s for as low as $20. These miniscule prices are the reason that some hobbyists feel they are undervalued.

“It’s the most underrated game-used item I think there is,” said Swirsky.
Despite their affordability, however, Zindler says that lineup cards remain a non-mainstream collectible. “As far as the pecking order when it comes to game-used stuff, it seems like jerseys are always the top echelon, followed by bats or helmets. To a lesser extent, you get stuff like the lineup cards,” he said.

Monteleone concurs, but he adds that he has started to notice an increase in interest in recent months. “They are starting to get noticed a lot more. The game-used lineup cards are really, really cool pieces. It gets you that much closer to the game.”

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