Interview with Steve Gadzilia, co-own of Champion Sport Cards and Collectibles.
Conducted by Collectable’s Senior Editor, David Seideman.
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If you want to know the pulse of the sports collectibles industry, you ought to go to shows where the action is live and some of the biggest deals go down. Collectors and dealers trade Intelligence and inside gossip. There is something for everyone— whether they be Millennials, Baby Boomers, or just plain big spenders.
Steve Gadzillia has been attending shows for 30 years as a collector and the last 12 as a dealer. He and his partners, Jon Celona, and Justin Thyme run Champion Sports Cards and Collectibles out of Boston. They set up at 15-20 shows per year, averaging one or two per month; usually near the entrance where they get first dibs at sellers carrying cardboard boxes and plastic bags. Besides the National, they do two Shriners shows in Boston, four shows in White Plains, NY, two at Hofstra University, and one in Nashville— plus a few local shows.
Their inventory is broad, but their true speciality is post-war stars and Hall of Famers in high grade. I caught up with Steve Gadzilia a day after the recent Shriner’s show in Boston
David: What are your hottest cards these days?
Steve: Your big four: Mantle, Mays, Aaron, Clemente. and I would certainly say Koufax.
For non-baseball, I’m talking rookies. In basketball: Russell, Chamberlain, Alcindor, Bird, Magic, In the modern stuff, it’s Jordan. Kobie and LeBron. For football it’s Starr, Unitas, Namath, Bradshaw. Our later cards doing well are Montana. Rice, and Tom Brady.
The Brady Playoff Contender is off the charts. (Earlier this year, a BGS 9 sold for $3.1 million.) Less expensive options are the 2000 Tom Brady Ultimate Victory Rookie Parallel Gold (PSA 10 for sale on eBay for $125,000) and 2000 Bowman Chrome Refractor Tom Brady rookie. (A PSA 9 is on eBay for $300,000.) We sell a good many PSA 8s, which go for about $3,500.
David: I have heard that Mays, Aaron, and Clemente have done well over the past couple of years.
Steve: Yes, that’s true. They definitely have been picking up. Basically, the early Mays and Aaron cards have. People realize just how undervalued they have been. Clemente had a very nice run, but has leveled off. You should focus mainly on their early years. In later years, like the 1960s, buy the highest grades like 9s. We sold a 1969 PSA 9 Aaron for $5,000.
David: What about interest in “lesser” Hall of Famers? Who’s moving?
Steve: Lou Brock, Bob Gibson, and to a lesser degree, Brooks Robinson. I would also add to this second tier Harmon Killebrew, Bob Feller, Warren Spahn, Stan Musial, and Jim Bunning.
David: And, then there is, of course, the king of post-war: Mickey Mantle.
Steve: Mantle is popular pretty much all of his years. His early years are so sought after and are, obviously, very expensive. So a lot of people are going to the years from 1960 to 1969 in high grades.
David: I am always waiting for his beautiful Bowman cards to soar. But even his 1951 rookie is relatively low compared to his 1952 Topps. I have always wondered why.
Steve: Well, Bowman has crept up. But Topps is more popular because it has been around longer and, thus, has better brand recognition.
David: What are astute people collecting these days?
Steve: There are two segments of the market, modern and vintage. From what I’ve seen, the modern collectors are speculating a lot on Patrick Mahomes, Zion Williams, Jay Morant, and Mike Troutt. People like those modern cards.
For vintage collectors, it’s mainly the Hall of Famers we talked about. Oh, I want to also add Pete Rose, who is very popular with collectors. (Rose is also a gracious and an entertaining autograph guest.) He’s the all-time hit king and a lot of people think he should be in the Hall of Fame, eventually. (The last PSA 10 sold for $717,000 in 2016. (PSA population: 1).
David: I’ve noticed at the shows we’ve attended together that you do your share of game-used memorabilia. What sort is hot right now?
Steve: Game-used equipment. Jerseys are probably the best. But some people like football helmets. Others like sneakers. Michael Jordan, of course. A few years ago, I bought a Mike Trout game used bat from his rookie season which came from the Trout family in NJ for $2,500 and sold it for $3,500. I regret selling it. (Signed Trout rookie bats now sell for over $20,000.)
David: What’s some of your prized memorabilia you’ve dealt?
Steve: I sold a Koufax 1965 home jersey for $20,000-$25,000. Other game jerseys I have had include Larry Bird, Pedro Martinez, George Brett, and Julius Irving. Before big buys, I often send pictures to authenticators to get a read. I just consigned a Joe DiMaggio professional model bat to Heritage. John Taube (the leading bat authenticator featured in The Short Print) determined it wasn’t Joe D’s bat, but used by some unknown Yankee in the 1950s. It’s worth about $1,000.
David: I have been making the case for game-used caps as an affordable alternative to jerseys.
Steve: I sold a Thurman Munson cap for $3,000. (In early 2021, SCP Auctions sold a Munson jersey for $138,000.)
David: What’s moving markets?
Steve: Still the pandemic. There’s a lot of disposable income around from not going out for entertainment, going out to eat, or going to a game. We in the industry tend to do better when the stock market does better. Plus money being made from crypto currency.
David: What makes something rare and collectible?
Steve: People go by the pop reports for the three main grading companies. There’s also a function of supply and demand of the time. If there is only one Rose rookie in a nine there’s going to be a bidding war. With things like memorabilia, the general consensus is that players were issued only two of three jerseys per season. That’s very few.
David: What do you look for?
Steve: When we buy something, we’re always looking for Hall of Famers in high grade and high value. We’re looking for, where can we sell it? and what do we think we can sell it for? Essentially if we feel the price to buy is discounted enough to a number where we can make money.
For the more astute collector, centering and color are key. As a general rule, we try for centered 60/40 or better. We turn down a lot of stuff because it’s not centered. We might buy one or two items but pass on five, usually because of the centering. Raw or graded.
David: For this column, I ask experts how to spot fraud. You mentioned that you reach out to experts with memorabilia. In your case, I also saw you in action. A collector was showing off a Michael Jordan Fleer rookie graded 9 at the White Plains show he bought off eBay. Every dealer and auction house heavyweight said it was good, but you and your partner Jon Celona. The collector sent it back to PSA who told him the slab and card were fakes. The seller did not realize it and the collector was able to settle with him.
Steve: We have had a lot of experience with the Jordan rookie. There are two things I look at in particular. One is the label in the case. On fraudulent examples, the label is printed on a jet ink printer or laser printer. So you can see the difference between the grading company labels. On the Jordan, there’s a little yellow parts underneath the Fleer logo arrow. On the fakes you can distinguish between the fakes and the real ones, The fakes are perfectly outlined. It’s hard to describe, but with the real ones there is a subtle difference.
We also see the 1990 George Bush Topps cards not in holders. (Only 100 were printed, especially for the president.) You look for the heavier cardboard stock and glossy coating.
To spot fraud, depending on the year, but particularly pre-war. We smell the cards.
David: Stop there. I have seen you and Jon smell cards and it looks a little crazy.
Steve: If the old raw cards are real, they smell musty. We had a guy come up to us recently with some tobacco stuff. Honus Wagner. Smokey Joe Wood. Cobb with the Hindu back. Lots of Hall of Famers. They looked real. Not in great shape. Ones to threes. But when you smelled them, you knew these had been sitting around a long time!
David: What investments do you recommend?
Steve: Ruth 1933 Goudeys and the Ruth 1933 Sport King is a popular card right now. I would stay away from strip cards.
As alternative investments, pre-war is the best. Go for the first six Hall of Famers (Ty Cobb, Walter Johnson, Christy Mathewson, Babe Ruth, Honus Wagner , and Lou Gehrig.) And Shoeless Joe Jackson. Tobacco, Cracker Jack, and candy cards.
David: I find it interesting that you are so bullish on pre-war when you make your money primarily from post-war.
Steve: Yes, as an investment, I would focus on pre-war. It’s getting scarcer and harder to come by. The 30,35-year-olds and younger still like the modern stuff. That is their niche because that is what they are familiar with. But they are also becoming fascinated with pre-war.
Steve: The other thing I am seeing at shows is 1980-1985 in high grade. 9s and 10s.
David: Really, the junk wax? I guess a rising tide lifts all boats.
Steve: People are definitely into it. Ripken, Henderson, Mattingly, Sandberg, Gwynn, and Puckett. Bonds and Clemens to a lesser degree. Again, in the highest grades.
David: What about the hustling at the big shows that attracts the millennials, almost like gambling?
Steve: We saw a guy at the National who came with two or three grand. He kept going from booth to booth, flipping and flipping. He walked out of the show with $9,000. To make a sale to a dealer, you need an outgoing personality and to accept rejection.
David: What’s the future look like?
Steve: I think people will always collect. That is not the issue. The question is what they will collect. Pokeman and Magic cards have had a good run. Will people who grew up in the ‘80s and ‘90s be collecting cards from their youth?
I think modern and vintage niches are established. Each is its own niche.
Personally, I believe Mahomes could break his leg tomorrow and never play again. Whereas Mickey Mantle and Roberto Clemente’s careers are over. There are still fresh finds. But there aren’t that many more in attics and in basements. The material is finite.
We’re seeing people at the age when they get an inheritance so they are effectively in the card industry for nothing. Baby boomers are giving money to their kids or grandkids. But there will always be a market correction because, as I’ve said, the collectibles industry is definitely tied to the economy.
My number one rule is you gotta do your research. A business professor asked me what the biggest barrier to entry in this industry is. What I told him was knowledge. You learn something new every day.