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Investing in Vintage Baseball Legends

Interview with prominent dealer, John Goodman
Conducted by Collectable’s Senior Editor, David Seideman.

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For the past 30 years, John Goodman, the owner of Goodman Sports Cards, has been one of the nation’s top dealers in the country in early 1900s tobacco cards. On eBay, at East Coast shows, and at the National, he is known as Mr. T206 for buying and selling the most popular sports card set in history besides the 1952 Topps. Living on Long Island, New York, he routinely works with a variety of clients helping them complete the entire “Monster Set” of 524 cards, minus the four expensive rarities, including the ever famous Honus Wagner. He also assists in completing everything from Hall of Famers to team sets.

Why do you specialize in pre-war, particularly early 1900s? 

John: I started moving into them in the mid-1990s. I like the artwork in the cards. It fascinated me that they were almost 100 years old. The players were iconic and not just the Hall of Famers. There were also so many great players that are lost to history and could almost be Hall of Famers. The Giants had an outfielder named George Burns nobody remembers. (The rifle-armed outfielder led the league in runs five times and had more than 2,000 career hits. I never heard of him).

David: What are the demographics of T206 collectors? Of course, T206 is one of the most iconic pre-war baseball sets of all time, featuring the legendary Honus Wagner.  

John: I have a fair amount of younger collectors. That is one of the things I like a lot about the set.  Most of the younger collectors are enamored with shiny new cards and the chase cards. But I see fathers and sons and fathers and daughters at my table at shows. Some of the kids know more about particular cards than I do.   

David:  What else fascinates you about the set?

John:  There are so many different aspects.  There’s not a lot of info about printing levels. How many cards were printed in three years from 1909 to 1911? Some are printed in one or two years. There are 29 different backs! (From Polar Bear to Hindu.) Certain cards are much rarer than others.  

For example, there’s a Baltimore minor leaguer named Doc Atkins, probably the rarest of all commons. When I get them, I sell them immediately, because of the rarity.  At a show a year ago, I bought a huge collection with two Atkins. On eBay, I sold the first one in 40 seconds. I said the second would take five minutes. It took one minute and forty-seconds. A normal PSA 6 common lists for $250.. (A raw Atkins is now on eBay for $3900, about the going rate for a PSA 6.)

If you have a card that is just not available like the Atkins, you have to buy one if you can. Maybe 30 or 40 guys are out there doing sets in PSA and SGC 6s. I bet 18 people are out of luck.That makes the card very expensive. It’s the supply and demand. ’

There’s the ’52 Topps cards Herm Wehmeier (a journeyman pitcher). It’s not a short print card. For some reason it was cut with very rough edges. Very high grade examples don’t exist. (There is one eight and no nines or tens). PSA’s set registry is a very competitive deal. The 8 (near mint-mint) came out on the market and sold for $18,000 ten years ago. There are guys with a lot of money.

David: What does a complete set cost, minus the rare four?

John: A PSA/SGC six set is from $250,000 to $500,000. One of the beauties is that you can do it in any grade. If you look at the registry, the  highest graded average is between a six and a seven. These were completed years ago when you could still find those cards. 

They are now harder and harder to find. Maybe the grandfather dies and his heirs don’t want the cards. Then there are the proverbial attic finds. 

Right before the National I bought a raw collection, about 150 cards. A lot of them were in unbelievably high grade. There were 34 Southern Leaguers. I got three sevens. 24 sixes. The rest were five and below. Some were discolored with glue on the back. Those were ones, twos, or threes. That’s an incredible series of cards. When I put them out at the National they were gobbled up in no time at all. 

David: What are some of the best T206 cards you’ve handled?

John: I have had Wagners offered to me. But they cost a lot. All the four different Cobbs. I had the rare Sherry Magie six or seven years ago for one of my customers. (His name was spelled Magee and the error was pulled quickly from production. The population is only 112).  I broke even as a favor selling it in the low 7,0000s.

David: I know a customer whom you’re helping complete the entire set, except the four expensive rarities. 

John: Yes, I have a close friend who started out collecting a set in fours and fives. He decided to break them into a four and a five set. He needs 130 cards to complete both sets. He sees them and buys them. I run all my fours and fives by him to see if he needs them. 

There’s a pecking order. Another friend has a six set. I have four or five people doing fours or fives.

David: Other cards like the Cobbs, Johnson, Young, and Mathewson’s have had meteoric rises as well. 

John: Here’s what’s happening. The hobby has attracted big money collectors and investors, some even billionaires. For them, these are a drop in the bucket. Many wealthy collectors prefer collecting and have more confidence and trust in these markets than they do the stock market. Many clients feel the stock market is too volatile. They buy fine art, like Picassos, and maybe bigger houses. These guys collected baseball cards when they were younger. With today’s grading and auctions, baseball cards have become a very solid market. They see a high grade card. They don’t care. 

It trickles down to everything else!

A Mickey Mantle rookie card in PSA 1 (poor condition) ought to go from $7000 to $10,000. Clean Sweep Auctions recently sold a 1 for $39,000. You just had two or three guys who really wanted the card. 

Last December in a Heritage Auctions there was an OPC Gretzky. OPC is Topps Canadian version and much fewer were made. It’s very difficult in high grade. It was one of two PSA 10s in existence. The winner paid $1.279 million. That was a record. Another collector had to have it and five months later paid $3.75 million. 

It’s all related to what’s being paid in auction for these mega cards. They’re as strong as ever. There are no bargains. The stuff is out there. The catalogs are like museum pieces. The amount of stuff out there is gorgeous. The market has totally changed. 

David: So, given this bullish market, what do you recommend buying now?

John:  Buy Cobbs, Ruths, Mathewsons, Gehrigs, Youngs, Jackie Robinson Leafs in a second, Mantles are more volatile, but still good. Buy them in a second. In my opinion, they are the best investments because of all this money coming into the hobby. The true blue chips.

People want to be entrepreneurs and want their own businesses. A lot of them are successful.  Unemployment is low. Again, it’s all trickling down.

David:  Everyone knows about Cobb, Mathewson, Johnson, and Young in the T206 set. People may not realize that there are 74 Hall of Famers in the set.  Are there second tier Hall of Famers?

David:  With PSA effectively shut down for card submissions, more and more collectors are turning to SGC and Beckett. What’s your experiences with prices?

John:  I have been using SGC. I have never priced a card more because of the grader. For the early 1900s, where I have earned my reputation, the prices are pretty comparable. But PSA in the ‘50s and ‘60s is higher and later is higher with PSA. I sell my cards for what they should go for. Both companies are good. Both companies are bad. Grading is someone’s opinion. For the new cards, Beckett goes for more.

David:  I have heard that graders are tougher these days. One theory is that with all the new hires to meet the overwhelming demand they are overly cautious. 

John: In the last six months, it’s been harder to get good grades with PSA and SGC. What used to be a 5 is now a four or 3.5. They grade tougher and lower. Grading is so corrupt. It’s someone’s opinion. If you cross over from SGC to PSA, PSA is trying to make SGC look bad, which is not fair.  When you’ve established parameters, you shouldn’t be hammered. They should leave it an 8.5. It speaks to their credibility and their perception as trustworthy.

I had a customer in Philadelphia try to complete a PSA set registry in six. He had a Mantle that was an SGC 6.5 and brought it to the PSA booth. The woman said “We grader lower than SGC. It will be a five or less. We are going to charge you $3,000.” (The cost of grading a Mantle).  The guy got really pissed. “No frickin’ way,” he said. “What do I do? If I break it out, it’s a crapshoot.” He sold the card to buy a PSA 6 and said he was never going to do another set registry. He had to pay more and shouldn’t have had to bear the financial result of that.

If you want to take an SGC card and cross it over to PSA, you’re taking a gamble because it will not come back the same grade, usually lower. Break it out of the holder, so it’s raw.

David: Don’t you risk damaging the card?  

John: Actually, it’s very easy to do.The best tool is a Swiss Army knife with the can opener with that little hook. Insert it at the end of the card and separate the holder very carefully. You may get a better grade or a worse grade. I don’t recommend crossing over. It’s a crapshoot. 

David:  Collectable recently sold a PSA 4 Eddie Plank to 642 investors for $299,000. Plank was a great Hall of Fame pitcher and there are about the same number of Planks as Wagners, about 75. The Plank even has similar mystique about its scarcity regarding whether the cause was a broken plate or Plank’s opposition to tobacco. Why does the Plank sell for a fraction of the Wagner? 

John:  First, Wagner and Cobb were the two greatest players of that era. And the Gretzky Wagner he co-owned is the most famous or infamous card in the hobby. PSA cut its teeth grading it early on. It’s the highest graded, a PSA 8. It turned out to be cut out of an uncut sheet. That card got all the publicity.  And every time it sold, it set new records.

David: What are some other interesting, undervalued sets from the early 1900s. I find the gold bordered T205s really beautiful.

John: They don’t get the respect they deserve. They have interesting biographies on the back. There are 27 Hall of Famers, but it’s a relatively small set with 220 cards. There are worthwhile caramel sets. The T207s are fascinating. They are ugly comparatively speaking. But they were put out in four series with all sorts of different variations. If you find them, they come in Cycles and Broadleaf backs. The Broad Leafs are much scarcer than the Cycles. 

The T202 Triple Folders have two T205-type cards on both sides and a center picture that is an action shot. The players on the sides aren’t necessarily in the action shots. (My hot investment tip: the triple folder with Hall of Fame Hughie Jennings and Ty Cobb bordering the iconic Charles Conlon photo of Cobb sliding into third base in a cloud of dust. It averages $7500 in mid-grade, but the combination of the photo and Cobb are sure to propel it higher.) On the back of the photo is language people don’t use anymore. I’ve fallen in love with the writers.

I’m a believer in the T202 with Smoky Joe Wood and Hall of Fame Tris Speaker. Wood was an incredible player that never got recognition.  (He had a career 117-57 record, 2.03 ERA, and a .283  batting average as a pitcher and a right fielder.) He’s not in the T206 or T205, but the T202, T207, and a few other sets.

David: Collectable recently sold a PSA 8 (OC) Sporting News Joe Jackson for about $90,000. His cards are a big deal.

John: Joe Jackson is an iconic player. You have the famous “Say it ain’t so.” The movie Eight Men Out made him popular. He doesn’t have that many cards.

David: One of the auction house owners I interviewed touted 19th century cards, which have a small but fervent following. I have seen a few in your case. Do you agree that they are undervalued? 

John:  No. People really don’t know the players much. Do you know that Hughie Jennings, the Tigers’ manager when Cobb played, hit .401 in 1896?

David: Turning the clock forward to the 1930s and 1940s, what sets are you keen on? Let’s start with 1933 Goudeys.

John: I sell many. You can sell Ruth and Gehrig till the crows come in. And all the Hall of Famers like Jimmy Foxx, Hank Greenberg, and Dizzy Dean. I sell them as fast as I get them. Commons are going up. But not as many people are collecting the set. They’re put off that the Ruth and Gehrig are so expensive.

David: I’ve always loved the beautiful 1934-1936 Art Deco style Diamond Stars. Is the 108 card set undervalued? 

John: I’ve done really well with that set. I bought a complete set at the National I’ve been selling. People really like it. (It has future Hall of Famers Greenberg, Foxx, Lefty Grove, Rogers Hornsby, and several others  destined for Cooperstown.) It’s getting more and more popular because it’s an interesting set. There are low and high numbers. The last twelve cards are extremely, extremely short printed.

David:  What other cards are you buying from the 1930s to the early 1940s?

John:  One of my favorites is Goudey’s 1933 Sport King. It has my favorite Babe Ruth, plus two other baseball players, Cobb and Carl Hubbell. It also has all the major sports, like Jack Dempsey in boxing and Bobby Jones in golf.

David: Any others?

John:  While not his rookie, the 1939 Playball DiMaggio is strong. So is the Ted Willams rookie from that year. The 1941 Playball, which has the Pee Wee Reese rookie, is fun to complete because it’s a small set with 72 cards and is in color. 

David: What’s moving markets?

John: Supply and demand. Like I was telling you, it’s because of economics. The demand has grown. The supply is very finite. The result is a seller’s market.

David: How do you spot fraud? Any examples?

John: With raw cards I buy, I have to measure them. What are the colors and backs like? You should look for clarity. And you ask your friends. I also look for erasing and pasting. If the card looks too good, it’s probably not good. Everything that is big is getting graded. If I have an ungraded card, the first thing I wonder is why it wasn’t graded.

David:  Finally, it seems safe to say that you’re very bullish on the future.

John: It might flatten out a little bit, but not a lot. Younger people are not dumb. They see what’s happening economically. 

I also have a guy from Greenwich Village who collects T206 Minnesota Twins. He brings his wife. They are in their ‘50s. It turns out that she’s collecting ’41 Playball. They are husband and wife collectors!

I am seeing young kids. At the recent show in  Boston a guy was there with his daughter who was 16. She bought her first T206 from me when she was six. A lot of it is simply the beautiful artwork that appeals to her, which is what got me started in the first place.