Fred Baumann stepped outside to look for the truck. It was nearing noon, which meant that collectors across the city would soon be heading to the Upper East Side on their lunch breaks.
It was the first day of baseball card season, and Mr. Baumann, one of the owners of Alex’s MVP Cards and Comics, still remembers the time a shipment was accidentally delivered to a nearby restaurant and sat undiscovered for a week, provoking a near meltdown for a small group of adult men.
Running one of the last sports-card stores in the city means constantly disappointing people. Most often it’s the guys who think the baseball cards collecting dust in their closets might be worth big money. Mr. Baumann gently deflates the expectations of about 20 would-be sellers every day, having to tell them that only about four cards from their childhoods are worth anything now.
“People think if it’s old, then it must be worth money,” Mr. Baumann said. “I try to explain it to them, but they just don’t stop talking. That’s the painful part.”
For most of the year, the baseball card market today is a highly esoteric and high-tech affair. But on the opening day of a new trading season, when baseball card companies like Topps release the new cards, the hobby becomes pure again. It’s the one moment that no one knows what any single card is worth, and collectors get to experience the simple pleasure of ripping open a pack of cards.
The Beckett Baseball Card Price Guide, started by a statistician in the 80s, first codified the price of trading cards. A 1909 Honus Wagner (shortstop, Pittsburgh Pirates) sold for $100,000 in 1988, and by the time independent grading agencies started to spring up in the ’90s, people were treating vintage cards like blue-chip stocks.
Memorabilia companies rushed to capitalize on the demand. They flooded the market with new products, and thus today almost none of them are worth much more than the cardboard they were printed on.
As a way to re-inject scarcity into the market, card companies came up with the concept of “hit cards.” These cards might feature embedded bits of memorabilia — a splinter of a player’s bat, say, or a swatch of a game-worn jersey.
True completists, then, must rely on baseball-card brokers to track them down. Mr. Baumann would prefer not to sell the few packs he has on hand to someone who’s just looking at them as an investment. At least not until the actual fans have had their chance to get their hands on some.
“I don’t want to have to explain to some kid that a guy I’ve never seen came in and cleaned me out,” he said. “Some of those kids might be 35 years old, but I still don’t want to have to break it to them.”
As it turned out, Mr. Baumann’s fears were unfounded. The cards arrived at the tail end of the lunch hour and no professional speculators showed up.
“I don’t know what any of this stuff is,” said 32-year-old Daniel Rocco of his two new jumbo boxes. “Beckett’s guide has nothing on these cards, so you have nothing to compare them to. It makes you feel like a kid again.”
The phone rang again, and Mr. Baumann picked it up.
“When you say old, what years are you talking about?” he asked. Then he said that he would have to pass on any cards from the ’90s unless they were the rookie cards of Derek Jeter or Ken Griffey Jr. The guy on the other end pleaded his case.
“They don’t listen,” Mr. Baumann said after hanging up. “They’re like 5-year-olds.”
Ralph Schneider is a typical customer. He already pays for two storage units to house his 50,000 baseball cards and probably shouldn’t be buying more of them at all; he can barely afford to keep up with the hobby on his teacher’s salary.
But the beginning of the baseball card season is his favorite day of the year.
“Teaching’s not an easy profession,” he said, “and big release days keep me going.”
A native of Marine Park, Brooklyn, his eventual goal is to collect every player who has ever played for his beloved minor-league Cyclones.
Mr. Schneider also runs a YouTube channel where he opens cards on camera, what is known as “breaking.” As he waited for Mr. Baumann to ring him up, the 24-year-old explained that he’ll start filming as soon as he gets home.
Videos of people breaking new packs of cards helps speculators set prices on the secondary market, because it lets them know who has already found what. But Mr. Schneider, who is also an aspiring actor and Frank Sinatra impersonator, just likes being on camera.
Before Mr. Baumann gave him his $4 in change, he pointed out to that $4 would also get Mr. Schneider another single pack of baseball cards.
The young collector paused, thought about it, accepted. The videos could wait, but he couldn’t. “This one’s just for me,” he said, tearing open the pack right at the counter.