Sports Memorabilia

Written by Jeremy Horelick
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The sports memorabilia business keeps on changing to reflect new tastes, trends, and economic conditions, but one thing is undeniable: sports memorabilia is big business. Walking the line between personal enjoyment and commerce can pose a real challenge, even for life-long collectors. There's a natural conflict of interest when baseballs, photos, and autographs that one prizes as part of a personal collection also command top dollar on the market.

The reality then is that sports memorabilia serves two masters at once, one public, the other private. A collector may feel tremendous pride in owning an original boxing lithograph, a signed World Series ball, or a hockey stick that once belonged to Gordie Howe or Wayne Gretzky. At the same time, he (collecting is still predominantly the arena of men, though there are certainly exceptions) may also feel pressure to bow to the market's demands and sell that picture, baseball, or hockey stick for hundreds or even thousands of dollars.

Before Sports Memorabilia

The sports memorabilia business was never begun with commercial intentions. Rather, it grew from peoples' natural interest in and love for great sports. The time was the late 1800s, and most of the famed "Big Four" sports were still in their salad days, even though the history of each dates back well beyond the 19th century.

Fans who followed "prize-fighting" or the "national pastime" (baseball), sought ways to relive the great fights and games they experienced. Obviously, television and video were still half a century away, and broadcast radio was still years off, so the "live" experience was a fan's only option. Those who couldn't afford to catch a live match could only read about it the next day in the newspaper or else hear second-hand accounts from those lucky enough to attend.

The Rise of the Business

The demand for sports was so strong in the late 19th century that some magazine publishers began to offer pictures to their readers in exchange for cash. These transactions paved the way for tobacco cards, which, as their name suggests, came included in packs of snuff. The overwhelming majority of men at the turn of the century smoked, so pouches were a prime avenue for reaching sports fans. As the popularity of tobacco cards grew, so too did their quality. Pretty soon, leather and silk mementos joined the standard cardboard and paper products, and the allure of these premium collectibles only attracted more interest.

It's fair to say that the rise of mainstream sports and of sports memorabilia mirrored one another. As interest grew, thanks to the emergence of great athletes, in football, tennis, basketball, and golf, the frenzy continued for products that let fans share a piece of their history. It was then that promoters seized upon this public demand and helped transform once-niche sports into big business by marketing their star athletes. This symbiotic relationship fueled both sports and memorabilia well into the "Golden Age" of the 1950s.

Sports Memorabilia Today

The days of kids collecting bubble gum cards to stick in the spokes of their bicycles or to flip against walls for sport are largely gone. True, some companies such as Topps continue to offer bubble gum with their cards, but it's now the cards that sell these packs, not the gum. For the most part, however, the sports memorabilia trade has moved from pharmacy registers and convenience store shelves to convention halls and arenas often bigger than those in which the sports themselves are played.

There are those who will lament the destruction of a "kids" hobby and bemoan the way in which it's been co-opted by adults, but such is the nature of capitalism; it's hardly the fault of collectors. Nor can promoters, players, or owners be singly blamed for the changing landscape, for culpability rests with none of these parties exclusively. All that can be done to preserve the hobby is to continue to follow the sports and the prodigious feats of those who play them. In this fashion, the hobby of collecting will continue to flourish no matter what.

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