Ben Henry has been collecting baseball cards for nearly 20 years. He is an expert on baseball cards and the creative force behind the highly influential Baseball Card Blog. When I asked him about collecting cards, Ben spoke from the heart about his life-long passion.
ephemera: When did your passion for baseball cards begin?
Henry: I got a box of 1986 Topps baseball as a Christmas present when I was seven years old, and not soon after had a revelation: there was something about collecting cards that gave my life more meaning--that made me feel like I was able to connect with worlds larger than my own bedroom. What I loved was sorting: not so much actually completing a set, but sorting them into piles and accumulating different piles based on classification. I also loved opening card packs. Opening a pack was another opportunity to sort, with the added bonus that I might get a card that I didn’t already have. I collect to accumulate. Good cards and bad cards. Funny photos, guys with silly names, outrageous hairstyles, cards by regional manufacturers of guys who played one game and hero-worship tribute cards by national manufacturers of guys who played until they were 100 years old.
ephemera: What keeps your passion alive?
Henry: Collecting baseball cards shouldn’t be a lifelong pursuit…right? But they are. I collect today to own a piece of history. I try very hard to buy only cards from 1980 and before, and I try to collect cards with quirks or those with especially good design such as the 1949 Leaf set or 1965 or 1971 Topps (link to related eBay auctions). But most of all, writing about collecting has kept my passion for collecting alive.
ephemera: It's easy to see how deeply you care about this hobby. What are your favorite cards, and how do they inspire you?
Henry: I have many favorites. There are certain things you fall in love with from the moment you see them. For me, as a card collector, that’s happened twice. The first is the 1953 Topps Ed Mathews card. It is the greatest example of what a post-war card should possess: quality artwork, propagandistic optimism in the subject, a background that can essentially time stamp an object. This card is a work of art. You could frame it and put in on the wall, and if I had enough money to buy two copies of it, I might do the same.
The second instance was the 1978 Topps Eddie Murray rookie card (link to related eBay auctions), complete with Topps All-Star Rookie loving cup in the lower right hand corner. This card is the best-designed head shot card of the decade. This card of Murray should be taught in beginning photography classes, and the card itself should find its way into design textbooks. It’s that good. Okay, I get a little wrapped up by these cards, but they inspire me to do so because they make me feel whole lot less vulnerable about my place in the world as a card collector. In essence, their existence validates my obsession.
ephemera: The Ed Mathews card is really a treat to see. What challenges or obstacles do you encounter as a collector?
Henry: You’ll never get everything. You have to specialize your collection. Me, I’m trying to go for stuff pre- a certain date. Other collectors just go for stuff from their favorite team or player, others still just go for stuff from a particular set or guys with facial hair, funny names, or glasses. Once you find your calling, don’t become discouraged when your local dealer or your friends don’t have what you’re looking for. eBay is a wonderful thing, and if you know what you want, and know when to go after it, then your collection will blossom, and you’ll enjoy the hobby a great deal.
ephemera: I never realized that there were so many diverse ways to collect and sort baseball cards. What’s your advice to achieving success as a card collector?
Henry: Be yourself. Don’t try to force yourself to collect something you’re not into. If all your friends are Tampa Bay Devil Rays fans and you want to collect the Braves, then collect the Braves. It’s your money and your collection, not theirs’. New and novice collectors shouldn’t feel embarrassed if they don’t really know what they like to collect. Buy all sorts of stuff and try not to go broke doing it, then go for the stuff that strikes your fancy, even if it’s Hello Kitty stickers. I’ll tell you what: dealers do not discriminate, and more often than not, they’ll bend over backwards to special order.
Besides those basics, I would recommend learning more about the hobby if you find that it’s something you enjoy. Knowing more about the history of cards, how to distinguish between years and different makes of cards is incredibly helpful, and knowledge of average pricing of cards is important as well. You’ll be able to glean some of this information from price guides such as Beckett and Tuff Stuff, but also from other sources, such as card catalogs and online sites (including The Baseball Card Blog).
One of the most important steps in becoming a knowledgeable collector is recognizing a) when you’re getting ripped off; b) when you’re being treated fair; and, c) when you’re getting a bargain. You’ll have a better go of it in the hobby if more of your experiences are positive.
ephemera: Thanks for the sage advice, Ben. I’m sure that baseball card collectors will appreciate your broad knowledge of the topic and thoughtful answers.
The following books contain more information about baseball cards and card collecting:
- Standard Catalog of Baseball Cards 2007
- Smithsonian Baseball: Inside the World's Finest Private Collections
Search Abebooks for the books listed in this interview.