Alan Rosen was one of the hobby’s first and most famous sports card dealers; some say infamous. And in 1991, with the help of Doug Garr, he published a fantastic book called Mr. Mint’s Insiders Guide to investing in Baseball Cards and Collectibles.
The subheading on the cover read How to buy, sell, and make money on your collection: Inside tips from the world’s #1 dealer in baseball cards and sports memorabilia. This post is my synopsis, interpretation, and connection to today’s hobby of what he wrote. And let me start with my most significant takeaway; despite being published over 30 years ago, it parallels today’s market really well. Or, the more things change, the more they remain the same.
First, I bought my copy from eBay, and it looks like I picked up a signed copy. Does anyone know if this signature looks legit? Let me know in the comments. Real or not, the book remains an excellent addition to my hobby library.
The book starts with Rosen’s acknowledgment, where he credits a trends piece Doug Garr was writing about the future of baseball cards for the book’s genesis.
Before I jump into the bulk of my review, I have to say that I don’t view cards as investments; they don’t create cash flow. I consider my collection an expense, maybe an “investment” in my happiness, but with no expectation of a future financial return. Do I notice arbitrage opportunities to flip collections? Sure, but to me, that’s not investing; it’s work.
Anyway, I feel like one of Rosen’s first lines, in his Author’s Note, should be read repeatedly by today’s modern card investors. Rosen writes, “This book has been prepared to be of value to both the neophyte collector/investor and the seasoned veteran. Perhaps, too, even a few smarmy teenagers who’ve been wheeling and dealing Ryne Sandberg and Jose Canseco cards will also learn a few lessons about the often volatile and capricious world of baseball cards and collectibles.” Just replace those players with the name Zion Williamson or Wander Franco, not that their cards CAN’t rebound, but some people have lost a ton of money on them over the past year.
The introduction discusses how Rosen got into cards. He then pointed out that his edge was that almost no one was dealing full time, and the keys to his success were having a lot of capital to outbid people and always going after the highest grade material. Rosen was called out for “destroying the hobby” because he advertised his significant finds and flaunted the financial side of things. But he countered, saying he brought more eyes to the modern market; change is inevitable.
The following two chapters cover a few of Rosen’s early deals, the growth of the hobby at the time, and the number of people in the market just for profit, not as a hobby. He’s speaking directly to the investor side when he wrote that making money on cards isn’t that easy but that if you study the market, you can be successful. He also noted that there are opportunities in up or down markets, but it takes work. I don’t think many newer hobby entrants realize how much effort it takes to have sustained success.
Rosen also writes that there is only a market for vintage cards because moms threw cards out. So his advice is never to do anything rash. He then gives some practical advice, like reading box scores, opening some packs, and learning to handle cards. He recommended signing up for a couple of the prominent hobby publications at the time. There aren’t as many today, but there are more blogs, videos, etc. The key is knowing to ignore 80% of what is being advertised or discussed, but that knowledge only comes with education.
Chapter three focuses on developing a field of interest, learning about the types of people and buyers in the hobby, and knowing who you are. He acknowledges the need to float and reminds people that they have to sell what they buy, essentially saying not to fall in love with what you have. A dealer who sits on his inventory isn’t a dealer; they’re a museum curator; look at some of the “dealers” at the National Convention who aren’t selling anything. Rosen emphasizes quality and not quantity and that specialization can help speed up your education in the hobby.
I particularly liked how he differentiated between scarcity and rarity; scarcity is the mintage, and rarity is now many have survived and surfaced in the market. A key lesson then and today is that if you haven’t seen something before, resist the urge to make an offer on it.
Chapter four is called Learning to Grade Cards. In it, he emphasizes condition condition condition because if you buy the highest quality card you can find, then when you’re ready to sell, you only have one thing to argue about, price.
It’s interesting how pessimistic he was about the emerging third party authenticates at the time, perhaps because he felt that was his edge. But Rosen was prescient in saying that, among other things, it would inflate the prices of top-quality cards.
I thought the chapter about where and how to find great buys was going to be an out-of-data chapter before reading it, given those were the pre-internet days, but it ended up being more about negotiating than finding cards. His advice was to consider what you can make on something and asked if you would rather make 10% on a deal in a day or 100% in a year. He mentioned that the local card shop wasn’t the place to buy things if you’re looking to make money, but it’s a great place to meet other dealers and collectors (look what is happening at Burbank Sports Cards). He also said card shows are super important networking events.
Chapter six is about investing in complete sets. Rosen says you should, pre-1975, because card companies printed modern sets in such huge numbers, and the only way to target them is in huge numbers at significant discounts; I’m just not sure how relevant that is in 2022 (the modern set part). The current market feels more about the chase and numbered cards. This is funny because Rosen writes that gimmicks are almost always bad long-term investments; cards that jump big on release tend to drop just as fast and further – 2022 Pain Prizm WWE boxes come to mind today. To take advantage of market timing for sets, he said to buy at the end of the season when dealers tend to dump products. However, he emphasized that it’s hard to make a mistake even paying retail for sets before 1975; that market isn’t as volatile as the modern, rookie card-driven market.
He next spoke about NY syndrome and the Mickey Mantle aura explaining that Mantle is more valuable because of where he played, and that home runs are more powerful than batting average (Aaron Judge says hey). He mentions that retired Hall-of-Famers can’t strike out anymore, card prices rise as a player approaches a potential HoF induction, and that cards are worth more in their team’s locale (Sandy Koufax rookie cards in Los Angeles are SUPER liquid today).
The following three chapters dealt with autographs and memorabilia. His basic advice was to avoid stuff unless or until they’re a Hall-of-Famer. Additionally, this is excellent advice: don’t touch cut signatures of 3×5 index cards with a ten-foot pole; there are so many fakes. Also, when it comes to autographs, solo signed items are a bigger deal than when a star is included with a bunch of random teammates (other than Ruth and Gehrig). Rosen also discourages buying bats, especially for active players, because eventually, the market will flood with their stuff. Last, his recommendations for tickets are to buy only ones with seat numbers and only buy uncut sheets with star cards.
Chapter 8 dealt with auction psychology. Because of the internet, things are a bit different today, but his advice is still applicable. Rosen said to be weary of any auction that doesn’t have photos of every item. He recommended only entering bidding toward the end and not entering a bidding war against a known collector if you want to make money.
Next, Rosen discussed counterfeits. While the hobby is doing better today concerning fakes, there will be cons, wherever there is big money. The older an item is, the more careful you need to be. His best advice was about determining if a card has been altered; he said to hold it up to the light, and if the corners are translucent, it’s probably been messed with.
In chapter 13, Rosen listed his investment strategies for the 90s. What’s funny is you would probably see a similar list from a lot of collectors today. Here’s his Top 11:
- Any card from the nineteenth century
- Adrian C. Cap Anson and Larry Napoleon Lajoie items
- 1919 Black Sox Players
- Negro League items
- High-grade 1969 Topps sets
- High-grade 1958 Topps sets
- High-grade 1954 Topps sets
- 1914 Crack Jack cards
- Any star cards from the T-205 or T206 tobacco series
- 1933 and 1934 Goudey cards
- Pre-80 Unopened Material
He specially said to avoid 1964 Topps since it lacked big star rookies and to be careful of the 1973 to 1974 Topps drop-off. Rosen also felt that 1953 Topps was overpriced at the time and that 1948-55 Bowman had stalled.
He followed up his picks with chapters on selling and caring for your items. His biggest advice was to keep your cards in motion, that profit is a function of time, and that it’s better to sell during the baseball season than off-season. And from a care perspective, storing items in cool, dry places and no movement means no wear.
He closed, emphasizing not holding invetory longer because it could go up a little more. Again, move your material; there’s no risk in taking a profit. Also, as he said earlier, it’s better to have one great item over many small ones. However, today, you may need to start small to build a bankroll.
His closing thoughts included a final list of maxims that boiled down to six things:
- Don’t get emotionally involved with items
- Learn to grade
- But the best condition cards you can
- If you’re unsure about authenticity, pass on the item
- Buy Hall of Famers, preferably deceased ones
- Invest, don’t gamble (i.e., rookie speculation)
While people have varied opinions about Mr. Mint Alan Rosen, his book has a lot of really sound, practical, and applicable advice even thirty years later. I highly recommend picking up a copy; if for no other reason, it’s a great piece of hobby history! Happy collecting!