A mother and her nine-year-old son walked into Worthologist Howard Lau’s Houston Sports Connection in search of baseball cards. The boy hadn’t been much interested in collecting until baseball cards became a major topic of discussion among the kids on his baseball team. How should her son collect cards the mother asked?
“There’s no one way,” Lau advised, when looking at baseball cards as a collectible. “You can collect a team or individuals, or a lot of brands … They usually get interested in cards around eight and often they stop around fourteen when they discover a thing they call girls.”
“Oh, no!” the mother exclaimed.
Lau, who is Worthpoint’s expert on sports memorabilia — one of the most high profile and volatile collectible markets, speaks from experience. “Back in 1974 my father had a convenience store and we sold cards. They were 25 cents a pack. I saw kids come in buy them, trade them and I always enjoyed sports, so I started collecting.”
He stored his booty in a shoebox, but as he got older his interest waned. Then college “the fire was rekindled,” Lau said. Those were exciting years. In 1987, the San Diego Padres catcher Benito Santiago had a 34-game hit streak and the next year the Oakland A’s Jose Canceso hit forty home runs and stole forty bases. “When exciting things are going on in the game it raises everyone’s interest,” Lau explained.
Retrieving his shoebox, Lau found that he had a 1975, second year card of Philadelphia Phillies third baseman Mike Schmidt, which was worth $100. “That was a piece of change back then,” Lau said. In 1988, Lau opened his card store in a storefront owned by his father. “I didn’t have to pay rent so that gave me a tremendous advantage,” he said.
Over the years, Lau has worked the retail and wholesale markets, as well as the card shows. During that time the baseball memorabilia market has been wrack by outside events as none other. “We’ve had counterfeiting, the ’94 baseball strike, and the steroid scandals – negative publicity does affect the market,” Lau explained. In the two years after the players’ strike, for example, “interest in baseball cards was way down.”
Between counterfeiting and a deluge of Internet sales there has been a growing concern over the legitimacy of cards, autographs and memorabilia. On major purchases sellers and buyers now turn to PSA/DNA Authentication Services, which will verify autographs, photos and equipment for fees of $20 to $250. “I always use them on an expensive sale, just so there is no question,” Lau said.
The difficult market has taken its toll. “Whenever there is fan discontent it is the guy in the middle that bears the brunt,” Lau said. “In 1989 there must have been about 200 hobby stores in Houston, now we are down to about ten.”
So, given the pitfalls of the baseball card collecting how should one go about it? “Collect what you like, what interests you,” Lau counsels. “I still collect as an adult as I did as a kid.”
It is not, however, Roger Clemmons being called before a Senate committee to testify about steroid use or Barry Bonds being probed by a grand jury for perjury that Lau finds worrisome. “From a business standpoint,” he said, “the most troubling thing is we are losing the kids.”
“It used to be that a pack of cards cost 50 cents or a $1 and a premium pack was $4,” Lau said. “Now they are coming out with $600 packs. I realize they are doing it because there is a market, but we are neglecting the kids.”
And that’s why when a mother and her nine-year-old walk into his store Worthologist Howard Lau is happy to help.