Collecting on Steroids: The Effect of PEDs on the Sports Memorabilia Market

In the late 1990s, Mark McGwire’s rookie card commanded hundreds of dollars. Steroid use has tainted his legacy and prices. It now sells for under $20.

The issue of steroids, human growth hormone and other performance-enhancing drugs certainly isn’t new to sports. Athletes from the worlds of cycling, boxing and the Olympics have fallen victim to the allure of easy success through the use of PEDs. The recent lawsuit filed by Alex Rodriguez of the New York Yankees against Major League Baseball is only the latest in a series of dramatic headlines that have rocked baseball and the sports world in general since the late 1990s.

When it comes to athletes who have been even allegedly tied to PED use and the prices their sports cards and memorabilia command, there is a direct correlation: a negative, downward trend in terms of supply versus demand and, ultimately, value.

For the purposes of this article, I’ll focus on baseball because, unlike other sports’ statistics, a player’s individual statistics are the nomenclature by which fans compare players from one era to another and, because of this, it’s very easy for baseball fans and historians to rank players throughout the long history of the sport by comparing these numbers.

While it’s true that each era of players has done its best to gain competitive advantage in various and sundry means, the uneven playing field created by the usage of PEDs by specific athletes has rendered an entire generation of player statistics suspect—so much so that players who at one time were certain to be added to the Hall of Fame may never be acknowledged for their accomplishments because sports writers and fans believe their numbers have been artificially inflated.

Investigated for steroid use in 2007 and indicted for perjury in 2009, Barry Bonds’ rookie card similarly sells for a fraction of its former value.

Sammy Sosa, Mark McGwire, Barry Bonds, Rafael Palmeiro, Manny Ramirez and Alex Rodriguez all fall into the category of having been described as “surefire” Hall of Famers. Their statistical accomplishments on the diamond are certainly worthy of such acknowledgement.

But unfortunately for themselves and the fans, they cheated—or are widely believed to have cheated—by using PEDs. Only time will tell if their infractions can be forgiven.

For a sport that relies deeply on promoting the history and tradition of the sport, baseball has done its absolute best to ignore the entire situation altogether. Take the case of Barry Bonds, who beat Hank Aaron’s all-time home-run record and retired in 2007.

Aaron set the record in 1976, and even many years after retirement he served as a prominent ambassador to the game because of his historic achievement. He’s still a celebrated figure within baseball.

When the San Francisco Giants won the World Series in 2012, just three years after he beat Aaron’s record, Bonds was nowhere to be seen during the entire televised broadcast.

In the late 1990s and early 2000s, it was a great time to be a baseball fan. In 1998, Mark McGwire of the St. Louis Cardinals and his divisional rival, Sammy Sosa of the Chicago Cubs, battled until the end of the season to break the single season home run-record set by Roger Maris in 1961. It was a mark that lasted 37 years and had seen countless Hall of Fame players pass through the league without coming close. Yet suddenly two players in one year were battling, blow-for-blow, for this “unbeatable” record.

Fast forward to 2001, a short three years later, and Barry Bonds reset the mark, and eventually went on to pass Aaron’s career home-run record six years later.

Sammy Sosa’s infamous “corked” bat, which he claimed was only used for pre-game practice swings.

Then, Alex Rodriguez and his $250 million contract seemed to be on pace to break Bonds’ career mark. Manny Ramirez and Rafael Palmeiro would eventually join the once lofty ranks of the 500 home-run club, with Palmeiro being one of only a few players in history to accompany his 500-plus career home runs with 3,000-plus career hits.

Baseball, its alumni, its fans and its collectors had huge reason to celebrate.

And then the truth came out.

While there will always be people willing to pay exorbitant sums for pieces of baseball history, the ability of these items to appreciate in value over time has been irreparably harmed as a result of the ensuing PED investigation.

During the period of record-breaking achievements, the price of these players’ rookie cards and memorabilia soared commensurate with their statistics. At one time, the key rookie cards of both McGwire (1985 Topps Card #401) and Bonds (1986 Topps Traded #11T) were routinely sold online and at card shows for hundreds of dollars. It wasn’t uncommon for high-grade examples—those submitted to a third-party service and assigned a numerical value based on condition using a 10-point scale—to command four figures.

Today, you can purchase near-mint and mint copies of each for less than $20.

Mark McGwire’s record-setting home-run ball originally sold for $3 million. Today, due to the sluggers’ steroid use, it would likely sell in the $100,000 range.

When it comes to game-used material, bats and jerseys of the one-time home-run kings commanded thousands of dollars on the national sports auction-house circuit. Today, it’s common for these items to not even reach the auction’s reserve price.

When it comes to the damage PEDs have done to baseball, auction prices speak volumes. In 1999, Mark McGwire’s 70th home-run ball sold for an unprecedented $3 million. In 2007, after the well-publicized steroid scandal broke, Barry Bonds’ 70th home-run ball sold for $14,400.

In 1999, Aaron’s record-breaking 755th home-run ball sold for $650,000. In 2007, Bonds’ 755th home-run ball, which tied Aaron’s record, sold for $186,750.

In the same auction, Bonds’ record-breaking, 756th home run ball did sell for an extremely respectable $752,467. When taken into context however, you can see the depreciation, or lack of appreciation, that these items incurred and the far cry they achieved in realized prices compared to the $3 million that initially set the bar just eight years prior.

Ultimately, it’s fans and collectors who suffer. It would be interesting to see what that $3 million ball would sell for today. One might realistically set the over-under at $100,000. While it might have seemed worthy of its price at the time, it has proven to be, so far, a truly poor investment thanks to the tragic influence of PEDs on the game of baseball.

Rob Bertrand has been an active collector of sports cards and memorabilia for more than 20 years. His involvement in the hobby community is well documented, having been the content manager for the Card Corner Club website before the company’s merger with CardboardConnection in 2011, where he is now a staff writer and multimedia content producer. Rob is also the co-host of the sports collectibles hobby’s only live and nationally broadcast radio show, Cardboard Connection Radio. He is the author of the highly respected and trafficked blog, Voice of the Collector and you can follow him on Twitter @VOTC. A dealer himself, Rob runs an online business through eBay, and is frequently asked to consign collections.

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