The pen is mightier, another Hobby Heavyweight interview…

When thinking about hobby heavy weights eventually the discussion has to move to Beckett. Beckett has been the biggest voice in the hobby for over 20 years. I sent an e-mail to editor Chris Olds to see if he would chat with me about Beckett, his collecting past and his thoughts on the hobby in general. Chris is paid to watch trends and developments in card collecting so he had lots of great insight to share, please take a look.

K: Tell us about when you first got into collecting?

Chris: My earliest memories of collecting weren’t cards at all — they were stickers. I remember when visiting my grandparents (a once-a-year cross-country summer road trip) seeing a Topps sticker album and getting some packs and sticking them in the book. I remember doing to a grocery store and seeing 1984 Topps rack packs on the shelf, but saying “no” to those as they weren’t stickers.
Back then, it was a real casual thing.
The next year I “got serious” about the stickers on the trip and nearly had the 1985 album with Dwight Gooden gracing the cover filled by the time we headed back home a week or two later.
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After that point, card-wise, I still wasn’t serious. But I remember going into a Pamida store and seeing a shopping cart full — FULL — of 1985 Fleer rack packs right inside the door marked down for 25 cents a rack. I bought a bunch. When I went back for more the next day the entire cart was gone.
A couple years later, I seriously started collecting with 1987 Topps when I received a factory set as a gift and it’s been a full-time deal since then.

K: Did you favor one sport, team or player?

Chris: The 1987 Topps Jose Canseco card stood out for a few reasons — the Rookie Cup, the bright green cap and jersey and the fact that it was worth a whole dollar.
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“He must have been good,” I thought, so I collected him. then the next year he made history with his 40-40 season and I have been collecting ever since. Baseball was always king — until 1989 when the NFL added Pro Set, Score, etc., and when basketball added NBA Hoops. That year was explosive for collecting in so many ways. I dabbled in basically everything until it got too expensive to collect all sports in later years. Baseball was always No. 1, but others got attention.

K: What was your favorite set and card as a kid?

Chris: Where I lived, I was lucky if we ever saw Donruss, Fleer or other card companies’ cards before 1988. Topps for sure, maybe some Sportflics — which were way too expensive — but in 1988 everything started to change. I always liked 1987 Topps because it was so different, but what I really remember liking were the Topps Traded sets because the designs always looked so much better on bright white stock. Opening those sets — which I always got via the JCPenney catalog — were special until about 1991 when everything else had changed, too. I also always liked oddball cards that one would find in oddball card-collecting kits — one example being the 1984 Topps Drake’s card of Pete Rose.
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Since I was from Ohio — that card was cool but way different as it showed him as a member of the Phillies.
By 1990, even the little town I lived in had a card shop — two in fact — which only made exploring cards in all areas that much easier.

K: When/How did you decide to make it your career?

Chris: There was never a conscious decision to do so. It happened along the way. Card collecting was what I always did, period. From seeing my first Beckett in 1988 — and all the other mags about cards before that — I was always reading what was going on, but it wasn’t my focus with school. In high school, I was seriously interested in architecture and drafting (from more of a design standpoint than engineering) and also with newspapers. Newspapers won in my first year of college, though I tried a double-major that first year since I had scholarships in both areas.

K: What kind of education and experience did you have before joining Beckett?

Chris: I graduated high school in 1995 and worked for my college paper (small school in Wyoming) from 1995 to 1998 as sports editor one year then editor in tandem with one other person for two years, managing a staff of 20 or so members. While he was the “news” guy, I was the “sports” guy and the layout/design guy who pulled it all together and managed things, too. Things got serious our first month or so in charge when a student was raped and murdered by another student — something that didn’t happen in this small town — and then we had several weeks in a row that had other surreal things happen. We learned real fast that we could be professionals or look like clowns doing the typical college-quality stuff. We took it all serious — had plenty of reason to — and we had unprecedented success with awards and honors for us and the school.
On the side, I wrote for the state’s largest newspaper as a correspondent covering college and high school basketball games (and other sports) on the weekends.
All of it was the ultimate boot camp, while doing school at the same time.
From there, I finished school at the University of Alabama where I graduated with honors while also holding down a full-time job working for the local newspaper at night. I worked full-time for that paper, which was owned by the New York Times, handling every possible page in the paper at some point — from the TV pages to 1A, etc. — for a couple years before moving into the sports department permanently in 2001. (I was a desk jockey, meaning you wrote smaller stories, edited stories, edited photos, designed pages, wrote headlines — essentially all that was on a page I was somehow, in part, responsible for.)
It was the ultimate boot camp, part two.
When I moved into sports, I started writing columns about cards on a weekly basis — as a volunteer addition to the newspaper done on my day off — which is where industry contacts with card companies began. Eventually, it became part of my work routine. Then, I moved on to papers in San Antonio and then Orlando — and I wrote about cards at each of those stops as well. My card stuff from the paper went online at each place but in Orlando I became a blogger on the side while doing all my regular work.

K: When did you start with Beckett and what was your first job?

Chris: I came to Beckett in October 2008 to be Beckett Baseball editor as well as handle Graded Card Investor and contribute to all other titles and our online editorial presence. It’s evolved quite a bit the last couple years as I now handle Baseball, Beckett Basketball and Beckett Sports Card Monthly with assistance from others here on staff, including editor Andrew Tolentino, who primarily handles Beckett Football and Beckett Hockey.
In essence, my decade in newspapers all led to building the skill-set that I use daily — all that stuff I used to do in the past is now seen in our products. While I don’t have to build and design pages, I do oversee the stuff and ensure that what we present to readers can be digested in the best way, for example.

K: What do you like most about working at Beckett?

Chris: I have made my hobby my work — and don’t get me wrong, there’s a LOT more work involved than most can imagine — but being able to shape and produce a magazine I have read since 1988 is great. It’s cards — but it’s work — but it’s cards. We have a good time with a lean and mean staff that knows how to get work done.

K: What is the one article or piece you are most proud of from your time with Beckett?

Chirs: Good question. Too bad I don’t have a good answer. There are a lot of highlights from online to print. A lot of online stories in 2009 and 2010 were fascinating with all the licensing changes, licensing lawsuits and more — a lot of thick, fun, stinky stories one might not expect in the card world. But that’s my news side enjoying them.
For me, in print, it’s not about one good story, really, it’s about the sum of the whole — a good issue. First issues are memorable — some of our one-shot magazines are memorable. I mean, we did a one-shot when Alabama won the national title
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— that was a lot of work to pull together in a short amount of time and it was my team — but it wasn’t cards.
There are a lot of potential answers, but I don’t have one that’s definitive. Some of our re-tooled Beckett Sports Card Monthly topical issues from this year have been pretty fun when it’s all said and done, too, because we’re trying to re-define what we’re doing on a regular basis there. Two issues that come to mind are The Autograph Issue of BSCM and our latest, The Sports Movies Issue — it was fun but could have had a lot more in it, too.
Hopefully, we can try to have an issue that’s memorable for readers — and for us — every month.

K: What is one story you would love to do?

Chris: A big one almost happened for a recent BSCM. There are a lot of stories out there — but it’s not about me, it’s about what fits a topic/subject best or doing a solid job when a story presents itself and everything comes together.

K: Why do you think Beckett gets so much flack from some collectors?

Chris: Honestly, personal branding is a bit part of it for many of those opinionated types. They want to differentiate themselves from the establishment. They want to find some dirt, and it’s pretty easy to take on the establishment and try to sling mud. Whether they create it themselves or in tandem with others to propagate their own agendas is another question. (It definitely happens.)
Meanwhile, the fact of the matter is that the database work that’s been done for decades is still the most-trusted in the hobby because nobody else can touch it. I don’t handle price guide stuff, but I can tell you that many, many, many collectors continue to rely upon it in both print and online quite heavily — and will continue to do so for some time. The editorial side of the Beckett formula is just the sizzle to go with the steak that is the price guide every month.

K: What do you think the future of Beckett will hold?

Chris: “Plenty” is the simplest answer — Beckett is a company with many facets and divisions that all bring collectors’ needs and habits together.

K: Do you see it ever going 100 percent online and out of the physical magazine business?

Chris: Not unless there’s a marked immediate change in readers’ habits at newsstand and in card shops. All of our mags are quite healthy, though some sports are not as popular as others. I think you see that at the card shop with interest in certain sports. This year, we published more issues than we have in the last few years. All of our magazines are monthly except for Beckett Basketball, which comes out all but a few months a year.

K: When you guys do breaks do you ever get to keep the cards?

Chris: Nope. Most “big” cards are given away in our magazines and via contests or are prizes at events such as The National. Other stuff sits in our archives.

K: The online world of blogs, twitter, and message boards are very much a part of the hobby. Do you think it has been good for the hobby?

Chris: Sure. You can reach me on Twitter — @chrisolds2009. But with the Internet, one always has to consider the source. Always. I am a prime example of “you can’t believe everything you read on the Internet” as there’s been a LOT written about me that is fabricated and/or malicious junk all intended to up someone’s traffic counts or further a personal agenda. (It’s that personal branding thing again.) Sadly, quite a few take it all for fact — when it’s not. There are a LOT of people who believe they know everything going on inside Beckett’s walls — and also at card companies — and I can simply tell you that they don’t. Heck, what day is it? I might not know …
People also LOVE to read things into comments when I don’t agree with someone’s stance. Can’t tell you how many times people have been riled up because I didn’t agree with their stance on something. (People don’t agree with me all the time — but I don’t always expect them to.)

K: Are there any hobby blogs/sites you read on a regular basis?

Chris: Regularly? No. When people send me links or ask me about things, I see them. Honestly, not many are all that compelling on a regular basis because too often writers will fall into a rut saying the same things over and over or letting their personal tastes/biases cloud everything they write. While they have a full right to do that, it doesn’t generate much interest to myself and many others when it’s the same rhetoric over and over. However, I do appreciate it when someone is truly into something — and it shows. Mr. @cardboardicons on Twitter is one of those types — but he’s also a (former) trained newspaper reporter who doesn’t fan flames of whatever fire is burning at the moment only to be abandoned when smoke is spotted elsewhere.

K: What all does being Editor of Beckett baseball entail?

Chris: If it’s on the page and it’s not an ad or a price guide page, I am responsible or accountable for all of it in some form or fashion. My long-winded answer earlier about working in newspaper land should give you a pretty good idea of what I do.

K: Do you have any kind of rivalry with the other sports?

Chris: Beckett Baseball and Beckett Basketball are rivals in that they both fight for my time once a month. Thankfully, Beckett Baseball will win more times than not because there are a lot more readers expecting a lot more from that magazine — and it’s about the readers.

K: How do you determine the cards on each month’s Hot List?

Chris: I don’t — the price guide analyst does that after going through all of the raw sales data each month and after making price guide changes. It’s basically a combination of sales dollars and then volume of cards sold and then ranking the cards based on that.

K: I think even the most casual of Beckett News patrons know about your Nick Swisher super collecting, what is it about Swisher you like?

Chris: My collecting and fandom habits have meandered over the years — almost autobiographically. I was an A’s fan growing up as I started in the Bash Brothers years, but then Jose Canseco was traded and the team wasn’t as good. I followed Canseco more but always paid attention to the A’s.
Then, when I was in college, I explored the collecting worlds with ties to the schools — I actually wrote a book about my small Wyoming school’s basketball program, which produced an eventual NBA champion years ago, so I collected his cards. Then, of course, at Alabama there’s plenty to collect — Bear Bryant, Joe Namath, Derrick Thomas, and countless others past and present. Collecting was a constant, but directions always changed with time.
But a constant was baseball to more or less a degree at all times and when Swisher emerged as a star — a new Canseco for the A’s with the same uniform and position, no less — I latched on. He was good — and a character while also very fan-friendly. This also coincides with the fact that it’s too expensive to collect all of the sports.
Oh, and my name-dropping of Swisher from time to time is a bit of an entertainment device — to see if you’re paying attention or to rile some up if they love to hate.

K: What would you say is the “crown jewel” of your Swisher collection?

Chris: I don’t think I have one — or not yet. But some highlights are a signed game-used jersey from his rookie year, one of his USA Baseball jerseys, a game-used A’s batting helmet (love helmets) several game-used bats, including one that’s broken and I have visual proof for, and countless cards, 1/1s, etc. You can see a good bit of stuff on SwishFan.com, a little site I set up when we did a SuperCollector issue of BSCM recently.
Unfortunately, now that he’s a Yankee, he’s a lot more expensive — at least when seen in pinstripes. I probably own his best card, though, a signed MLB dual logoman with him and Rich Harden from their A’s days.
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Still wouldn’t mind a gnarly game-used bat or dirty Yankees pinstripe jersey with personal inscriptions from him but that’ll never happen without some cash to buy it and then get it signed. Would really like a spotless, authenticated game-used home A’s jersey, too.

K: What else do you collect?

Chris: A little bit of everything from everywhere. One cool segment is my Major League collection — I own a few items used by the actors in the films. You can see more on that in the latest BSCM.
I also collect autographs in general — I used to have a very well-rounded collection via certifieds and TTMs for all sports and a lot of non-sports. Own quite a few signed books that have personal ties — Winston Groom (Forrest Gump) and Harper Lee (To Kill a Mockingbird) both went to Alabama, for example, so I have their autos.
Other fun autograph experiences for me including getting Joe Namath in-person at an Alabama-Auburn game, getting Ozzy Osbourne’s auto and even the story behind a more obscure signed item in my collection, a car signed by Zoe Bell. (See that BSCM issue I recommended.)
Alabama football autographs was one segment that was heavy for me in past. Also do game-used bats/stuff for guys who played at Alabama who played in MLB.
Also USA Baseball stuff. Also wrestling cards and autographs, etc., from time to time, though that has slowed the last few years. Some people, including many at Beckett for example, have very focused tastes. I do — but in (too) many directions, most of which have tied into a place and time in my collection. Perhaps it’s an autobiographical collection.

K: What is your favorite product?

Chris: All-time? Baseball? From my collecting years? Probably 2006 Allen & Ginter — I knew it was going to be amazing when I first saw it, and I bought a ton. Also used to bust a lot of USA Baseball sets for the volume fun of it. They delivered some cool stuff. I have certain sets and certain cards I can’t get enough of — just depends on what area it is. There are a lot of highlights from the past for varying reasons.

K: What is your personal best hit?

Chris: From a pack? Another good question … from a money standpoint, probably a Joe DiMaggio cut auto. Or maybe some really rare Dale Earnhardt or Ted Williams pulls from the same weeks they died — had I sold them. There might be others, but I don’t really get rid of a lot of my cards — though I am moving toward the “gotta thin out the collection” years.

K: What is your favorite card?

Chris: Tough question again, but I have a 1986 Donruss Jose Canseco Rated Rookie that I got signed in-person. It’s an absolute gem condition-wise and the autograph is perfect. An iconic card for me. But that’s just symbolic of one “time” in my collection.

K: What do you think is the best product of the last 5-10 years?

Chris: As a collector, 2006 Ginter, 2005 Absolute Memorabilia, USA Baseball team sets — for varying reasons. Overall, one of the best products since its inception has been Topps Heritage — but it’s a different kind of animal compared to, say, a high-end product or even the three mentioned right there.

K: What product of the last 5-10 years was less than stellar?

Chris: There have been plenty. But for one I hate there might be a dozen people who love it. I really tend to just focus on the stuff I like rather than dwell on that which I don’t. (I wonder, sometimes, whether online collectors could be more like that.)

K: We had a debate on the site about a year ago over the most iconic card of the ‘80s. What are your thoughts on the topic?

Chris: Iconic? For baseball, my personal pick of late has been 1980 Topps Rickey Henderson,
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but it’s really more symbolic of where cards had come FROM. It’s a perfect specimen of one of the game’s best players, too. But the symbolic card of the 1980s that shows where the hobby was GOING, of course, is the 1989 Upper Deck Ken Griffey Jr.
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But in between there are countless classics, too.

K: What trends in the hobby do you like?

Chris: I like it when card companies try things — and, frankly, it doesn’t worry me when some people work themselves into lathers over things like squirrel cards or sparkle short-prints. I understand why card companies try certain things — and it doesn’t worry me if they do it because nothing says I have to buy it or will find one in a pack. I’d rather have them try such things than not.
Unless, of course, it’s a manufactured letter patch autograph. Those often look awful.
Trying different things with game-used cards doesn’t bug me — from weird items to wacky booklet configurations. I like game-used, particularly because it’s more affordable now than ever — even more reason to keep it around in my mind. (Course, I’m not talking “financial return in a wax box” there, either.)

K: What trends do you wish would go away?

Chris: Card companies need to try and find something that will be a hit. So, inevitably, there will be misses. Bigger picture, I would hope that card companies think about making their products more accessible to many while having a semblance of high-end touches in there as a possibility. In my mind, the $500 pack can go away — for a lot of reasons — but I also know why they’re not from a financial standpoint.

K: What are your thoughts on the video cards released by UD and Panini?

Chris: Great concept. Mixed results on the execution. One seemed lacking, the other seemed to have more to it. Do it for my player and I might have more to say. I think video cards bring a LOT of possibilities to the table — a lot more than a standard piece of cardboard does.

K: There is debate online about whether or not the hobby is moving in a good direction. What do you think about the hobby today vs. several years ago?

Chris: Gambling and big-hit chase products don’t sustain a collecting base in my opinion. Big prices on high-end products don’t bring people in easily — and keep them, either. I think the most successful sets through the years have shown that they are collectable, attainable for many but have enough quirks, nuances and challenges to keep people coming back for more. Ginter has its lovers — and its haters. Finding the Ginter for those who like shiny — or maybe that’s Bowman Chrome Draft? — is the next challenge and finding that success several times over is the key to growing the hobby (and its companies) once again.

K: If you could change one thing in the hobby what would it be?

Chris: Sadly, from this side of the computer, I wonder how many collectors in the hobby are happy — and whether some of that negativity or angst is because of what they expect and because they are priced out of certain areas. There’s nothing worse than seeing someone riled up because their box of Topps Chrome Football didn’t deliver the BEST rookie autograph or some hit out of Exquisite. (It shouldn’t every single time, by the way.)
Or, are they unhappy because the hobby might have slowly made them that way with expectations that simply can’t be fulfilled? If I could change one thing, I’d like to see more collectors happy with their hobby — for the right reasons, not because their greedy wants were satisfied by a money card in a 99-cent pack. To a degree, I wonder if the high-end gambling products have left a negative mark that can’t be fixed — and whether the same set-up can sustain things on the business side for card companies, too.

K: In your professional opinion, what one product out there would you consider the best break?

Chris: The best break is the one that you can afford that delivers what you want — whether it’s a bad box, a decent box or a great box. That’s a question that has a different answer for a lot of people — and there is no distinct correct one, either.

K: Last question, what do you love most about the hobby?

Chris: That many people can enjoy it — and that it allows people can turn something that is nothing for them into something that is hardly that for someone else.

K: Is there anything else you would like our readers to know?

Chris: Be sure to keep up with Beckett’s mags at your local card shop, bookstore or by subscribing at www.beckettmedia.com. You can keep up with us daily at our news site’s direct page www.beckett.com/news (bookmark me!) and find me on Twitter at @chrisolds2009.

Thank you Chris for your time and thoughts.

-K-

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9 responses to “The pen is mightier, another Hobby Heavyweight interview…

  1. Great interview, thanks for sharing.

  2. I have to agree with what Chris says about the negativity, and I’ve said before it’s easier to find fault in things than express joy. I think the high-end products have contributed to this, but I also know that products priced around A&G didn’t really provide enough value in the average box given the price of the box. On the other hand, since I don’t really buy boxes, I think I’ve been able to enjoy the cards a lot more by picking them up through auctions and card shows.

  3. Great job! Love reading the blog!

  4. Nice interview. Good questions.

  5. Glad to see someone had the time to do this. I’d been contemplating chatting with Chris on the record about stuff, but I’ve got no time for that.

    Thrilled to see that this post was not immediately met with anti Beckett, Anti-Olds venom. Although I am sure they are coming.

  6. Nice interview. It never fails, though, that Chris Olds always says something that annoys me.

    Oops, I guess there’s some of that venom.

    (P.S: I’m a trained newspaper reporter/editor).

  7. Boo Beckett and Chris Olds! I kid, I kid.

    Great interview, Chris has a ton of insight having been around the hobby and working as a part of it for a long time. It was a nice read.

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