Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Killer Whales

I’ve noticed a lot of talk about white vs. gray whales in terms of card collecting, and I'm way into it. I traced it back to a post done by Zippy Zappy on the always excellent Torren’ Up Cards a while back. ZZ describes white whales as cards that are expensive and/or very limited in quantity. About gray whales ZZ says “[t]hey're not white whales because they aren't cards that would cost an arm and a leg or have limited print runs. They're in the gray area where I could easily find them, I sort of want them, and in the grand scheme of things they aren't really that expensive; but I have reservations about paying over one dollar.” Spot-on analogy, bro.

As a Griffey collector, I can tell you that there are many astronomically expensive cards out there for Mr. Junior; and among those are certain cards without which I would consider my own collection incomplete: the ’94 Upper Deck Griffey/Mantle dual auto, the ’93 Finest refractor, the Tiffany ’89 Topps Traded rookie, etc. These are my white whales – rare, desirable, and necessary for any serious collection.

Then again, there are also Griffeys that are both extremely limited AND expensive but that I feel like I can be a serious collector without owning. Cards like the ’98 E-X2001 Essential Credentials Now parallel #/10, the 2012 Topps Gold Rush Auto #/25, and 1999 Pacific Prism Holographic Blue #/80. Great cards, all, but the prices are insanely high. There is a spirit-crushing quantity of obscenely rare Griffeys like this out there, and they are EXPENSIVE Y'ALL. Like, scary expensive. I hesitate to call these white whales because that would suggest a high level of desirability. I am constantly reading about cards like these; and while I would like to have them, I am at peace with never owning them. These are not white whales - they're something else. Killer whales, maybe. Rare, beautiful, and potentially deadly (to your card budget).

I think other player collectors can relate to this. Look at the famous 1990 Topps Frank Thomas #414A NNOF Error Variation. This is a card that sells regularly for well over $600. Heck, even I've bid on one. There have been 235 specimens graded, and I've seen estimates that put the final print run anywhere between 250 and 500. 

Here it is

We may never know how many made it into circulation, but we know one thing: if you are a Frank Thomas collector, this is a white whale. A famous error variation on his rookie card? You have to have that card in your collection, man! Spend the $600 and call it a day.

On the other hand a much rarer Frank Thomas card, this 1996 Select Certified #135 Pastime Power Mirror Blue /45, is currently on eBay for $1900. Rare, sure. Beautiful, of course. But do you really want that card? Like, on the level that your collection is incomplete without it? Really, how many Big Hurt collectors are tripping over each other to land that one? My guess is maybe one or two supercollectors and that's it. At some point a card is just so arbitrarily rare and expensive that you don't even feel the need to own it. That's your killer whale.

And a high-profile player like Griffey has a ton of killer whales.

Now, when it comes to gray whales, these exist all over the spectrum for Griffeys. There are so many that it becomes a matter of taste. For example, I would rather spend $7 on a cool numbered 90’s insert than $2 on a much rarer 2003 Fleer parallel that is nothing more than a foil stamp. The real problem when it comes to Griffey gray whales is the myriad 5-30 dollar cards. The sheer quantity of those is enough to make one want to stop collecting Junior altogether.

To illustrate this, here is the distribution of Griffey card price points on COMC. There are 405 pages of Griffeys there with 12 cards on each page. I ordered them by price from lowest to highest:

Griffey card price points on COMC – 4,824 cards total
Pgs. 1-137: $1 or less (~1644 cards) – 34%
Pgs. 138-294: $1.01-$5 (~1872 cards) – 39%
Pgs. 295-395: $5.01-$30 (~1200 cards) – 25%
Pgs. 396-405: $30.01-$799 (~108 cards) – 2%

Let’s say you’re a Felix Hernandez collector as I (kind of) am. Here’s what his distribution looks like:

Felix card price points on COMC – 1,360 cards total
Pgs. 1-50: less than $1 (~600 cards) – 44%
Pgs. 51-87: $1.01-$5 (~432 cards) – 32%
Pgs. 88-108: $5.01-$30 (~256 cards) – 19%
Pgs. 109-114: $30.01-$450 (~72 cards) – 5%

Felix has more of what I would consider to be a normal distribution: mostly bottom-heavy pricing that would create a nice, even curve as prices go up. Griffey on the other hand has a distribution that actually increases as price goes up, and finally begins to drop after $5. When it does happen the drop is smaller than Felix’s drop, and even after that over a quarter of Griffey cards on COMC are still priced between $5 and $30 – that’s a whopping 1200 cards. Hence not only do Griffey cards average much higher in price, their overall distribution is a lot more even across all price points.

This post is not me trying to butt in on Zippy Z's excellent whale analogy, but there are a lot of whales in the Griffey Sea and a lot of Griffey supercollectors hunting them. Prices are insane, and they're not always worth paying. Those of us stupid enough to collect him have to pick and choose our white whales carefully and let those killer whales be, all while the sneaky gray whales steal our card budget a few bucks at a time.

Hm. I just made myself sad.



  1. I didn't know Fuji ran my blog. Did he and I trade blogs at one point?

    Lol, I love the term killer whale.

  2. Picking up a 1994 UD Griffey/Mantle dual auto was one of my blunders. In 1994 my LCS had a dual auto version for $150 and a Griffey auto version for $50, they sold the dual auto version but because I was a regular he offered me the Griffey auto version for $25 and I turned it down because I was so focused on getting the dual auto only. I told him I would wait until he got another dual version, eventually someone bought the Griffey single auto and he never got either back in again and I have been one sad camper ever since.

  3. Killer whale. Well done.
    There's one Ryne Sandberg killer whale I've come to terms with never owning a copy of: the 1980 TCMA Reading Phillies minor league card. Sigh...

    1. You see, I think that's more of a white whale. Rare and expensive, sure, but I know you want that card for your PC. I just saw one on eBay for $675. I can't imagine Ryno's cards going up in value too much over the next few months. Put $20 a week into a sock. You'll have it in less than nine months!

  4. I think just about every Mike Trout card is a killer whale. I don't see how anybody collects him.

  5. Loved the article and I very much agree. I collect Roberto Clemente and his ultimate white whale for me is the 1968 3d test card. You just start coming to terms with how complete you want your PC and then start saving. Did that for his rookie card after getting my tax refund this year. Pretty much any vintage card becomes a white whale no matter how rare it is. You may even watch auctions on eBay just to continue your fantasy of owning the card. Killer whales are just modern fabrications to try and distract you. Some may look good and are very rare, but you have to see the bigger picture. You want vintage more as they should hold their value and even make a better investment. They don't make them any more and each year become more rare and treasured. I would like to add that I noticed who you also collect and Dock Ellis stood out to me. I recently finished my collection of 1970 Topps, and for the longest time, I just couldn't pay as much as people were asking for that card. It never was in a good range compared to the price guides and I realize it was a mid high number card, but I didn't want to overpay. It also seemed ultra rare compared to the rest of the set. Well, my patience finally paid off and I finally got one in decent shape and reasonably priced to finish the set. It was the last card. He was a great pitcher too and I am fond of the 1971 Pirates. I hope to keep up with your future posts.

    1. I could see vintage being a whole other thing - the condiiton aspect enters into it a lot harder, and you may find a good deal on an off-condiiton card but still be on the lookout for a condition upgrade. Personally I don't mind off-condition vintage, but I could see wanting a cleaner copy if it's a major PC.

      And Clemente, no less. That's money right there.