Inside the National Sports Collectors Convention, Where Every Second Is Like Christmas

After a year away, the world’s biggest sports cards and collectibles event comes roaring back

This is absolutely massive.

That’s the first thing that goes through your mind when you step foot in Chicago’s Donald Stephens Convention Center, home of the 41st National Sports Collectors Convention. Then: Overwhelming. Sprawling. Endless.

When the pandemic hit last year and card shows were shelved, the collecting world didn’t stop; it just moved — into closets filled with boxes of long-forgotten cards that made their way online, into auctions, into the hands of collectors who fell in love all over again with the hobby that consumed them as kids. It was the 1980s all over again. So it is, too, at The National, which is stuffed full of vendors, events and attendees eager to get back in the game.

On Wednesday alone, there were 4,000 VIPs inside the convention hall, those who paid a little extra for the privilege of walking the floor the day before the convention officially opened. And, already, the place had that buzz that comes with a packed house. Every booth had at least one or two people browsing; dozens were nearly full. Heritage Auctions’ booth was packed, too, with people browsing the portable museum we brought from Dallas. 

Even before the convention opened, pretty much from the time we finished set-up on Tuesday, there were attendees eager to consign, including the man who brought in the beautiful Curly Neal game-worn Harlem Globetrotters jersey dating to the late 1960s. One more piece for the museum; another something special.

When the doors officially opened at 10 Thursday morning, the general public flooded in, filled with collectors of all ages, levels of knowledge and price limits. Working behind the counter alongside the consignment directors, I met million-dollar buyers, collectors who recently discovered the hobby, and dads with young sons combing through dollar-bin buys and cheap 1990s junk wax. 

I’m 18, a lifelong collector of cards, and I’ve met kids far younger than me with items worth tens of thousands of dollars; either they’ve mowed a lot of lawns, or their dads are far more generous than mine. I also met with a young man and his dad who are just getting into cards, acquiring some incredible modern baseball and football pieces, who just wanted a little guidance for the show. The hobby has exploded into Big Business in the last 18 months; but every now and then there are still glimpses of what it used to be, when fathers and sons cracked wax, chewed gum and bonded over cardboard heroes.

We got here Sunday, and over the last few days I’ve seen some incredible items from collectors and heard some amazing stories. On Wednesday we took in three photos — one of a young Jim Thorpe, another of Walter Johnson, and another bearing The Big Train’s gorgeous autograph. The next day, a man stopped by to consign a 1952 Topps Mickey Mantle, The Holy Grail; and three Satchel Paige rookie cards. That was just a tiny piece of what he dropped off with us. Every day, every hour, every 15 minutes is like Christmas around here.

Posted by Harry Wilonsky

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