Baseball, Hockey HOFers headline Toronto Expo

Looking at the lineup of autograph guests scheduled for the 32nd Sports Card and Memorabilia Expo, you might almost wonder if baseball was making inroads on hockey as Canada’s national pastime.

Of course it isn’t and won’t anytime soon. But there were enough former baseball stars wandering around Toronto’s International Centre to stock a pretty impressive Old-Timers game.

In addition to Hall-of-Fame pitcher Bob Feller, there were appearances scheduled by Ferguson Jenkins (a native of nearby Chatham, Ontario), as well as Vida Blue, Juan Marichal, Orlando Cepeda and Andre Dawson. These players were appearing in support of charitable work for the Ferguson Jenkins Foundation as well as supporting a Toronto fundraiser for the Intercounty Baseball League and Toronto Maple Leafs team, which played its home opener on May 6.

Whatever the reason for their presence in Toronto, the appearance of these baseball players at the Expo was most welcome.

Hockey continued to be the sport of preference and the extraordinary array of autograph guests included Boston Bruin coach and GM Harry Sinden, Wilf Paiement (a 14-year NHL career spanning nearly 1,000 games), Hall of Famers Grant Fuhr, Paul Coffey and Ray Bourque.

On Sunday, Philadelphia Flyers fans were delighted by the appearance of Bobby Clarke and a host of “Broad Street Bullies” from the 1975 Stanley Cup winning team, including Bernie Parent, Dave “The Hammer” Schultz, Bill Barber, Bob Kelly, Reggie Leach, Jimmy and Joe Watson, and Rick MacLeish. All told, there were enough players over the course of the weekend to put several slightly gray-haired All-Star teams on the ice. Fan and collector response to the continuous collection of heroes in their midst was predictably enthusiastic.

“We’re particularly excited by the appearance of Bobby Clarke,” promoter Al Sinclair said. “It’s his first Canadian appearance and other than some local events in Philadelphia, this is his second-only show anywhere. We’re also happy that some of those empty spaces on the 1972 Team Canada posters can finally be signed this weekend.”

Sinclair was asked if many of the 12-year-old collectors wandering around the Expo would know why Bob Feller is famous. He replied, “There’s a lot of 60- year-old kids who will.”

Also of note was Upper Deck’s return to the Expo. Upper Deck presently has the only licence from the NHL and NHL Players Association to produce trading cards.

“Our license was born out of the lockout,” said Upper Deck spokesman Don Williams. “We continued to print product and they saw the support that Upper Deck showed them. In turn they’ve given that support back to us with an exclusive license. I think they’ve been impressed with the job we’ve done managing the NHL portfolio.

“It’s great to be back for the Spring Expo,” he continued. “Our redemption program (involving both Beehive and Hot Prospects sets) is going well and we’ve just launched our Sidney Crosby All-Star vinyls. It’s a limited edition show exclusive that’s been going through the roof. It’s been a number of years since we were here but you can tell just how passionate hockey collectors are in this area. It’s a great opportunity for us to meet our consumer base.”

In The Game joined Upper Deck in offering very popular wrapper redemption programs. In The Game continues to impress hockey collectors with its quality of product even in the absence of an NHL licence. Both companies offered fans and collectors an opportunity to interact with and provide feedback to the manufacturers on the actual product that is released each year.

The 100,000 square feet of floor space contained its usual complement of more than 250 dealers displaying more than 800 tables of rare and common wares, from cards and jerseys valued in the multi-thousand dollar range to cards costing just pennies for the budget or bargain-oriented collector.

Those who might have a spare Mickey Mantle Topps rookie card for sale in Mint condition were guaranteed to leave the Expo $35,000 richer courtesy of BMW Sportscards. A 1979 Wayne Gretzky rookie card in similar condition presently nets $15,000.

Dealer George Kosta (Playmaker Auctions), based in Mississauga, Ontario, and a longtime presence at the Toronto Expo, revealed a taste of life from the other side of the dealer table.

“I’ve been doing this show twice a year for over ten years,” he said. “I have a great following and we try to provide them with a nice mix of cards from all sports – old, new, retro, modern. I meet a lot of different people, which is the best part of this business. The money isn’t always the greatest; it’s no longer like the early ’90s when things were insane. Now you’re getting true collectors for the most part. There’s very little speculation except maybe on guys like Sidney Crosby. This may not be the way the companies want it, but as a dealer it’s the way it appears to me.”

Kosta sees a strong demand for older and older-looking product on the upswing.

“If I could change all my cards into retro, I’d do it in a heartbeat,” he said. “You have to love this business. You can’t be in it and not love cards. If you just look at it as a business, you’ll burn out pretty quickly. I still do some collecting, myself. Back in the ’70s it was all I did. Then I grew out of cards and into girls. Then, at some point, I guess you go back to cards again (laughs).

“I actually find doing this show somewhat stressful,” he continued. “It’s not because anyone is being bad or difficult. It’s just when you have 40 or 50 people at your booth, there are questions coming from everywhere and you’re on your feet for up to 14 hours. It takes a lot. After the last day of the show I’m burnt out for a week. I just need to relax and unwind. There’s always something to do. Cards to go through, cards to price. I buy collections mostly. They can come from anywhere: Florida, Minnesota, Manitoba. Let’s say you buy a million cards. Of those million, probably 950,000 are commons. I sell them off either at shows or to a packaging company. But there’s 50,000 good cards in there. Going through them, not missing any, is a fulltime job. I only do the Expo here and some of the US Nationals. I go to Philly and Chicago. I’m there (in the States) mostly to buy.

“I have two really good helpers who have been with me for about 15 years,” he said. “That makes a big difference. Trust is everything. I also bring my dad; he comes with me to every show, and my mother makes sandwiches for us. I love it because it’s something that we can do together. When I was younger I collected with my grandmother before she passed away. She didn’t know anything about hockey because she was from Greece. But she helped me sort my cards. She knew the numbers on the backs. She’d say to me, ‘You need number 48. You’re missing that.’ That’s why collecting is good. It brings people together.”

— By Hank Davis

As featured in the June 1 Sports Collectors Digest.

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