There are a few events I’ve wanted to attend for at least 30 years, and I’ve been to most of them. I’ve attended the World Series, NBA Finals, NCAA Final Four and Rolling Stones concerts.
But the National Sports Collectors Convention, humbly referred to as the National, has been one that’s eluded me. I finally got to go to this year’s convention outside Chicago on July 31.
I first recall reading about the National in 1990, when it was going to be held in Arlington, Texas, between Dallas and Fort Worth. This was while I was still living in North Carolina. I was mesmerized by the idea of card dealers from across the country joining in one spot, with autographs available from legends like Willie Mays and Muhammad Ali.
With my renewed interest in cards since the pandemic and the show being five hours up the road, I decided this would be the year.
I left the house at 5 a.m. Saturday and made it to Rosemont, Illinois, at 11 a.m. due to traffic related to an accident. I paid $15 to park in a massive garage with skywalks leading to the Donald E. Stephens Convention Center. As I walked through the garage, a guy with a suitcase full of cards tried to get me to buy some, offering Luka Doncic and Patrick Mahomes. I must have looked like a mark, since those are my two current favorite athletes, but I resisted because I knew there would be much more inside.
It was an amazing site — nothing but tables full of sports memorabilia and (mostly) guys gawking at it as far as the eye could see. I wasn’t the only one whose interest picked up during the pandemic, with ticket sales reportedly four times what they were in 2019, the most recent time the National was held since it was canceled in 2020.
After an hour of perusing the tables, I decided to go pick up the autograph ticket I’d purchased online in advance. When I was younger, I loved going to baseball card shows and getting autographs from legends like Stan Musial, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Brooks Robinson. The prices were more reasonable then. I never paid more than $20.
The National had a variety of former players signing, including favorites like former Atlanta Braves Dale Murphy and Dallas Cowboys Emmitt Smith, along with some guys you figure will do anything for a buck, like Pete Rose and Hulk Hogan.
Some of the big names charged well north of $100. Now that I’m older, I generally find it weird to pay for autographs, but I couldn’t go to the National and not get one.
So I decided to get the signature of former Seattle Mariners pitcher Felix Hernandez. “King Felix” was larger than life when I lived in Washington state from 2013 to 2015.
The area I was waiting in was particularly packed because legendary Detroit Lions running back Barry Sanders was signing next to Hernandez. After about an hour, they finally called my number. Hernandez signed a Mariners program I brought. It cost $60.
I spent the next four hours wandering around the massive floor. Topps and Panini, the major card producers, had areas set up. They had a bunch of games I didn’t understand, but I did get to make my own digital Topps baseball card, which was fun.
Since my father went to the University of South Carolina, I bought him a signed poster of a former Gamecock star. I also saw mini helmets signed by New England Patriots backup quarterback Jarrett Stidham selling for $50. Stidham is the son of Rochelle Stidham, who was the publisher at my first full-time newspaper job in Stephenville, Texas. I wish I’d know I’d be able to get $50 for them someday, so I could have asked 9-year-old Jarrett to sign some helmets back then.
That was actually cheap compared with some of the prices I saw. One stand had Pittsburgh Steelers game-used jerseys. I figured I’d look and see if they had the jersey of Baron Batch, a former Texas Tech running back who briefly played for the Steelers. I gave up on that when I saw jerseys from players I’d never heard of selling for $1,000 and up.
I narrowed down what I wanted to buy for myself to a 2020 Topps Major League Soccer hobby box, which a dealer from Maryland wanted $145 for, and a 2021 Topps Clearly Authentic box, which a Pittsburgh dealer had for $90.
Clearly Authentic is basically legalized gambling. You get one autographed clear card encased in plastic in each box. It could be a hall-of-famer, current star or unproven rookie, so you hope it’s a great card.
I finally settled on Clearly Authentic. My one card ended up being Estevan Florial, a New York Yankees rookie outfielder I wasn’t familiar with. I looked Florial up online and saw the New York Post had referred to him as a “fallen prospect.” So unless things turn around for Mr. Florial, it looks like I rolled snake eyes.
Things were starting to close up, and I was worn out after walking 10 miles (according to my phone) over seven hours. But I decided to make one more stop on my way out.
Scott Schwartz, who played Flick — the kid who got his tongue stuck to the flagpole — in “A Christmas Story,” had a booth where he was selling autographs. My father-in-law watches that movie religiously, so I thought it would be fun to get him Flick’s autograph.
I asked Schwartz what his cheapest autograph was, and he said a signed card costs $20. I asked if he took credit cards. Schwartz replied that he wouldn’t take a credit card for only $20, because he would only clear $12 from it. “It’s not worth it,” he said.
Looking back, I wish I’d triple-dog-dared Schwartz to sign it.