There are a few events I have wanted to attend for at least 30 years, and I have been to most of them. I’ve attended World Series, NBA Finals, NCAA Final Four and Rolling Stones concerts.
But the National Sports Collectors Convention, which is humbly referred to as National, has been one that has eluded me. I finally got to go to this year’s convention outside of Chicago on July 31st.
I first remember reading about National in 1990, when it was to be held in Arlington, Texas, between Dallas and Fort Worth. This was while I was still living in North Carolina. I was fascinated by the idea of card dealers from all over the country joining in one place, with autographs available from legends such as Willie Mays and Muhammad Ali.
With my renewed interest recently since the pandemic and the show were five hours up, I decided this would be the year.
I left the house at 5 a.m. Saturday and arrived in 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, and offered Luka Doncic and Patrick Mahomes. I must have looked like a brand, since they are my two current favorite athletes, but I resisted because I knew there would be a lot more inside.
It was a fantastic site – nothing but tables full of sports memorabilia and (mostly) boys looking at it as far as the eye could see. I was not the only one whose interest increased during the pandemic, with ticket sales reportedly four times what they were in 2019, the last time National was held since it was canceled in 2020.
After an hour of reading the tables, I decided to pick up the autograph ticket I had bought 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. Prices were more reasonable then. I never paid more than $ 20.
The National had a number of former players who signed, including favorites such as former Atlanta Braves Dale Murphy and Dallas Cowboys Emmitt Smith, along with some guys you reckon will do everything for the money, such as Pete Rose and Hulk Hogan.
Some of the big names charged well north for $ 100. Now that I’m older, I generally think it’s weird to pay for autographs, but I could not 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 bigger than life when I lived in Washington state from 2013 to 2015.
The area I was waiting in was especially full because the legendary Detroit Lions who ran back Barry Sanders signed next to Hernandez. After about an hour, they finally called my number. Hernandez signed a Mariners program I brought with me. It cost $ 60.
I spent the next four hours walking around the massive floor. Topps and Panini, the major card manufacturers, were able to set up areas. They had a bunch of games I did not understand, but I got 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 that sold for $ 50. Stidham is the son of Rochelle Stidham, who was a publisher at my first full-time newspaper job in Stephenville, Texas. I wish I knew I could one day get $ 50 for them, so I could have asked 9-year-old Jarrett to sign some helmets at the time.
It was actually cheap compared to some of the prices I saw. A stand had Pittsburgh Steelers jerseys used in the game. I thought I would see and see if they had the jersey of Baron Batch, a former Texas Tech runner who played briefly for the Steelers. I gave it up when I saw jerseys from players I had never heard of selling for $ 1000 and up.
I limit what I would buy to myself to a Topps Major League Soccer hobby box in 2020, which a Maryland dealer wanted $ 145 for, and a Topps Clearly Authentic box from 2021, which a Pittsburgh dealer had for $ 90.
Obviously, Authentic is basically legalized gambling. You get one signed clear card encased in plastic in each box. It could be a hall-of-famer, current star or untested rookie, so you hope it’s a great card.
In the end, I decided on Clearly Authentic. One of my cards ended up being Estevan Florial, a New York Yankees rookie player I was not familiar with. I looked Florial online and saw that the New York Post had described him as a “fallen prospect.” So unless things turn around for Mr. Florial, it looks like I rolled snake eyes.
Things started to close and I was exhausted after walking 10 miles (according to my phone) in seven hours. But I decided to make another stop on the way out.
Scott Schwartz, who played Flick – the kid who stuck his tongue in the flagpole – in “A Christmas Story”, had a booth where he sold 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 that a signed card costs $ 20. I asked if he took a credit card. Schwartz replied that he would not take a credit card for only $ 20, because he only wanted to remove $ 12 from it. “It’s not worth it,” he said.
Looking back, I wish I had triple-dog-dared Schwartz to sign it.