Baseball Cards and “The Holdovers” 1970 Nostalgia

We Love Cards in the Movies

Date: Mar 7, 2024
Author: Michael Salfino
Topics: 1970 Topps, Movies, Pop Culture, The Holdovers
Length: 568 Words
Reading Time: ~3 Minutes

The Holdovers is set in Christmas of 1970 and invites the viewer to examine our pop-cultural past through posters and pop radio music flowing through teenage dorms to fashion and haircuts as well as to sports and, most prominently, baseball cards.

The film, nominated for Best Picture at Sunday’s Academy Awards, introduces us to history scholar Paul Hunham by showing the book at the top of his reading pile: Fear Strikes Out, the autobiography of Red Sox OF Jimmy Piersall. Played by Best Actor nominee Paul Giamatti, the movie is about troubled pasts and shattered dreams at Christmas time. But it’s also imbued with the hope of the new dawn that comes with every New Year.

Hunham is a down-on-his-luck baseball fan who has devoted his life to the reverence of our past. In the movie’s pivotal scene, as he’s confessing the circumstances where his life took a wrong turn, we see a “Baseball Cards” sign prominently on a Boston storefront for about 10 seconds — the longest ode to nostalgia in the movie. For everyone in the hobby, that shot seems to be saying the course correction in the winter of 1970 would have been into that shop, putting Hunham back on the firmer financial footing stolen from him decades earlier. That Giamatti is the son of the seventh commissioner of MLB (the late Bart Giamatti) makes that shot even more poetic.

While it was not realistic to expect to find a vintage baseball card store in 1970 America, it’s not like card values in that time frame were purely theoretical. The market was in its infancy, sure, but collectors then, according to newspaper articles, were already fretting about missing out on buys years earlier when prices were much lower. After all, a T206 Honus Wagner in 1971 had already exploded in value to $200 to $1000, depending on condition (today’s price: $3 million to $9 million). A top collector was quoted in 1971 saying, “Any (card) worth more than $5 is a real find.” They also noted that Topps baseball cards issued from 1955-1970 were worth hardly more than the cost of a new pack because the company made so many. (It turned out that they were no match for moms hell-bent on spring cleaning.)

There’s no mention in archived articles from the year that The Holdovers is set of the most iconic card in the hobby today, the 1952 Topps Mickey Mantle. The first mention of that card in the newspaper archives occurred in the spring of 1977 when the price tag was a whopping $100. (Today, in excellent condition, basically mid-grade, the card is worth about $150,000.)

But maybe a history buff like Giamatti’s Hunham character would have gravitated more toward autographs. In 1970, according to newspaper accounts, a Babe Ruth autograph led the market at a jaw-dropping price of $50 (Ty Cobb’s was only $8.50 and the second-most valuable). Today a Ruth autograph is worth about $10,000 to $100,000+ depending on the quality and the medium (ball, card, bat etc.).

The Giamatti character could have even bought newly issued cards and built generational wealth. Unopened boxes of 1970 Topps baseball cards have recently sold for six figures. And a complete series of the highly condition-sensitive 1971 Topps black beauties that, in the movie’s timeframe, were to be released in mere weeks is worth about half a million dollars.

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