Inside the Pack: The Diminished Joy of Set Building

When I was a kid starting out collecting, set building was my main focus. After all, there weren’t many other ways to collect: you could build sets, or you could get cards of players you liked, and that was pretty much it. There weren’t that many cards of players you liked either, because until the 1980s players only had one card a year from Topps, or maybe two or three if they had some sort of subset or insert. In the 80s and early 90s, that blossomed to one or two cards per set from each manufacturer, and maybe some regional issues.

Every year I would open packs of Topps, and every year would try to build a set. That wasn’t as easy as it sounds. At the time in my area there were four baseball card stores but most of them sold cards by the pack and didn’t have a ton of singles for common cards. So, I had to try and build my annual set just by opening packs and trading with my friends. Most sets ended up a few no-name players short of completion. As the 90s wore on and more and more sets were produced, it actually became more difficult to complete a set. It had been the case that if you needed to complete a set, there wouldn’t be too many different common cards at a show or a shop. The presence of so many sets meant suddenly there were thousands of cards in a box and maybe they were only a handful from the set you were building, and maybe you only needed one or two of them.

The hunt was fun. In fact, for me, it was never as much about completing the set as it was about looking for the cards to complete it.

When I began putting together my 1971 Topps set some time around 1997, it was painstakingly slow — single cards I’d find at a local card shop or a show, mostly. One day sometime around 2003, I bought a lot of low grade commons on eBay and filled a huge amount of my set needs. I made myself pump the brakes — where was the fun in finishing a set that quickly? I decided all my future purchases for my set would be in person only. Then in 2007 I went to a card show and a dealer had a binder that had every single card — and multiple copies in various grades, too. After completing all my needs for the 1st and 2nd series of my set, I decided to limit my in person purchases to 20 cards at a time.

But these restrictions I put on myself were artificial. At any time I could have filled my setlist out at a show or online.

In the time since, things have only gotten easier for set builders. Facebook groups, COMC, Sportlots, multiple shows every weekend, and the ballooning number of listings on eBay all make it super easy to finish a set. Case in point: I lucked into a lot of about 20 of the 46 1963 Topps Peel Off stickers. I decided that having most of the stars already, I’d finish the set. Within an hour I had ordered all the cards I needed. This previously might have taken me months or years.

It’s exciting to finish a set, but the thrill of the hunt is missing nowadays. I may very well go back to my self-imposed rules on set building, just to make things more interesting.