Rick Kogan: Into the lucrative world of sports trading cards and memorabilia with expert Michael Osacky

CHICAGO — Michael Osacky has spent and continues to spend most of his life tied to the past and he seems remarkably happy. He is in his early 40s and occupies an important niche in the surprisingly vast, sometimes wicked and increasingly competitive and lucrative world of sports memorabilia. He has dozens of items stuffed into his Near North Side apartment and in storage nearby.

“I don’t trade or buy or sell anymore because that would be a conflict of interest,” he says. “It would not be right to appraise something for $1,000, buy it for that and then turn around and sell it for $100,000.”

Honesty is crucial to him since he is a certified appraiser with the International Society of Appraisers and as such, is an important niche player in the world of sports memorabilia. This realm was on vivid display the weekend before Thanksgiving at the Rosemont Convention Center for the Chicago Sports Spectacular, which the New York Times, in a lengthy business story Sunday, described as “one of the country’s biggest and oldest card shows, is like a rummage sale from the days before eBay, but with way more money involved.”

No kidding there. At such shows, Osacky tells me that there are often FBI agents wandering anonymously searching for malefactors. Osacky says, “It doesn’t matter what kind of business we are talking about, if there’s money to be made, there will be people who try to cheat to get it.”

The gist of the Times story was captured in the headline, “The Biggest News in Trading Cards Since They Lost the Bubble Gum.” The story detailed how the industry is changing in the wake of the entry of Fanatics into the sports collectible world.

That company, Fanatics, was already a dominant force in the sports merchandise world, mostly in clothing. Two years ago it bought Topps, the prominent sports trading card manufacturer, with the intention to inject “a degree of prominence and relevance to it, and making it cool, fun and exciting,” Mike Mahan, who leads Fanatics’ Collectibles, said in the Times story.

This has spurred worries and lawsuits. Little wonder, since this is an industry with an estimated value of $44 billion. Osacky was interviewed for the story, saying, “Fanatics is going to take over the world. Some people would say maybe that’s not a good thing. I think it’s a good thing. I think the hobby needs innovation, new ideas. For too long, it’s the same old, same old.”

He will have a table at the next Rosemont event in mid-March, the latest step in a career that was ignited rather innocently. On his 11th birthday at the Buffalo Grove home where he grew up, he got a present from his grandfather, a shoebox filled with old baseball cards. Like a lot of kids of that era, he knew baseball cards, bought them at gas stations or grocery stores.

“Up to that point I had been riding my bike to grocery stores and gas stations and getting all the new cards,” he told me. “But my grandfather’s cards in the box were very old, and they got me in the hunt to find similar cards and to learn all about the history of the players.”

He attended the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, where he majored in finance and commodities, later using the skills he learned there to start his website.

“The history of the players and of the memorabilia is always fascinating,” he said. “And I love the thrill of the hunt. Every day people call. I never know who or what they have. They might have stuff that they found in an attic or storage space and want to know how valuable it might be.”

Though COVID understandably kept him at home, he is back on the road, traveling the country, speaking at corporations and libraries, showing up at festivals and conventions. He has worked for teams (Chicago Bulls and New York Yankees among them) and for many individuals.

“Basically I am called up for three reasons, to appraise for insurance reasons, for charitable donation purposes and for estate planning,” he says. “My concentration is cards but other items as well.”

I first met Osacky nearly a decade ago and was pleased to find him one recent afternoon still enthusiastic, saying, “In the last 10 years everything has changed for the better. There are more people collecting, there’s more money involved. I’m just a small part of it. But it’s eye-popping.”

Now, I am of a generation when baseball cards were a part of young boys’ lives, mostly boys. We traded them, we stuck them in the spokes of our bikes and then we — most of us — gave them up, tossed away with grammar school report cards. I have not seen a sports trading card in decades.

“You can still buy them, at hobby shops, at Target and Walmart. But what this industry needs is to get young kids involved again,” Osacky said. “Too many young people are on their phones, into the gaming world. But there is something very special in the physical nature of cards and memorabilia. You can see it, touch them. That’s something that Fanatics might be able to accomplish. I am hopeful.”

As we talked, the TV nearly flickered with images from the AFC Championship game between the Kansas City Chiefs and the Baltimore Ravens. Osacky said, “A (Chiefs’ quarterback) Patrick Mahomes rookie card sold not long ago for $4.2 million.”

I asked him what, in his vast collection, is his favorite item and he said, smiling, “It certainly isn’t the most valuable but my favorite is a 1973 (future Hall of Fame Philadelphia Phillies’) Mike Schmidt rookie card. It’s not in the best condition but it is from that box of cards my grandfather gave me long ago. It connects me back to him.”