BILLINGS - For maybe the first time ever, sports cards are cool.
Without much to do over the past year, people are diving into the hobby, and it’s driving prices up. Way up.
Now this once almost dead industry has rebounded to its greatest heights ever and one local trader has hit an incredible hot streak.
Kirk Dehler couldn’t believe his luck. He found a one-of-a-kind card.
“The only one,” Dehler said.
In the world?
“In the world.”
And you got it here?
“Got it here. And got the Justin Herbert two days later.”
Like so many, Dehler collected cards as a kid growing up in a sports family.
“It was kind of our bonding between my dad and my brother and I,” he said.
And like so many, he grew out of it, putting the hobby on the shelf for 15 years. But a few years ago, he saw a new trend pop up on social media breaking when someone buys a box of cards and opens it for the first time on a live stream to see if they’ve hit the lottery.
“So I bought a box just to kind of get that nostalgia feeling, and I pulled a 1 of 1 Mike Trout, and I was hooked again,” Dehler said.
Fast forward to this past March. Topps - Major League Baseball’s exclusive card company - tells their Twitter followers to watch out for a special card featuring Trout and Bryce Harper, two of the game’s biggest stars.
“And it’s actually Bryce Harper writing to Mike Trout on it, and Mike Trout writing back to Bryce Harper,” Dehler said.
Does it get any better than this? @MikeTrout and @bryceharper3 are passing notes via baseball card! 🤣— Topps (@Topps) March 10, 2021
Collect "really really good" cards like this and more in Topps Definitive Baseball, coming March 31st. pic.twitter.com/meQGusZnyW
“There’s actually 10, 10 serial-numbered for that card, but the first nine they didn’t write inscriptions," said Kris Brester, owner of KAB Sports Cards & Collectables in Billings. "No. 10, they wrote a note to each other on the card which is pretty cool, and there’s only one of them.”
The card was inside a box at KAB Collectibles, which Dehler happened to buy on a trip earlier this month. Still on Cloud Nine two days later, he walked back into the store to buy his annual National Treasures football box.
“That is what most people consider the holy grail for the rookie cards, and I pulled a Justin Herbert RPA, rookie patch auto is what they call it, numbered to 99,” Dehler said.
The auto stands for autograph. Patch means a small piece of game-worn jersey is embossed on the card - a different piece for each of the 99 cards created for the 2020 NFL Rookie of the Year.
“When you do hit something like that, the excitement that comes with it, it can happen here in Billings, Montana in back-to-back days,” Dehler said.
“I don’t think I’ve ever seen a run of the two Kirk hit in a week," said Brester. "Those are two of the craziest cards I’ve ever seen.”
Now comes the decision that’s emblematic of the industry. Does Dehler - a sports card fan through and through - make this a cornerstone of his collection? Or does he take advantage of the exponential growth and sell to the highest bidder?”
“Especially the Justin Herbert, it could be a great investment card. But to me, football’s a rough sport, so I did put that one up on eBay,” Dehler said.
It sold last week for $20,100 after 57 bids.
“There’s more investors into it now," Brester said. "It’s almost like an art piece - they’re thinking long-term. In the 90’s when they almost killed this hobby - they just printed and printed and printed - now you’re getting serial-numbered cards, you’re getting autographs, you’re getting refractors. So you know there’s not 100,000 of that Trout. There’s 10 of them, and there’s only one like the one he’s got, so the scarcity is a big thing.”
That’s why Dehler is holding on to the Trout-Harper card for now, because someday it might even match his personal holy grail, the 1952 Mickey Mantle rookie card, which earlier this year set the all-time record for a single card sale at $5.2 million. But even that only stood alone for three months.
In Part Two of this series on Wednesday, we’ll tell you how a Bozeman resident became the middle man in the biggest deal in sports card history, and why he thinks the record won’t last long.