As baseball's All-Star week approaches, so do the annual handful of baseball card stories. I grew up a fan and collected cards, even went to All-Star Fan Fest one year, but I haven't given much thought to them since the 90s. I'm not alone. The card industry has tanked. These days only one company, Topps, makes MLB cards, and the number of card shops nationwide has dropped from its peak of 10,000 down to only 200. Houston, a city of four million, has one shop left. Yet a committed few collectors, including a new crop of wealthy Japanese fans, have kept values of the most precious cards up.
Which brings us to the pickle: Why is a Jose Uribe Fleer card selling on eBay for $758,000 dollars?
This came to my attention about a week ago, when Bryan Murphy, a writer at McCovey Chronicles, SBNation's San Francisco affiliate, speculated that people might be using the card to launder money. That sounds insane on its face, as it probably is, but Murphy has an interesting theory that's worth a read, if for no reason other than a really simple lesson in how money laundering works.
The most obvious problem is there's no way in hell a Jose Uribe card from any year and in any kind of condition should go for $758,000. Uribe was the Giants' starting shortstop from 1986-1992. He was OK, but he was also a hometown favorite: Giants fans would chant his name whenever he got a big hit or made a clutch play. He died tragically in a 2006 car accident. None of that, though, explains why his card is priced that high. In fact, the exact same card, this one in "near-mint condition" and branded as "super-hot," is selling right now on cardsandcoins.com for $12.95, or around 1/58,000 the eBay price. For comparison, in 2016 a 1952 Topps Mickey Mantle rookie auctioned for $330,000, and that same year a group of seven Ty Cobb cards was valued at about $1 million, combined.
So what's with the Uribe?
Murphy believes "the most plausible explanation" is money laundering. Here's his theory:
"The 'auctioneer' is a drug lord’s lieutenant and the 'winning bidder' is someone deep in debt to the drug lord who, inorder to 'make things right' must carry all the risk of getting caught with the funds and being responsible for transferring them at the appropriate time. Then, voila. Clean money."
It's true that criminals sometimes launder money through assets, sometimes in the form of expensive collectibles such as art. Their goal is to change mountains of ill-gotten cash into an equally valuable commodity that's less likely to draw the attention of law enforcement. Those assets, bought anonymously at auction, are then sold, which makes the transaction appear legitimate and makes the source of the funds more difficult to trace.
The problem with things like art and baseball cards, though, is that prices rise and fall quickly and unpredictably. Money launderers, or at least the smart ones, want to invest in a relatively stable asset. They don't want to speculate in a volatile market, and don't necessarily even want their investment to turn a profit. In fact, they're often willing to take a small loss as part of the deal to get their clean money, sort of a crime tax. If you risk a major loss, though, you wouldn't invest. Baseball cards are, obviously, a huge risk.
An alternate approach is to manipulate the auction market and artificially inflate the price of a piece, or of multiple pieces. It's worth noting, then, that there are actually two 1990 Uribes on eBay selling for the same price: $758,000. Those two are trailed by Uribes at lower but still completely wacky prices: $525,000; $29,999; $24,000; $20,000; and on and on. With that in mind, note that at the height of the baseball card bubble of the late 80s/early 90s, card companies produced literally billions of cards. One trade publication estimated that during that time companies printed a combined 81 billion cards annually. That means Fleer quite likely produced millions of those 1990 Uribes, which is probably why on the Beckett Marketplace you can pick one up for thirty-five cents. Right now. You can thank your nostalgic baby-boomer dad and his disposable income for inflating that bubble.
The Uribes, then, might be a more sophisticated money-laundering scam. Put a few of them up for stratospheric prices, but follow them up with lower but still stupid prices. The massively inflated prices are beards for illicit exchanges at lower but still inflated values, and might lend those transactions more legitimacy. Either that or, knowing people, you'll probably pull in at least one easily persuaded low-information sucker who will buy your $.35 card for a couple hundred bucks, maybe a couple thousand, who thinks he can flip it for tens of thousands, maybe more.
This is still ridiculous, and it's tough to tell if Murphy is joking. (His article, unlike this one, is a claim of fact: People are laundering money through José Uribe’s 1990 Fleer card.)
Murphy enhances his theory with a code he must have put a good chunk of time into decrypting: "If you add the non-zero digits that precede the triple zeroes ($758,000 and $525,000) and use the $29,999.00 as a code switch where the '999' indicates the numbers stay the same, then you can see it: The eBay prices, in order, are:
$758,000 = 20 $758,000 = 20 $525,000 = 12 $29,999 = break $24,000 = 24 $20,000 = 20
This, Murphy says, gives us a phone number: (202) 012-2420, which is a Washington, D.C. area code. But no phone numbers start with zero, Murph.
A better bet: Uribe card could also have started as a meme among collectors making fun of people who are quick to buy at ridiculous prices. Intrepid capitalists might have seized on that meme, realizing that thanks to the joke, a $1000 Uribe might look like a steal, which would net the seller a $999.65 profit.
But we're humans and we never learn any lessons. Sub-prime mortgages, dotcoms. At one point a massive tulip bubble. And the Uribe card covers up another very real baseball card bubble that's inflating right now, in the form of, you guessed it, an app. The app, called BUNT and made by Topps, lets you use real money to buy "coin bundles," which you in turn use to open virtual packs of cards. The packs even come with a virtual stick of gum. Topps launched BUNT in 2012, and since then they've sold more than 50 million virtual packs. Chris Vaccaro, head of app operations for Topps Digital, told Beckett Magazine, "We don’t offer specifics on our financial data, but we can say that during the baseball season Topps BUNT is consistently one of the top-grossing apps in North America."
And unsurprisingly, some BUNT cards have also found their way to eBay. Though they're not priced anywhere near the most upper-deck Uribe levels, the figures are still a little astounding: One of these virtual packs is listed at $850. In this broader context, then, it's not the guy selling the Uribe card that looks ridiculous. It's us.