By Alex Lehmbeck
If baseball is America’s oldest pastime, trading cards go hand-in-hand with it. The first baseball cards showed up as far back as the 1860s, with the hobby taking off in the early 1900s. Just like baseball, the activity has lasted all the way to the present, with the trading card industry expanding well beyond the diamond.
Historically viewed as a “baseball town,” Pittsburghers exchanged Roberto Clemente cards as the hottest of commodities. Of course, with the digital age bringing difficult adjustments, the industry has declined in relevance since its peak in the early 1990s. But SportsCards Etc., a store in Robinson, has kept the tradition going to its loyal fanbase, mixing old customs with new innovations.
The shop opened in 1991, in a quaint location on Steubenville Pike. It underwent an ownership change in 2019 when the previous owner wanted to leave the business, replaced by two people with close ties to the store. Chris Hoffield, who has worked at SportsCards Etc. for 18 years, became the co-owner with Lou Arrico.
Arrico, a frequent customer of SportsCards Etc. before joining the team, started collecting cards as a child. His dad showed him old programs, ticket stubs and sports cards he’d collected over time. About 20 years ago, he stepped into SportsCards Etc. for the first time, looking to expand his assortment. That’s when he met Hoffield, who helped fuel his passion for collecting.
“He was always very approachable,” Arrico said.
“When I was really trying to learn different things about it, he was helpful.”
Now as business partners, the two have learned to look at the activity through a provider perspective instead of consumers. Arrico said he’s had to pay more attention to trends in the market, harkening it to watching stocks rise and fall.
“When we were allowed to reopen last year, for example, somebody came in and bought all of our soccer,” he said. “We thought oh that’s weird, soccer doesn’t really sell in the Pittsburgh area that well. Well, for some reason soccer all of a sudden got popular and it went through the roof.”
In McKees Rocks, local athletics reign supreme. Arrico said customers come in frequently asking about longtime Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger rookie cards, and more recently anything with wide receiver Chase Claypool and Pirates third baseman Ke’Bryan Hayes on it.
For some, local heroes provide lifelong pursuits in sports memorabilia. Mark Shillingburg recently got back into collecting, and has found SportsCards Etc. as a new favorite spot. His biggest regret in collecting comes from the rookie card he sold years ago of Penguins legend Mario Lemieux.
“I wish I had never done that,” Shillingburg said with a grin. “I’d like to get that Mario back. That’s one I’ll definitely get back one day.”
But the trading card industry has seen many changes away from the tradition we think of. New digital cards offer virtual collections, and the market now goes far beyond sports. Shillingburg, for example, has encouraged his kids to try collecting by buying them Pokemon trading cards. Anthony Celender, a McKees Rocks resident, comes to SportsCards Etc. for its catalog of sports and Marvel (MCU) trading cards.
“I do a little bit of everything,” he said. “I was just looking for something unique and I know that they always have unique stuff.”
As for the digital cards, Arrico’s not sure that they will become anywhere near as popular as the traditional route. The evolution includes digital artwork, video cards and digital autographs, but Arrico doubts it will ever match the feeling of a real, physical card.
“I don’t quite understand the concept of it because as collectors you kind of want that tactile object in your hand,” he said. “But that’s something that’s evolving. I don’t know if it is gonna stick long term, but it is something you are starting to see more and more of.”