The Art of Sorting

Sorting baseball cards is one of the more mundane tasks that you must tackle in order to become well acquainted with all the types of cards and to get enough stock so that you can trade and talk knowledgeably about the hobby. It involves a great deal of sitting on floors, stretching to reach piles in various contortionist poses and stacking and restacking everything in various manners of categories.

I bought over 70,000 cards from someone last summer, most of which are the mid-80’s to late 90’s worthless cardboard that we know and love, and I recently started sorting it for the second time. Initially, I separated the stars and semistars from the commons, then sorted the commons into teams. I figured that it would be easier to find cards if they were split into the teams. However, after a year of trading and collecting and collating and categorizing, I find myself sitting on the floor once again, re-sorting the cards into brand/year/card number so that I can easily find the cards from people’s Want Lists.

It is tedious process, and the mind travels in different tangents in order to occupy the vacuum of intelligent thought it would normally be producing. Many times I will snap “awake” just in time to catch me putting that ’89 Donruss into the pile of ’87 Score, or I go into a transcendental state in which my hands are moving on their own, as if by someone else controlling them or giving them instructions, easily placing each card into the correct stacks. Again, I “awaken” and the magic disappears as a dump an unsorted pile over my neat towers of cards, spilling them everywhere, necessitating that I start all over. Damn.

In sorting my cards again, I have been thinking about the various tactics I use to expedite this process, the games my mind plays on me, and the statistical order-out-of-chaos that is at work. I can divide the entire procedure into several groups.

Type of Sort

How do I want to sort my cards? There are an infinite number of possibilities, but most of them can be eliminated as ill-suited for the purpose of the hobby, such as by card color or birthplace of the subject. However, there are two basic categorization methods that are employed, then sub-sort methods that can be used within each. I will briefly describe the advantages and disadvantages of each.

Player Name

Clearly, this is one of the simplest methods and does not require searching a card for a copyright date or reference year. It allows for easy access to all of a specific player’s cards, so that, if all of a sudden, a previously unkown player has a career year, you can grab all of his cards quickly to put them on eBay and make a fortune!

Unfortunately, it may also require a large amount of reorganization when, each year, five more Martinez’, three more Smiths and a few Robinsons come into the league. You constantly need to make space, and unless you had the foresight to buy a card catalog case and leave enough room in each drawer for new additions, you will find yourself buying more boxes and moving half a box here, a few rows there, all the while filling up those shelves that you thought had “plenty of room” to expand when you bought them last year. This is the only method, though, that requires no further subsorting, unless you are anal and must sort them by the year.


This is probably the most popular method, and allows the most flexibility. It may be more difficult to get every card from Derek Jeter when circumstances demand it, but with tools at your disposal such as (shudder?) Beckett, it should be easy to find the base cards for every brand from every year.

This one also requires a great deal of rearranging as the collection grows. At first you have one box of Topps, half a box each of Score and Fleer, an entire box of Donruss (didn’t anyone keep their Donruss cards from the 80’s and 90’s, and how did I end up with all of them?), and one more box for Leaf, Playoff, Pacific, Pinnacle, Classic and all the various food, drugstore and grocery store card sets that you have.

Soon, though, your Topps collection is outgrowing its box. You need a second box. Then you buy a lot from a guy in the next town who just needs the money and needs to “get it out of the house,” and soon! So you bring it home and realize that your Donruss box is not enough, that this guy had the other half of the world’s Donruss collection and you need another box of it, plus Fleer needs its own box and is spilling over into your variety box, and you need a separate box for your vintage Topps, plus the box for your “prize” cards that are in penny sleeves and toploaders. Your stack just grew from 4 to 8, and is growing day-by-day as you buy all those $1.69 packs at Target, plus the two blaster boxes from Walmart.

It’s a slippery slope….

Once you have decided on the base method of sorting, you need to further sub-sort your collection. No sense in sorting everything if you still can’t find anything.

Team Name

This method is rarer, and I don’t know many collectors who would go to the trouble of separating by team. Some people still collect only Red Sox or Yankees, especially up here in the Northeast, but like a true Boston or New York fan, anything else just gets lumped into an “OTHER” box, as there really is no life outside the city limits.


This is the most important sub-classification, as everyone needs to find that A-Rod from a specific year, and that special Topps Rookie card or “First Year” Bowman. It is as close to a Law of Sorting as there is. “Thou shalt separate by Year.”

In the end, it is personal preference, and you may change it several times throughout your collecting career. No one is wrong in which method you choose. Everyone is right. What is best is whatever works for you.

Sorting Habits

In order to sort effectively, you need a large open space with plenty of room for each type of card you want to sort, a place for your coffee or Coke, some sorting music playing in the background (I recommend Miles Davis), and enough lighting that you don’t hurt your eyes searching for that microscopic “1986” on the back.

I tend to sort on the floor, usually while a football game is on the TV. Carpet only. No bare floors. Too hard to pick up all the cards in one pile, and they tend to slip and slide and fall all over the place on a slick surface. I place my unsorted pile just far enough away that I can lean over and reach it, but leaving enough room around me that I can start piling within easy reaching distance.

I still haven’t worked out whether to sort everything at once or to sort into brands first, then sort again later by year. If I sort by brand only, then what do I do with the already-sorted stack of Topps I just came across? OK, I’ll put it off to the side of the big Topps pile. But now I’ve already started breaking it down, so shouldn’t I do it with all the rest?

If I sort everything all at once, I usually run out of room on the floor and need to stop periodically to space things better so that I have room for the single 1982 Fleer I found. Move everything around, slide that pile, prevent it from falling….)

I find that sorting by brand first allows me to swiftly thumb through the cards and pick out the obvious ones first. There are certain cards that are easily identifiable, simply by the thickness or stickiness or coloring or pattern on the side. I go through and pull those out first, then move to the tedious task of going through the individual cards that seem to have been randomly placed in the pile.

I will hold the cards in my hands, give my thumbs a small lick to make them semi-sticky, and start thumbing through the cards so that I can seen the fronts (or tops or bottoms, whichever is more easily identified) and either change them to the front of the pile, or use the upper hand, where the cards are being moved to, to place the card in the correct pile. I like putting things at the top of the pile, then putting the sorted stack in the correct location. Less twisting on the old back. (Two surgeries on my back and two on my knee will do that to you.)

I may even pick out the rarer cards while doing the pile-topper sort and place them on the floor next to me or in their pile, since this occurs less often and doesn’t put too much strain on me.

Be alert to the size of the pile you are constructing. Often, with careless placement, the piles will start to twirl or skew, and then you could have a catastrophe on your hands. All your Upper Deck mixed together, Topps falling into Fleer, cats and dogs living together, mass hysteria!

Just keep an eye on things.

Sorting Games

Admit it. You root for a specific pile to be the tallest when you are done sorting through that box of mixed brands, years and players. You are hoping that the pile of ’86 Donruss will overcome the sheer numerical superiority of the ’91 Fleer and eke out a victory! You are looking for that ’89 Leaf stack to pick up and move ahead of your stack of ’88 Score.

It is apparent that our minds need competition to keep things interesting. Sorting is no different. Not only do you wait to see which pile is the King of the Hill, but you also get a thrill when you come across that stack of cards, pre-sorted, waiting for you to pick it out of the morass of mangled paper and place it on the short-stack, hoping to move it past the next highest pile. Nothing is so satisfying as finding a lode of ’92 Upper Deck, which seem to stick together better than any other card out there, in a stack 45 high and putting it in its place.

About two hours into the sorting, though, your mind starts to play funny games with you. Didn’t I do this stack already? Why is there a pile of Score in with the Fleer? No, they really don’t look that similar. How did that happen? Wait – every time I come upon a ’92 or ’93 Donruss, there is one of those ’86 Donruss right behind it! No, it couldn’t be…ah, here’s one without it…NOOOOOO! Its behind it! AHA! I’ve discovered the secret of dark matter! No, I’ve entered the Twilight Zone!

Then, by your fourth hour of sorting, both your legs have fallen asleep and you are getting a crick in your neck from bending over the cards for too long. Your back aches, your feet are nowhere to be found, and your vision is starting to perceive the cards as too far away to reach. You look at your hands, and they seem detached from you. Your brain is made of cotton candy and you feel like you are floating but on the ground.

Time to get up and take a break. Now. NOW!

1 comment:

dayf said...

A good sorter can spend days in a zen-like trance with stacks of cards all becoming properly organized.

Then, five years later when you can't remember why you sorted them that way, you get to do it all over again.