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McGwire pumps up card sales

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None of Mark McGwire's home runs landed in Utah - even he can't hit 'em that far - but his push to break baseball's grandest record has some local business owners feeling like they caught No. 62.

Dave Johnson, owner of House of Cards in Salt Lake City, is one of them. He said the increase in sales of baseball cards this year has been astounding, and he attributes about 90 percent of it to McGwire's race to beat Roger Maris' 37-year-old record of 61 home runs in a season.The St. Louis Cardinals slugger didn't belt his 62nd dinger until Tuesday night. But Johnson said sales at his shop started picking up steam in July, when McGwire's home run count was in the 40s.

"With the (major league) baseball strike of 1994, there was a big downturn in sales, and it's slowly built up from then. But this year has been incredible," Johnson said. "Compared to last year, I'll bet this year my sales are 50 to 75 percent higher in baseball products."

People who never purchased baseball cards before are finding their way to the shop to look for McGwire items, Johnson said. And the House of Cards takes dozens of calls each day from collectors who are looking for a McGwire rookie card or want to know how much one is worth.

For the record, Johnson said he had one 1985 Topps USA Olympic card, printed after McGwire participated in the 1984 Summer Games, on hand Thursday, and he was asking $175 for it. The same card was selling for $25 or $30 at the beginning of the season and $10 or $12 a couple years ago.

Bruce Pack, owner of Comics and Cards in Midvale, said he usually sells more basketball cards than baseball cards, especially with the recent success of the Utah Jazz.

But he said more baseball card collectors are coming into his shop these days, and they are excited about the hobby again.

"With the home run derby going on . . . it seems like people have kind of forgiven the strike years and are getting back into baseball," Pack said.

He said the baseball card boom of the late 1980s was largely fueled by speculators who wanted to buy cards and then quickly sell them for big profits. But when card companies picked up on the trend and increased their production, the cards were no longer rare, and the boom went bust.

The 1994 strike, which resulted in the cancellation of the World Series, pushed sales down even lower, Pack said.

"Now I'm starting to see a resurgence in collecting again . . .," he said. "It's a great shot in the arm."

Fred Hokama, owner of Press Box Sports Cards in Sandy, said he can't keep one of the 1985 Topps McGwire cards in his store for more than a week, regardless of the price.

He said he has heard of some dealers charging up to $1,000 for McGwire cards in perfect condition, but any he gets remain in the $150 range. And baseball cards featuring the Chicago Cubs' Sammy Sosa, who has been nipping at McGwire's heels, also are gaining in popularity at Hokama's shop.

"Normally what I sell most is basketball, football and then baseball (cards)," Hokama said. "This past summer, with the home run chase, baseball sales have actually passed my football sales."

That means the fans are back, he said, and he thinks the excitement of 1998 will carry over into the off-season and beyond.

"I opened up yesterday and must have had 20 phone calls on Mark McGwire stuff," Hokama said Thursday. "The expectations will be that some other players might be able to push the record again next year."