For a winning bid of $42 on eBay, my 12-year-old son won the right to every St. Louis Cardinals card from a case of baseball cards. With 6 boxes in a case, 10 packs in a box and 46 cards in a pack, that’s 2,760 cards to draw from.
Depending on your age and your proximity to The Hobby, your reaction to that is probably either “you paid how much to who for what?” or “oh, you bought into a break.”
I don’t know exactly when baseball card breaks became “a thing.” They certainly weren’t around when I was a kid collecting cards, so I can pinpoint their origin to sometime between 1994 and last night.
Whatever their origin, they are a phenomenon of the YouTube era. When you buy into a break, you don’t just get the cards shipped to you - you get a link to a livestream where you watch each pack opened live. This happens for a couple reasons. For one, if you weren’t watching, an unscrupulous seller could easily remove the high value cards for themselves. The second reason is that in modern times, watching strangers open packages as a form of entertainment is simply a thing people do.
YouTube has provided the one major generational divide between myself and my children. When I was a kid, my parents had nothing but disdain and confusion when they caught me listening to N.W.A. or Metallica. I always kind of wondered what that thing would be between myself and my children. Lo and behold, it wasn’t music at all. It’s watching endless streaming video of random assholes opening boxes or talking while playing video games.
But my tween aspiring lawyer ultimately negotiated terms that allowed him to bid through my eBay account and for us to watch the break together.
Opening 60 packs (plus box loaders) and flipping through nearly 3,000 cards goes faster than you might think. Even though most breakers will ship you all of your team’s cards, as they open the packs, they typically flip quickly past the “base” cards to get to the “hits.” With so many packs being opened, you’re going to get all of the regular Cardinal cards in the set. But each box also contains a certain number of special cards: Autographed cards, bits of jersey, alternate photos, colors, etc.
Early on in the break - the 3rd pack out of 60 - he got his first major hit: An autographed Andrew Knizner card.
Each box contains just one autograph card, so with six boxes in a break, scoring a Cardinals signature made this a winning break.
While buying into a break is primarily about hoping to pull the best cards, the ritual of the act and the personality of the breaker are also important. On the surface, these all look pretty much the same: You are watching somebody’s hands open a bunch of baseball packs. The camera is fixed in something of a point-of-view shot, with the arms reaching around and flipping through the cards - pausing on the hits.
“This guy’s good,” my son said early on in the break. The way he removed the boxes from the case and the packs from the box was elegant. He had a smooth rhythm as he rifled through each pack.
There’s also the matter of chatter during the break. The breaker will be mic’d and provide some degree of commentary as packs are opened. This includes describing the hits as they come, some details of which may not quite be visible from just watching the stream. But it also typically involves filling the air during long periods of tearing open packs and flipping through cards.
A couple weeks back, my son bought into a break where the breaker pontificated about football through the entire process. There weren’t many Cardinals hits in that break, but his greater frustration was having to listen to this guy drone on... about football(!)... while he was opening baseball cards.
Many times, the breaker will have the chat open so they can talk to those those participating in the break and they can all chat with each other. It’s all a little disembodied and dystopian, but so is everything else right now.
In the 4th pack of the 2nd box, the unimaginable happened: My son scored another autographed card, this one on a black-variant Lane Thomas card.
Once I relaxed my brain to the bizarro trappings of a YouTube break, the experience was not unlike opening packs with my friends on the curb outside a gas station. Having baseball cards is fun, but getting baseball cards is the biggest thrill. Sure, you can pay market price and have pretty much any card you want shipped to your house. But there’s nothing like the moment a real hit reveals itself amidst a pile of commons.
It’s best to share a moment like that with someone. Maybe you can do that by watching together in the same house. But if not, if you can watch together and text-chat with 30 strangers around the country who bought into the same break - that’s still better than opening packs alone.