Through a potent combination of capitalism, commercialism and fanaticism, what was once considered a big hobby for little kids -- collecting baseball cards of the day's best and most popular players -- has been transformed into an industry complete with price wars, intricate marketing strategy and underhanded tactics.

It's come a long way since turn-of-the century cards were printed by tobacco companies, featuring only select players. The market has become so saturated, cards of most anyone connected with baseball are available: These days you even can buy cards of major league umpires.

T & M Sports Inc. produces complete sets of the major leagues' men in blue, including a card of Bob Engel, who retired after being sentenced to three years' probation and 40 hours of community service for taking 4,180 baseball cards from a store in Bakersfield, Calif.

There also are minor league baseball card sets. In fact, for $25 you can buy the 1983 Lynchburg Mets set, which features a young Dwight Gooden; in 1983 the set sold for about $3. For about $80 you can walk off with a Gooden rookie card from 1984. A 1986 Donruss card of Jose Canseco runs about $110.

And for the special low price of $2 million, you could be the proud owner of a creased, uncut strip of five "T-206" baseball cards from 1910 -- including a Honus Wagner card, of which only about 40 exist. (Legend has it that Wagner objected to his image being packaged with cigarettes -- this was before the days of the bubble gum pack -- and demanded the card be withdrawn.)

Some baseball card gurus admit they've taken the hobby away from the kids. And they're proud of it.

"Sure, we've ruined their hobby," Alan Rosen, one of the biggest baseball card dealers in the nation, told the Wall Street Journal. "But isn't this what America is all about?"

Other dealers seem more remorseful for spoiling the innocence of the hobby.

"They're making it harder and harder for the 8- or 9-year-old kid to spend a lot of money on cards," said Bill Huggins, owner of House of Cards in Wheaton. "The little guy gets trampled in the storm."

Card manufacturers have risen to the challenge of an ever-increasing market.

You want a Ken Griffey Jr. card? It's not that easy anymore -- you have to be more specific. Each year players are depicted on dozens of different cards, courtesy of the "Big Five" of card manufacturers -- Topps, Donruss, Fleer, Score and Upper Deck -- and countless lesser companies. Even Bowman, which disappeared in the '50s, leaving Topps with a monopoly on the business until the early '80s, is back (though now owned by Topps). One local dealer estimated there were 75 Griffey cards in 1989.

No longer the only card in town, Topps has had to scramble to maintain its hold on the industry. Marketing itself as "The Real One," Topps's strategy has been to flood the market, supplementing its basic 792-card set with an updated "traded" set later in the season, an oversized glossy version, Topps Baseball Coins, and Topps Baseball Card Collecting Kit. It still owns about 50 percent of the market, with total sales of $246.4 million in the last fiscal year, up nearly $50 million from the previous year.

The other companies also are increasing sales. Donruss has taken an especially aggressive marketing stance, conducting "focus groups" with youngsters each year, letting the kids decide which designs and graphics they like best.

But baseball cards are not just for kids anymore. "At lunchtime, our place is packed with adults on their lunch breaks," said Al Bonan, owner of Bonanza Baseball Cards in Silver Spring. "And that's great, because they're the ones that spend the most money."

Rapid appreciation in the value of many cards has even attracted the attention of Wall Street. Since the stock market crash of October 1987, baseball cards have been viewed as a safer investment. Dealers and shop owners say it's not unusual to see businessmen selling their stocks and bonds to purchase large quantities of a certain player's cards (Cecil Fielder, at about $4 a pop, is particularly hot these days), in hopes the cards -- like those of Griffey, Gooden, Canseco, Bo Jackson and others -- will soon increase in value.

"We have several customers that will spend $1,000 or $2,000 a month on cards as if they were stocks," Huggins said. "They're virtually building a portfolio."

The most lucrative start out as whjat can be called a penny stock. For instance, in 1986 the Canseco rookie card could be had, in a 15-card Donruss pack, for 35 cents -- an average of 2.3 cents per card. With the price tag now at $110, the card's value has increased more than 478,000 percent.

It's alarming because the market, like any other, can only go so far before it crashes. But with baseball cards, the economic consequences are clouded by several factors, including the seemingly timeless appeal of the game. You can't watch your coins and stamps hit home runs or pitch shutouts.

"There will always be baseball and there will always be children. The association between them is natural," said Bonan, echoing the perhaps wishful thinking of many dealers. "The baseball card business lends itself to speculation. It's fun trying to anticipate which players might do well later, and following their progress."

Some economics experts aren't so sure the market can sustain such a boom forever. "It will unwind," said Stan Wasowski, chair of the economics department at Georgetown University. "There is no intrinsic value in these cards. The only value is imaginary, and I don't mean that to sound derogatory. But it doesn't satisfy any other need."

Most dealers disagree. "They've been saying that since 1984," said Donald Gakenheimer, manager of House of Cards. "There are always people predicting doomsday, but we're still around."

Other dealers are genuinely worried that the same spectulators now pumping millions of dollars into the industry will be the ones who cause a crash by bailing out when prices slip.

But as with any other lucrative enterprise, card collecting has its unpleasant side: counterfeits, altered cards, thefts and even murders.

Counterfeit cards are increasingly prevalent, from the relatively harmless bogus Wagner cards found in Maine this spring (apparently it was only a practical joke) to the fraudulent '63 Pete Rose rookie cards that cost buyers hundreds of dollars. Other notable counterfeits floating around in the last few years include '84 Don Mattingly Donruss rookie cards, '73 Mike Schmidt Topps rookie cards and '85 Mark McGwire Topps rookie cards.

Upper Deck took the biggest step to put a halt to the fakes: Its cards come with a "counterfeit-proof" hologram on the back.

But dealers are concerned with altered cards. Some have even taken to measuring dimensions to ensure that cards haven't been shaved to hide frayed edges, since even slightly damaged cards are worth dramatically less than mint cards.

Even the manufacturers have been accused of altering cards -- purposely printing "error" cards then pulling them from the shelves (and replacing them with corrected versions) in an attempt to boost the prices of the "rare" error cards. All the companies deny the accusations.

But by far the saddest incident occurred March 7 in San Luis Obispo, Calif. Frank Gove, 70, was bludgeoned to death in his son's Central Coast Baseball Cards store during a robbery in which $10,000 worth of cards was taken.

Detective Mike Brennler said the murderer referred primarily to price tags when deciding which cards to take, but didn't have any real knowledge of which cards were valuable.

"This is the dark side of what was once an innocent hobby," he said.

But as many dealers point out, all is not lost if you're still in it for fun. Convenience stores still sell packs of cards -- only now the prices range from about 50 cents for Topps to about $1.25 for Upper Deck -- to kids anxious to rip them open and find their favorite players.

But even the kids are cheating. Convenience stores often have packs that have been opened and less-than-meticulously closed by customers who wanted to see which cards were in the pack before purchasing.

Locally the hobby-business is booming. There are about a dozen shops that specialize in baseball cards (and many more that sell them alongside comic books, coins or stamps). The Beckett Baseball Card Monthly listed 16 card shows in Maryland this month and 21 in Virginia.

But many longtime collectors reminisce about the old days, when there was only one Mickey Mantle card each year, when kids used to trade and flip cards and stick them in the spokes of their bicycles, when store owners didn't need two security systems and video cameras, and when people didn't get murdered in their own stores. "I couldn't have envisioned all this 10 years ago," Huggins said.

And for all its status as an all-American pastime, baseball card-collecting may be the only hobby whose major villain is Mom. For each Alan "Mr. Mint" Rosen, there are a hundred middle-aged men who can trace their financial woes to the mysterious disappearance of their cards when they went away to college. Somewhere there must be a metric ton of baseball cards in the trash.

Those who kept their mothers away from their cards are on the other side of the tables, stuffing huge wads of money into their pockets.