Confessions of a Baseball Card Thief

I have a confession to make. My first addiction was to baseball cards. Like all good miscreants, I’ve found someone else to blame: my brothers, Tim and Steve.

The year was 1964, and I was an impressionable lad of six. My brothers brought home colorful wax packages containing treasure: cardboard gods swinging their weapons of destruction bathed in Technicolor glory. Each pack came with a special collector’s coin of a player. The whiff of gum ran up my tiny nostrils, grabbed hold of my brain, and I was officially hooked.

armour-part05-1964-floodcurtOnce the hook had been inserted, I became a demon obsessed. I wanted to collect every damn card, but there was a problem. Topps released the cards in series from March through September, and many retailers would see baseball cards moving sluggishly through the end of summer and start of school, so they wouldn’t place further orders. Which left crazed fools like me in the lurch, with incomplete sets.

Crazed doesn’t begin to describe my mania. Raised as a good Roman Catholic boy, all the religious teaching went out the window when my allowance money dried up and a new series of cards had hit the stores. Theft was the answer. While my mother was out of the house, I’d rifle through her purse collection, scooping up what change had been left behind. Whilst visiting my pal Kevin Farley’s house, I stole a pile of cards while he went to get me a popsicle. I was a terrible person, but this is why God created confession, right?

My Dad was (and still is) a great guy. He kept a Mercury head silver dollar from the year he was born, 1924, on his dresser. One day I was on the prowl for card money, and I’d sucked up all the loose change I could filch around the house. A new series was out, and I was behind the other neighborhood kids in collecting. The 1924 coin slid into my pants pocket and a bee-line was made for Ray’s Toy Village in nearby West Portal.

I stormed into the toy store, grabbed a fistful of cards and slammed them onto the counter with the coin from 1924. The nice lady behind the register pawed the relic and examined it closely. “Oh, my! Are you sure you want to use this wonderful old coin to make this purchase?” Now I was getting irritated. She was standing between an addict and his drug. I nodded quickly and she shook her head in bewilderment as I snatched the bag like Smeagol clutching the almighty ring to his breast. All that was missing was a sinister cackle.

There was a kid on the block who was wise to other kids stealing cards from him, so he took a pen and colored the left corner of the card. He’d found a place to purchase cards from the 1969 sets 6th and 7th series, of which I had precious few. A mission was launched to his house under the pretense of a playdate, and the cards were stolen. I cut the left hand corner of the cards to issue my own statement of ownership, wiping out his previous brand. He accused me of theft and I was no longer welcome in his house, but that was secondary. I had the cards!

As I grew into adulthood, I realized some of the cards in my vast collection were obtained by ill-gotten means. It was time to right some wrongs. I ran into my pal Kevin Farley at our 20th grammar school reunion, admitted I’d stolen the cards 25 years previous, and made arrangements to return them to him. This was in 1992, and the cards were vintage baseball and football cards from the mid 1950s and early 60s. He was shocked and thrilled at getting the cards back after all this time, which represented probably $100-$200 dollars in value.

My children had an interest in coin collecting, and we began putting numismatic books together. We turned a page, and there it was: a Mercury head dollar. Guilt poured into my head and I seized a teachable moment. It was nearly Thanksgiving, and we were going to visit my Dad for the holidays. I took my kids to a coin shop, told them the story of how I stole that dollar from my Dad, and purchased a 1924 Mercury head coin for him. I presented it to my father on Thanksgiving, told him the terrible story and how sorry I was for being a rotten kid. He smiled and laughed, “I always wondered what happened to that coin!”.

Flash forward to today, and I’ve purged most of the cards in our collection, save for the Mantle, Mays, Aaron and other star cards. The bulk of the collection went to a good home: the Baseball Reliquary, and are used in a variety of exhibit displays. None of my three children took much interest in baseball cards, but my mania remains, abetted by technology. I found a sub-culture of baseball card geeks on YouTube and began trading for cards from the 50s and 60s with other guys. Once you get established in the group, people send you “just because” packages of cards they think you’ll appreciate. The levels of generosity are astonishing.

s-l225I have to thank my mother, for she never threw out the cards of my youth. She knew how incredibly important they were to my brothers and I. Oldest brother Steve gets an assist, because while I was away at college, he took possession of the cards and moved them to his home, possibly sparing them from a terrible death.

So here I sit, a reformed baseball card thief. My latest mania is to collect all 165 coins from that 1964 set, allowing me to recapture that moment when I first I held a red all-star coin featuring Ken Boyer of the St. Louis Cardinals, swinging a bat. Thanks to eBay, I rounded up all but 20 of them, but ran out of money. Now, where is my wife’s purse?

 

Death of a Museum

caseclosedFor Christmas in 1968, my grandmother gave 8-year-old me a green plastic baseball card “locker” to hold my growing collection. There were “slots” for each of the 24 teams, the American League alphabetical on the left, the National League on the right. To this day, if you ask me to list the major league teams I will recite them in the order I learned from this locker: Baltimore, Boston, California (now LA), Chicago, etc. Assuming I remember to add the newer expansion teams at the end, it takes me 20 seconds, tops.

Truth be told, this locker could not really hold my collection, which already required a few shoe boxes. Instead, each team’s slot held the most recent cards I had of everyone on the current roster. If I got a 1968 Willie Mays card, I would place it in the Giants’ slot, removing the 1967 Willie Mays card (if I had it). When the Red Sox made a 10-team deal with the Brewers in 1971, I transferred each of these players, so that George Scott could immediately join his new mates in Milwaukee. When the Yankees released Johnny Callison in 1973, he was moved into a shoe box until he got another job.

I did not have to wait for a newspaper to tell me what the new Red Sox lineup might look like–the cards in my locker were completely up-to-date, and I could immediately use them to envision Tommy Harper in left field, and Marty Pattin as the number 2 starter. I could do this in June, and I could do this in January. Baseball cards were a useful (and awesome) tool for obsessing about baseball 365 days a year. This locker was a fixture in my house until I went away to college.

s-l1600During the 1980s, as the card market was booming and I was becoming an adult, I went along with the growing trend of putting cards in plastic sleeves, nine to a page, sets stored numerically in thick three-inch binders. And not just for old cards–you could buy a brand new set of Topps, Fleer, or Donruss, and within minutes, barely touched by human hands, all your cards could be preserved in pristine plastic. Perfect condition, someday I will be rich! What more could you ask for?

s-l1600-1Soon more products were available to keep you from ever touching your cards. For my old Jackie Robinson and Ted Williams cards, plastic sheets would simply not do. No, they needed thick plastic screw cases. Every card worth more than $50, no better make it $10, got its own screw case. And keep your paws off of them, by the way. I might need a safety deposit box.

By the early 1990s I was no longer buying new cards, and my older cards were all properly sealed, safe from all humans (or oxygen). Like the Mona Lisa in the Louvre, they were to admired from a distance, no flash photography please. For the next 20 years I occasionally added to my collection of 1950s and 1960s cards, filling those empty sleeves in my notebooks, completing long ago sets. A few cards would come in the mail, I would pull the correct notebook down from the shelf, insert each of the cards into their proper place (or into a screw case), and then put the notebook back on the shelf for another month or two. It was … kinda fun?

caseopenSeveral years ago I was on eBay and I saw that old card locker for sale and, I gotta be honest, it called to me. As my childhood version was long gone, I made the purchase and the locker showed up at my house a week later. On another whim, I took my 1969 set out of its notebook, sorted the cards by teams, and placed them in the locker. And what do you know, I discovered that I was riffing through these cards every evening, revisiting the season.

I will now spare you the gory details and bring you up to the present.

My screw cases are all gone. Thankfully, I avoided (and continue to avoid) the grading services that have blighted the hobby, so I didn’t have to worry about taking apart their ugly slabs. My plastic notebooks filled with plastic sleeves? Gone.

My lone concession to “taking care” of my cards is that every one of them (pre-1980) is in its own thin plastic “penny” sleeve, but otherwise all of them can be held and “played with” just as they were when I was a child. My cards are all in cardboard boxes, sorted by year, and can be arranged into lineups, or culled for Hall of Famers, or sorted alphabetically, or arranged by height. My maintenance is democratic–the 1952 Jackie Robinson and the 1975 Bob Heise are accorded the same level of protection.

img_0851Pictured to the left is the cardboard box I use to hold my 1969, 1970, and 1971 sets. At the moment they are sorted into teams, though that might change tomorrow. I could instead arrange my 1969 cards based on each team’s actual Opening Day roster, and use them to imagine the season ahead. I don’t think this Mets lineup is going to hit, but the Seattle Pilots sure look good, don’t they?

One important point. My cards are in great condition and well taken care of. I am not bending, folding, scuffing the edges. My 1957 Mickey Mantle, in Near Mint condition 25 years ago in its screw case, is in Near Mint condition today in its thin plastic sleeve, only now the Mick is filed with Bobby Richardson and Hank Bauer, where I think he would want to be and was meant to me.

My museum is dead, but my cards have never been more alive. Cards were meant for kids, and I shall never forget that again.

Unfinished (set) business

I’m a man of my word. I keep my promises and I achieve my goals. I don’t get distracted, I stay on task and I always finish what I start. Except…

My income and my passion for cards were at similar peaks throughout the ‘90’s. I finished some old sets I was close to finishing, started some older sets from scratch. There were four sets that I jumpstarted my way into with a series of well-priced, shrewdly purchased lots, and I had every intention of making my way to the end, the final check made in each one’s checklist. I don’t know what derailed me from my goals. Maybe it was the new century and big life changes (job switches, moving to Cooperstown, and so on), maybe it was the changes in the hobby (shifts to grading, disappearance of commons into slabs, moving to Cooperstown, far from big Chicago area card shows), maybe I simply lost interest in those sets. Let’s find out.

 

1933 Tattoo Orbit

tattoo-orbitThere’s something about this size, 2” X 2 ¼,” that grabs me. Tattoo Orbit (or R305, if you want to get technical) is a beautiful little set, 60 cards in all, hyper-stylized. The player photo is slightly colorized and is ensconced in a background that looks like it could have been drawn by a child. Check out Marty McManus here, swinging away, gigantic, in a setting of magnificent red and yellow. It’s a thing of beauty.

I have 16 of the 60, including two of the short prints. Did I ever think I’d really go the distance on this one? In retrospect, I’m not so sure. The set, even in VG, is around $4,000, probably more if I hunt and peck for individual cards. I don’t like spending a ton, so my guess is this one was a bit of a whim, a “yeah, sure, I’ll put this together over time.” Looking at what I’ve got, and how prices have gone up since I began, it’s even less likely I’ll get back to this one. But they are wonderful cards, magnificently simple in design.

 

1947 Bond Bread

bond-breadI’m halfway to the 44 card set of baseball players (though there are also 4 boxer cards). Not sure how these came into my field of vision, but it seems that in the 1980’s a large number of these black and white gems were found in a warehouse and released into the hobby. Maybe that’s why I got so many, definitely why the big time Hall of Famers (Musial, Williams, Jackie Robinson) are relatively inexpensive).

There’s a chance I’ll go back to this set. There are many wonders to be found in the photographs. Stan the Man here looks like he accidentally fielded a grounder during a photo shoot for the new 1947 Packard. Still, hunting down ungraded Joe DiMaggio and Jackie Robinson cards may be a tough task and, it seems like after 2000, a rash of illegally reprinted square cornered cards (some come rounded) made their way not only into the hobby but into grading.  That worries me, though I wonder where the money is in counterfeiting 70-year-old Del Ennis cards.

 

1949 Remar Bread Oakland Oaks

remar-breadWhat’s with the bread cards? Sure, it makes sense to package cards with gum, kids chewing away as they read about their favorite players, but the image of a kid wadding a piece of white bread in his cheek is one I can’t shake. The poor little Oaklander would choke!

There are 42 cards in this set, a strangely sized 2” X 3.” They’re thin stuff, very flexible, but sort of cool. There’s a Billy Martin card, which I don’t have, but is pretty inexpensive in EX, the general grade of the 11 cards I have.

I’ve been scouting out the balance of the set on EBay and it looks like there are ungraded examples at reasonable prices. Completing this set may be a reasonable endeavor, but it’s awfully hard to muster up a real enthusiasm for chasing down an EX example of Maurice Van Robays, whoever the hell he was. Still, I look at my Mel Duezabou card and know that, to someone, he was important. I’m not sure that that someone is me.

 

1952 Parkhurst

parkhurstThis may be the one that got away and that calls me back the most. Almost exactly the size of the 1949 Bowman cards that I love, this 100 card set of Canadian International Leaguers (Montreal Royals, Toronto Maple Leafs and Ottawa Athletics) is filled with unknowns and a healthy subset of drawings like “Gripping the Bat.” Look at this page – awesome, right?

Though I have half the set, I have none of the key cards, minor league appearances by Tommy Lasorda, Walter Alston and Johnny Podres. They won’t break the bank. I think if I fish around for these, I’m likely to find one or two sellers/dealers who would sell me a bunch at a reasonable price. What could the real demand for the no-names and sketches be? Then I’ll back myself into a corner and spring for the higher priced cards. That’s my methodology – go cheap for as long as I can and then force myself to pony up for the few costlier cards that stand between me and a complete set.

 

I’ve never been a type collector of random cards, never sought out having one from as many sets as possible, so having four partial sets drives me batty. Is it worth keeping what I have if I’m not going to get them all? I don’t know, I debate that a lot. What’s the point of having 51 of 100 1952 Parkhursts if I’m not going to end up with 100? It’s a small scale struggle, but a struggle nonetheless.

“The Baseball Card Song”

Many of you likely know of the great band The Baseball Project.  Their members include several wonderful rock musicians who gained their fame in other bands, including Scott McCaughey, Steve Wynn, Linda Pitmon, Peter Buck and Mike Mills.  I could go and on, and I might at some point, but they write and perform songs about baseball, and they have made four great records.  I have seen them live four times.

Their most recent record (called The 3rd) came out in 2014 (guys, its time), and includes a fantastic song about collecting baseball cards that speaks to my young adult years rather pointedly.

I can’t find a video performance on-line, but here is the audio.  Have a listen, and then buy the CD/record.  Then buy the rest of them.

One Man’s Garbage

If you’re reading this post you’ve probably bought at least 1 pack of baseball cards, if not 100’s of packs of baseball cards, in your life. Well, my experience was just a little bit different.

As a child growing up in the 60’s and early 70’s, Topps baseball cards were the gold standard, and for four years they were all mine. Every card and every insert were mine for the taking, and I do mean taking.

I grew up just six blocks from a Topps manufacturing plant and from 1967 to 1971 I got every single card for free. During that time, before the baseball card boom of the 80’s it was the practice of Topps to toss any cards that hit the floor into the garbage. At 5 or 10 cents a pack they weren’t worth much, and were treated as nothing more than litter. By pure luck I happened to live only a couple of blocks from the private garbage hauler that had the contract to take away Topps’s garbage. They picked up the garbage every Friday, and they wouldn’t take the trucks to the dump until Monday, so the trucks would be parked for the weekend loaded with Topps baseball cards, packs and packs of unopened cards. Every Saturday morning myself and a couple of friends would go “shopping”. It was dirty work, but when you’re 10 years old, it wasn’t much dirtier than a typical summer’s day.

Each week would yield anywhere from 75-100 packs of cards. Baseball card nirvana. Mantle, Mays, Aaron, Clemente, Rose, all mine for the taking. Rookie cards of Reggie Jackson, Johnny Bench, Nolan Ryan, and Thurman Munson. I had dozens of them.

After 4 years it was all over. Topps must have changed to another garbage hauler, because no more cards showed up on Saturday morning. It sucked at the time, but hey, I had several thousand baseball cards, in near-mint condition that I got for free, and in 15 years those cards would be worth thousands of dollars…….if I had only held on to them.

All the cards were faithfully placed into boxes, every set complete, from 1968 to 1971, along with 100’s of doubles. Being a Yankee fan I had a bunch of Yankee cards including at least ten 1968 Mantles. All “safely” tucked away in my closet.

High School, girls, college, girls, work, and girls took up a lot of my time and when I moved out in 1981 after I got married, I failed to take my cards with me. It never crossed my mind to do so.

A couple of years later the baseball card industry exploded, and I realized that I had a small fortune “safely” tucked away in a closet. As you can probably guess, the cards were not “safely” tucked away. My Mother had “thrown them out years ago.” No Mantle, no Mays, no Clemente, not even a Danny Cater. All gone, no small fortune, no new car, no Hawaiian vacation…..nothing…nada….zip…..or so I thought.

When I moved out I did take my books with me, mostly baseball books, but many classics as well. Catcher In The Rye, To Kill a Mockingbird, All Quiet On The Western Front, among others. A couple of years after what I like to refer to as, “Baseball Armageddon”, I watched Fahrenheit 451 on TV, and decided to reread the Ray Bradbury classic. This happened to be one of the books I brought with me when I had moved out 10 years before and when I opened the book out popped this 1971 Thurman Munson card. I had used it as a bookmark over 20 years before when I first read the book.

munson

It reminded me of all that I had lost, but it also reminded me of some of the best times I’ve ever had. 4 summers of baseball card heaven, 4 summers of playing non stop baseball, 4 summers of childhood innocence and joy.

I’ve continued to use this card as a bookmark for the last 20 years. It’s creased and bent in 15 different places, and not worth a nickel.

Check that, ……it’s priceless, and every time I look at it, it makes me smile.

What Condition My Condition Was In

I’m not a stickler for condition. For the cards I’ve collected on my own, I like them Near Mint (NM), maybe EX-MT. It’s more important to me that the picture is sharp than that the corners are. I’m not bothered by off-center cards, slightly bothered by miscuts. All my sets are in pretty solid shape.

Then there are the cards I’ve gotten from other people over the years. Those tend to be more hit or miss. Not everyone put their cards straight from the pack into a shoe box or plastic sleeve. Some of the cards I’ve picked up from friends are nice, maybe EX or better; some look like they’ve been driven over by a car in a rough, cement-floored garage.

It’s the latter conditions I grappled with when I decided to finish my 1971 set. 1971 was the last year I let my mother (yes, let) throw out my cards. She would ask if I wanted them anymore and I, shockingly, told her no. Over time I reacquired a bunch of those, but in conditions that made me wince.

But when I looked and saw I only needed 57 cards to complete the set, I figured, what the hell, I’ll go for it, but I’ll go for it with cards in similar condition to the rest of what I had. Not only was pursuing 1971’s in Very Good (VG) condition a cheaper choice, it was also a liberating one. I didn’t have to worry if the corners were pointy enough, if the borders were as close to solid black as they could be (a notorious 1971 problem), if the cards were relatively well-centered. Once I finished the set, I was thrilled by it, happy to have them all, less concerned about the state of any individual card. I can tell you my Rich Morales (267) is a crime against collecting. Some slight upgrading is in order.

morales

With 1971 wrapped up, I turned to 1970, the last set I didn’t have that I was reasonably close to. In mid-July, I assessed the situation. I needed 187 cards to complete the set, lots of high numbers, some big stars too. Whoever at Topps put Nolan Ryan at #712 should be subject to enhanced interrogation.

ryan

Again, I had some condition problems, but, if I went after VG or EX, I could get this done reasonably and that’s what I’ve done. Starting with a solid nab of 25 cards at the great Baseball Nostalgia in Doubleday Court, Cooperstown, I was well on my way. Then I tweeted that I was working on this set and, lo and behold, prayers, had they been said, were answered. Two friends (Chris and Mike) gave me significant piles of their 1970’s. Not only did these windfalls fill a lot of holes, but they allowed me to upgrade to a more EX set.

I’ve been working the old eBay machine for the rest. While I miss the fun of card shows (there aren’t any to speak of in the greater Cooperstown area), I don’t miss haggling with dealers. I’m eminently patient and will wait out losing auction upon losing auction until I get my price. There’s a fun to buying on EBay, a different entertainment than shows. Swooping in at the last moment to get a good deal makes me feel, for no valid reason, a bit smarter. With much good fortune, I picked up a lot of EX-NM cards at VG prices. I’ve also been selling some doubles and triples to subsidize the endeavor. I’ve had a lot of fun with this, which is sort of the point of card collecting.

As of this post, I need only three cards – Johnny Bench (660), Ron Santo (670) and the Pilots team card (713, Nolan’s neighbor). I’m almost there.

Yeah, yeah, oh yeah!