Rants & Essays

The $50,000 Baseball Cards

By Thomas Boswell

Carrying a sack so heavy I leaned as I walked, I felt like one of those old prospectors who staggers into a saloon to show off the nuggets he's found in the hills. "I've only touched these cards once in 30 years," I said as I laid 3000 pieces of cardboard on the counter at All-Pro Sports Cards in Edgewater, Md. "A friend told me they're worth $200. Are they?"

The next few minutes are still a blur. A crowd gathered, and grown men surrounded me, looking over my shoulder, handling my cards. They talked amazing nonsense.

"Look, mint Mantles. There must be a dozen Mickeys. Mays, Koufax, Maris. He's got hundreds of stars."

The store owner began inserting my cards into plastic cases and individual protective sheaths with the exaggerated care one might expect of a surgeon. I was excited. But I was still acting cool, even letting my four-year-old son rummage through the cards.

"The guy's whole '59, '60 and '61 sets are full of mints," said a middle-aged man. "Looks like they've never been touched. What kind of kid were you, anyway? Didn't you play with 'em?"

"Take the rubber bands off that pack of '57s," snapped another fellow. "Don't ever do that again."

Vince Chick, the co-owner, got out a cotton swab and gently wiped the bubble-gum residue off Carl Yastrzemski's face. "There," he said, "that card's worth $50 more now."

I told my kid to get his hands off my cards.

"Mister, you better get yourself an insurance policy," said an on-looker, "or an armed guard."

"Daddy, I need to go potty," whispered a voice.

"Not now, Russel," I said.

"Daddy, I REALLY need to go potty."

"Must be 50 here," Chick finally muttered.

"Fifty THOUSAND DOLLARS."

I got a cold feeling all over, like a general anesthetic. Then I phoned my wife. "Come get Russ at the card store right away," I said.

"What's the rush?" she said.

"While I'm taking Russ potty, a lot of men will decide whether or not to slip $500 Mickey Mantles into their pockets."

It all started the day I was trying to help a friend. He wanted to buy a box of cards for another friend's infant son - a gift that would combine fun for the kid someday with a little investment potential. He figured he'd by them now for $50, and in five years they may be worth, say, $500. After we found a card store, I asked casually, "What are old '50s cards worth now?"

"A beat-up Mantle - at least $180," came the reply.

I drove straight to my childhood home. "Hi, Dad," I said, and headed to my old room. The cards were in a brown paper bag in the closet, right where I had left them 30 years before with orders never to touch them. Not because they might be valuable; just because they were MY baseball cards. As with millions of kids, sports cards were the first material possession I bought with my own earned money.

After I got the $50,000 appraisal, I made a second trip to my old home. WHERE ARE THE REST? Was the thought that drove me. There had to be hundreds more.

My father was lucky I didn't tear down his walls. I found Mantle as a bookmark in a detective novel, Charlie Gehringer in the attic under a pile of toy soldiers, and Hank Aaron, batting lefty due to a reversed photo negative, beneath a stack of bleacher ticket stubs. One '57 Roy Sievers was entirely encased in transparent tape, presumably so that, had I been hit by a truck at age nine, I could have been buried with it.

By the time I finished my attic-to-cellar excavations, I looked as if I'd climbed out of a mine shaft. But I was relieved. I had found them all. I could move on. I could make myself and my family miserable as I turned into the Greedy Card Miser From Hell.

For weeks I stayed up until all hours, evaluating and collating my stash by year, by card number, by stars and by teams. I spent hours with a pocket calculator and the Beckett price-and-condition guide. But the more I tried to figure out what the cards were worth, the more depressed I got.

Inevitably, their estimated value when down, and I realized the $50,000 guess was a gold-fever fantasy. The truth looked more like $25,000 - retail. Most dealers will only give you 50 cents on the dollar for the common cards and 67 cents for Hall of Famers. In a blink, I had gone from $50,000 to $15,000.

The more the value of my holdings shrank, the more obsessed I became with maximizing their worth. Many nights, I was still up at 3 a.m., evaluating the condition of each card, guessing its value, then putting it in its plastic holder.

"When does it end?" my wife asked. "I don't know," I said. "It's partly money, partly fun. But mostly I just can't stop."

Every other day, on some lame excuse, I stopped off at the card shop. I had junky '57s on consignment, and I was worried about their fate. When an offer was made for 100 mundane cards, I studied every one to make sure I wouldn't suffer some huge loss. In one card, the sky behind Jim Brosnan's head was deep blue, and the promise of THE LONG SEASON and PENANT RACE was in his face. How could I sell him? I took the card out of the deal. "Sell 'em quick," said John McCarthy, one of the store's owners. "Everybody who finds their old cards is just like you - it drives 'em crazy. Damned if they don't end up hooked on collecting themselves."

My house of cards began collapsing at the House of Cards. Everyone said Bill Huggins, the store owner, was fair. He'd tell me what I was holding and maybe buy them.

"Sorry," said Huggins. "These are nice cards. But not THAT nice. Everything is, basically, a level lower than you thought. Only the '61s and '62s are worth 100 percent of book value. I'll give you $10,000 for the lot."

I must've looked like my dog had died. The day before, my wife had informed me that our defunct heating-and-cooling system would require writing a check for $7000 to Mr. Frosty.

My lowest point came several days later when I sat down with another dealer who found flaws in all but THREE of my 3000 cards.

Then something funny happened. I found myself asking friends if they had any favorite old players. And I began giving away cards - an Ernie Banks here, half a dozen New York Giants there.

My friends' gratitude was instructive. They loved the cards the way baseball cards were meant to be loved. "You'll never know what this means to me," gushed the Banks fan. "My Mom threw all mine away."

But what really started to heal me was that, card by card, I regained misplaced parts of my childhood - parts I needed more than I knew.

I remembered going to Kandill's Market at 7 a.m. for my morning pack. In the afternoon, I'd walk across the park to another store for my evening pack. And on weekends I'd trek ten blocks to Tommy's grocery.

By buying from different stores, out of different shipments, I was convinced I'd cut down on doubles and make my funds go further. I even saved card money for visits to my grandparents in Selbyville, Del, where I'd march into Hastings Pharmacy like a blackjack player entering a Las Vegas casino.

What patience my parents must have had. My mother actually kept track of what cards I needed to finish a series and would ask if I'd gotten them yet. In a family where Depression Tales were periodically invoked, I never heard the words, "That's enough baseball cards."

Finding the cards, and the cigar box I'd kept them in, helped me realize that I had never gone through my parents' house since my mother died. She was everywhere, and I hadn't wanted to see her in each detail. But to complete the card search, I had to, and some balloon of tension popped.

Like most families, we had painful arguments and imperfect reconciliations. But I never understood the degree to which my memories of growing up had been diminished in sweetness by the distance and independence I had gained.

Until I found the baseball cards. Through them, I reconnected with the sincerity of my parents' love. Just being around the cards made me feel cared for and appreciated. And that's how the boy who owned them must of felt about the home they were a part of.

A touchstone like that is difficult to give up. Maybe that's why I finally realized my cards weren't worth $50,000. If they were, I'd have to sell them, like a stock that's peaked. Still, I couldn't decide whether to hold'em for sentiment's sake or fold'em for a new furnace.

Then one day I was watching my son merrily abuse his cards, just as I'd taught him, while he prepared to trounce me again at a game of flip. "Show me some of your good players," he said. "Show me Willi Mays." So I did.

"Daddy," he began, "are you going to sell your baseball cards?"

"No," I decided right then and there. "I'm going to save all the good ones for you."