By Greg Bates
Brad Lidge found himself with a lot of downtime during his five years in the minor leagues.
The Houston Astros’ first-round pick in 1998 was often injured, so the right-handed pitcher started collecting baseball cards again.
During spring training in Florida, Lidge used to venture into card shops and check out vintage cards. He doesn’t exactly recall where or when it was, but he purchased a 1909 T-206 Ty Cobb, the portrait with a red background, for about $700.
“That was kind of my first one of splurging a little bit so to speak on that stuff,” Lidge said. “I was kind of hooked after that.”
Like most young boys at 7 to 8 years old, Lidge spent a large chunk of his allowance each week buying cards. His wheelhouse for collecting cards was 1984-89 when the majority companies mass produced during the “junk wax era.” Lidge didn’t pick up too many cards while in high school and college at the University of Notre Dame. But his interests shifted back to collecting when he had time on his hands during his first couple seasons in professional baseball.
“At that time, I really started looking back on what I had growing up and that was fun,” Lidge said. “Current stuff was kind of fun and crazy, but I wasn’t into collecting cards of my teammates and stuff as much as I was starting to really get into the love of the history of the game. I really started looking at the old stuff at that point. Really for me, that was way more fun and fascinating.”
Lidge made his Major League Baseball debut in 2002 with the Astros and played for three teams in his 11 seasons, mostly in the closer role. He was a two-time All-Star, finished with 225 saves and earned the save in the final game of the 2008 World Series for the Philadelphia Phillies.
When Lidge hung up his spikes in 2013, he became serious about collecting cards again. Lidge made a nice living on the diamond, so financially he could dive into collecting much deeper.
Lidge – who currently lives in Colorado with his wife, Lindsay, and their two kids – chose pre-war and vintage cards. His palate for collecting had become more refined. It was more about quality than quantity.
The 40-year-old has put together an impressive collection in the four years since his playing days ended. He’s currently plugging away at completing three sets: 1895 Mayo’s Cut Plug, 1915 Cracker Jack and 1953 Bowman Color.
“I don’t know how it came about, but I’ve always loved that 1915 Cracker Jack,” said Lidge, who now hosts “Inside Pitch” weekdays on SiriusXM’s MLB Network Radio. “I always thought it was the coolest set ever. I think a ton of people have those 1909 T-206 cards, and the Cracker Jack was a little bit different.
“The Mayo’s Cut Plug ones, I saw some cards on eBay from that, and I thought, ‘Man, that is really cool with the black borders and the colored picture. Another aspect is I love American history and I love world history, and for me it feels like you’re collecting a piece of American history.”
Lidge’s favorite cards are the 1915 Cracker Jack. He has about 50 or 60 of the 176 cards in the set. Lidge owns several of the mid-range Hall of Famers, but is still looking to acquire cards of Shoeless Joe Jackson, Ty Cobb, Honus Wagner and Christy Mathewson.
Lidge does have cards of Tris Speaker and Nap Lajoie. He is trying to collect mid-grade versions of all the cards, generally PSA 3-6 or higher rated examples from SGC.
“I just kind of look between those two and see which one looks good and if it’s the right price,” Lidge said.
Lidge is often surprised how many 1915 Cracker Jack cards are on eBay. It’s not cheap picking them up, either.
“It’s real expensive to do it and you’ve got to kind of wait for the right one to pop up at the right price,” Lidge said. “But, unfortunately, a lot of people know about Cracker Jack, so you’re not going to get a real great discount on it.”
The 1895 Mayo’s Cut Plug (N300) is one of the earliest sets of baseball cards. There are only 48 cards in the series and it can be extremely tough to track down certain cards.
“There’s some cards that don’t even have grades higher than a 5 or a 6,” Lidge said.
“And there’s just not a whole lot of them out there, period. I think it’s a real cool set because of its scarcity and because how hard it is to get anything of any kind of grade in that set. It makes it more of a challenge, and I think that’s kind of fun.”
Lidge owns 11 of the cards. Hall of Famer Cap Anson is the cream of the crop in the set, with a PSA 9 valued around $92,500, per PSA.
Of the three sets he’s actively collecting, Lidge might have the best shot at completing the 1953 Bowman Color. He owns about half of the 160 cards in the series. He’s trying to obtain PSA 7s for the set.
“I really like the way those look,” Lidge said. “They just have some great quality pictures for that time. For me, I’m not looking to get a 10 on everything, and that said, I just want to have a good quality card for all of them.”
This is not a cheap set, as well. Mickey Mantle, Whitey Ford, Yogi Berra, Duke Snider, Pee Wee Reese and Bob Feller are all fetching multiple thousands of dollars in good condition.
As Lidge slowly but surely works on his top three sets, he’s looking at possibly starting other sets. He has plenty of 1909 T-206s and could take that on. The rare 1887 Old Judge cards, too, have really attracted Lidge’s interest.
Along with working on the sets, Lidge will pick up some singles just to bolster his collection. A couple years ago, he purchased a 1933 Goudey Babe Ruth, No. 53. It’s a PSA 3. From that same set, Lidge has an ungraded Lou Gehrig.
“I just wanted to have a Babe Ruth,” Lidge said. “I didn’t have to have a high grade, it just needed to look nice. And I just wanted to capture the Babe in one of his more famous cards. I think that’s one of the ones that pops out.”
Lidge’s parents grew up in Chicago and their favorite player was Ernie Banks. A few years ago, Lidge picked up a 1954 Topps Banks rookie card in PSA 7.
“I have a lot in that $3,000 range,” Lidge said. “I’ve never really jumped too high above that yet. And I know that at some point if I want to finish off those Cracker Jacks I’m going to have to. It’s just a matter of finding the right one before I go for it.”
Lidge isn’t quite sure what his next big purchase will be, but is confident it will be to help complete one of the three vintage sets he’s diligently working on.
“I’ve told myself, ‘If I’m going to go big, I’m going to go big on those sets,’” Lidge said.
Lidge still owns complete Topps sets from 1967 through the ’80s and some factory sealed sets from the ’90s.
Since Lidge is such a big-time collector, it begs the question, has he ever collect his own cards?
No, not necessarily. However, card companies would send him his cards. Topps would give Lidge glass cube cases of 50 cards or so from each set. Upper Deck would always furnish Lidge with his cards, too. Even Lidge’s dad bought a ton of 1989 Topps and 1989 Stadium Club of his son.
As Lidge builds his impressive card collection, he also possesses a large amount of baseball memorabilia.
“I collect stuff from my contemporaries when I played in terms of jerseys, balls, hats and bats, because those are the guys I have great memories with,” Lidge said.
The best part is, Lidge hasn’t had to pay a penny for the pieces of memorabilia.
“The one thing I always told myself is, I didn’t want to pay for anything,” Lidge said. “I’ll pay for a baseball card. I didn’t want to pay for a jersey from somebody that I played with that I could just talk to and ask him for.”
Lidge is good friends with former teammates and Hall of Famers Jeff Bagwell and Craig Biggio, along with Lance Berkman and a bunch of ex-Phillies.
“There’s relationships and stuff in the game that are pretty tough to match and you can kind of capture a little bit of it on a jersey or a bat, it’s pretty cool,” Lidge said.
In his collection, Lidge has a jersey signed by John Smoltz after he got a hit off Lidge in the playoffs. Smoltz personalized the signing, giving Lidge a hard time.
Lidge – who is currently building a house and has plans of having a display cabinet in the basement for his items – also has pieces from two of the best pitchers of all time: Nolan Ryan and Greg Maddux. During his playing days, Lidge had the pleasure of sitting down with Randy Johnson and talking sliders for a half hour. Johnson gave Lidge a signed jersey and references the conversation. It is pieces like those that are close to Lidge’s heart.
Lidge competed for Team USA in the 2006 World Baseball Classic and spent a ton of time around Derek Jeter. After the tournament, Jeter sent Lidge several items, including a jersey, bat and hat. Nike designed cleats for the Team USA squad just for the World Baseball Classic and Lidge had a brand-new pair signed by all his teammates.
Lidge loves collecting cards and memorabilia. That passion has increased now that his 8-year-old son, Rowan, is dabbling in the pastime.
“It’s kind of a nice free-time activity with having kids and stuff like that,” Lidge said.
Collecting is not about financial gain for Lidge. But he’s certainly been amazed in recent years by the increase in price of vintage cards, especially for big-name rookies.
“The further we climb into the future and the more decades that get put between us and when those guys were rookies, we’re starting to realize it’s like owning a piece of American history, and people that were a big deal within American history,” Lidge said.
“You can’t talk about American history I don’t think and not bring up baseball. If you’re going to bring up baseball you’re going to bring up Babe Ruth and Mickey Mantle, and I think it’s a really cool thing. I love history and I love that these are a part of our history. For every person that just thinks it’s a piece of cardboard, I have a bone to pick with them.”
Greg Bates is a freelance contributor to Sports Collectors Digest. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.