By Arnold Bailey
If you are under 40 years old, you didn’t exist when the Cranston Sports Collectors Show first opened.
So, you didn’t miss just the show. You missed buying a T206 Honus Wagner card for about $1,500, a 1934 Goudey Nap Lajoie card for under $500 or even a 1959 Fleer Ted Williams 80-card set for just $22.
Today, you’d have to pay more than a million for one of the Wagner tobacco cards, probably $50,000 for one of the scarce Lajoie issues and $1,500 for the card set that traced the life and career of the Red Sox slugger Boston fans will insist was the greatest hitter who ever lived.
On Feb. 6, the oldest single-day sports collectors event of its kind in the nation will celebrate its 40-year anniversary.
The Rhode Island-based show will attract about 1,800 collectors, dealers and sports fans to the sprawling West Valley Inn in West Warwick. And, as it has for many of that those 40 years, the show will feature a long list of top dealers led by Alan “Mr. Mint” Rosen.
It will be a bittersweet day for Tom McDonough, who says this will be the last show over which he’ll preside. He organized the first Cranston show and has been in charge for the entire four decades. He has been ably assisted by a volunteers from the St. Joseph’s Men’s Guild of Immaculate Conception Church and others, including his wife Pat, who has always been in charge of the admissions table.
The Immaculate Conception parish in Cranston has been the beneficiary of the proceeds from the show from day one, and the grand total – from dealers’ fees, admissions receipts and raffle proceeds (from donated cards and memorabilia) – have totaled about $250,000 over the show’s 40 years.
It has been McDonough’s vision of what a collectors show should be that has guided this event from the beginning. It’s a collector-friendly event, featuring many top dealers from across New England and much of the U.S. It has been frills-free, with no sideshow of autograph signings that divert collectors away from the cards and artifacts.
How did it start, this event that has not only survived but prospered over 40 years?
“I remember reading an article by Ken Webber in the Providence Journal that mentioned a baseball card show coming up in Millville (small Massachusetts town near Rhode Island),” McDonough recalls. “I had never been to a card show, but when I got to that little hall and saw all those baseball cards and other things for sale it was like ‘BOOM!’ I remember buying a 1954 Topps Jackie Robinson card for $2 and I was hooked. Soon after that we organized the first Cranston show.”
The biggest changes in the show have been its locations. The first featured 24 dealers and attracted about 250 collectors to the church’s St. Joseph’s Hall. Soon, it outgrew that hall and moved to the nearby Auction City facility, then to the Schofield Armory. Finally, about two decades ago, it began to call the West Valley Inn home.
“When we started, collecting was a true hobby,” McDonough says. “It was all about collecting, looking for cards needed to complete sets. Over time, it’s become more of a business. But I think we been able to retain some of the old hobby values with our show.”
Now, at age 40, the show is the oldest of its kind on New England, and one of the oldest in the nation. The Philadelphia Sports Card & Memorabilia Show is one year older, starting in 1975. The National? It’s a relative newcomer, planning to convene for just the 37th time this summer in Atlantic City.
McDonough and his group do offer a few special features. Usually, the mascot of the Pawtucket Red Sox baseball team (Paws) or the Providence Bruins hockey franchise (Samboni), or both, will be in attendance. So will Frank Galasso, the Rhode Island native who has become one of the top sports artists anywhere. And the 750-member R.I. Reds Heritage Society usually sets up shop, led by its founding president, Buster Clegg.
While the show doesn’t feature autograph tables stocked with sports stars, collectors will often find sports heroes standing next to them inspecting the wares of a dealer’s table. Many well-known athletes – several of them native Rhode Islanders – have stopped by to try to add to their own collections. Over the years those visitors have included former Red Sox GM Lou Gorman, Mike Roarke (former big league catcher and pitching coach), Mark van EeGhen (ex-NFL fullback) and baseball stars like Joe Morgan (the former Boston and Pawtucket manager, not the ex-Reds second baseman), Dwight Evans, Jerry Remy, Greg Gagne, Ken Ryan and Mike Gardiner.
Though this will be the final Cranston show McDonough will direct, he says the event will continue with others taking his place. It’s too highly valued as a hobby event to end.
The Cranston show always has been on the Saturday before the Super Bowl. Pro football fans may have their Super Sunday, but for collectors, it’s Saturday that’s super.
Arnold Bailey is a freelance contributor to SCD. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.