By George Vrechek
Editor’s note: The following is Part 1 of a two-part series on Jeff Escue.
The early days of the hobby involved slightly embarrassed collectors meeting in living rooms and trading cards without much concern for condition or value. There were a few people who picked up old cards and would sell them at reasonable prices.
Maybe this golden image of the hobby was never exactly the way it was, or perhaps it was rapidly fading by the early 1970s.
Jeff Escue was a young collector in the early 1970s who caught the beginning of the boom in card collecting and selling. Unlike many hobbyists, Escue got heavily involved, but then got out of the hobby quickly. As a result, his hobby experiences from the 1970s, as he describes them, are “frozen in time.”
Hobby names in the 1970s
If you look through hobby publications from the 1970s, you will find familiar names. Those early advertisers in Sports Collectors Digest or The Trader Speaks, for example, stayed involved for many years. Some are still active in the hobby today to varying degrees such as Gar Miller, Lew Lipset, Irv Lerner, Rob Lifson, Keith Olbermann, John Rumierz, Bob Thing, Wayne Varner, Ted Taylor, Ron Gordon, Pat Quinn and Roger Marth. You also see names of now-deceased collectors and dealers like Larry Fritsch, Lionel Carter, Bill Haber, Dick Dobbins, Goodie Goldfaden, Bob Solon, Ray Hess, Barry Halpern, Don Steinbach and Mike Keasler.
The 16-year-old advertiser
Jeff Escue’s name as a hobby advertiser popped up for a few years in the mid-1970s and then disappeared. It turns out he was then a 16-year-old seller. Escue contacted me recently looking for leads on finding copies of his old ads, a somewhat unusual request until I learned the rest of the story. While there are many people who remember collecting and selling in the 1970s and have had much more hobby experience, Escue’s first and only detailed impression of the hobby in the 1970s was like opening a time capsule.
Escue’s family worked hard and lived modestly in the blue-collar town of Joliet, Ill., population 75,000. He was an adequate baseball player in an area that was a hot-bed for future major leaguers such as Jesse Barfield, Bill Gullickson, Jeff Reed and about 25 others who were drafted by major league teams. It turns out Joliet was also the hot-bed for avid collector/dealers Don Steinbach (1947-1997) and Mike Keasler (1942-2005). Escue got involved with baseball cards like many of us did as kids and put them away, so to speak, by the time he got to college.
Not your typical teenager job
However, his experiences as a teenager were probably a lot different than most of our own. Before he was 18 years old, he had been on hotel card buying trips with Jim Beckett. He advertised in newspapers to buy cards and in hobby publications to sell cards. He put together Goudey, Play Ball, Bowman and Topps sets, and then sold them. He had tables at the early card shows. He wrote a booklet on collecting and sold hundreds of copies to collectors. He was making $1,000 on a weekend when his summer job was paying him $2 per hour.
Escue took the profits from his initiatives, cashed in his cards and used the proceeds to pay for college. He worked quickly, spending just three calendar years in college and earned both bachelor’s and master’s degrees majoring in business and finance. At the time, they charged the same for tuition no matter how many classes you took. He decided he might as well finish as fast as possible and get into the work world.
The barber’s bag
He was in sixth grade in 1969 when it all started. “My barber loved the N.Y. Yankees. It knocked his socks off that a sixth-grade kid from Illinois knew in great detail about the 1930s Yankees, which is the team my barber loved when he grew up in New York. My barber gave me a bag of 1952-55 cards, probably 1,000 or so total that his son had collected and left behind when he married and moved out years before.” Escue was now a vintage collector.
Escue described how he first got involved in earnest: “In my freshman year of high school (at Joliet Central), I saw a wanted to buy baseball card ad in the Joliet Herald News. I figured if he was buying, maybe he would sell and I could get more cards, so I called. That is how I met Mike Keasler. Keasler traded me about 100 1960 through 1965 commons for the 30 or so ’52-’55 cards he selected.”
Like many of us with our initial trades, we probably look back and feel we didn’t really know what we were getting into. Escue said, “I learned to never do a trade like that again. However, it was worth it, as it opened the door to everything. Now I had access to Keasler’s brain and his collection. To see complete sets from 1930s and sets of tobacco and candy cards was a revelation. I knew baseball history and the old-time players. I could appreciate what I saw.
“If I had given Keasler all the old cards I had, it would have been worth it for the knowledge I would eventually acquire, and the money I would make from cards. In hindsight, I am quite happy to have paid such a small price.”
Keasler became a partner in the Sports Collectors Store in Chicago, which Pat Quinn, Don Steinbach and Jay Barry opened in 1976. Roger Marth then became a partner, and Barry and Keasler left the group. Marth remembers Escue as “a young wheeler-dealer” who actually introduced him to Keasler.
Escue said, “Keasler was very entrepreneurial. He had been a basketball player in high school (Jerry Sloan was a teammate). He became a high school and later a college basketball coach. One of his other business lines was that he wrote scouting reports on high school basketball players in the metro Chicago area and sold the reports to colleges for recruiting.” Keasler is in the NAIA Basketball Coaches Hall of Fame.
Escue would go to Steinbach or Keasler’s homes to look at the old cards and recalled, “Don Steinbach had a deeper collection especially in the E and T areas than Mike Keasler, but from 1933 forward, Mike’s cards (and condition) were far superior. I told a buddy of mine about the great cards Don had, mostly trying to show I was not some freak collecting cards, as adults also collected. On a Saturday, we rode our bikes over to Don’s. Don was not home, but his wife, Henny, let us in and told us to go to the basement, you know where the cards are. I took my buddy, Chuck Wickstrom, to the basement and showed him E and T sets, sets of Goudeys, Play Ball sets, Topps and Bowman, and, of course, the really important desirable stuff (to me), the premiums. I remember the Goudey Babe Ruth cabinet premium and the team card cabinets from the 1930s. We handled everything with care and put everything back.”
Don Steinbach died in 1997. “In maybe 2007,” Escue said, “I saw a Mastro Auction catalog and went to the presale viewing to handle those great cards again. Don’s wife was working there, so I got to say hello and thanks. She always treated me great.”
Getting into the business
Baseball cards were the first great opportunity for Escue to develop his financial abilities. Dealing with cards was the equivalent of a prep school for the future business entrepreneur. He found out who the sellers were, where shows were held and how to go about buying cards in bulk. He had business cards printed and left them with antique dealers. Often, others were not all that happy to have him asking a lot of questions and competing with them. However, experienced collectors wound up buying cards from him.
Buying teams roam the country
Escue described what he found in the 1970s: “I will give some perspective of how much material went through the big buyers’ hands. Pat Quinn and Don Steinbach were a buying team of substance. Another team was Michigan guys. Wisconsin had a team of buyers. Jim Beckett, Gar Miller and many other groups, whom I did not know, roamed the country.”
Quinn, Steinbach and others journeyed to Canada and Venezuela looking for cards.
Keasler had come from the tiny town of Eddyville in Southern Illinois and was an avid Cardinals fan. “Keasler’s favorite player was Stan Musial, and he got dibs on Musial cards. He kept the Near Mint and Mint ones. As I recall, he had a stack of maybe 50 Mint and Near-Mint 1959 Musial Topps cards from buying out of classified ads in Joliet and doing hotel buying trips. He did not buy these from other table holders. How many other cards do you imagine went through his hands?”
Buying with Beckett
It wasn’t long before Escue found Jim Beckett. Beckett was still teaching statistics and had not yet published his successful price guides. Escue said: “Jim Beckett had done some prior card buying jobs out East before he worked with me to give the Illinois area a try. We did very well in Springfield and Aurora. For my share, I made over $1,000 (in card values, realized later through sales) for the weekend for both Springfield and Aurora. This was when I was making $2 an hour working in a factory, which in the summer reached over 120 degrees. It was not hard to figure out this was a very good and enjoyable adventure.” Escue and Beckett split costs and the cards obtained 50/50.
“We got a Hires Root Beer set in Springfield, and as we were buying I pulled Jim into the separate room we had in the hotel and said – wow this is Hires Root Beer regional set or some such thing. I was very excited. He said he knew already. (He knew way more than me, but I could not always tell.) Jim later explained, correctly, to me that I should never do what I had just done because then the seller would start to think they were worth a fortune. The cards were not worth a fortune at that time, but I was so excited because I had never had any.
“The purchases were typically based on the seller setting the price. We would try not to set the price. It was up to the seller to do the hours of research we buyers had already done in order to learn the values. We let them set the price and they walked away happy. Sometimes we paid 90 percent, sometimes we paid 20 percent, sometimes we said no thanks; 50 percent was not uncommon.” After deducting travel costs and ads, you had to buy at something like 50 percent to really make it worthwhile.
On his own in Peoria
Escue continued: “For Peoria, Jim had to cancel showing up, so I took the cash needed for the buying and did the trip with a non-collector friend. I held the cards bought in Peoria until Jim was in the Chicago area some months later, and we sat on my parents’ living room floor and split up the cards. As Jim could not make it to Peoria and we already had our money sunk into the newspaper ads, my dad would not let me go alone, as I was only 17. As a result, I asked a 16-year-old friend, Larry, to tag along. Jim and I paid Larry maybe $20 a day and free food. Larry and I thought ordering hotel room service was the greatest thing on earth. Before these hotel buying trips, I had never ordered hotel room service. I was always underfed as a kid growing up; I always spent money on food when I had money.
“Peoria was so lousy. Evidently, some other buying group had been there before us. There was no way to tell who had hit a town already. I never did another hotel after the Peoria bust. I figured the major cities were all picked clean and gave up on hotel buying trips.”
Escue’s hunch about other buying groups was later confirmed by the Peoria Public Library. They dug out a Peoria newspaper ad by Pat Quinn, which appeared shortly before Escue’s trip. Escue considered Quinn one of the smartest people he had met.
Buying trip approach
“I suspect every older city, of a metro population of 100,000 or more, had a hotel buying group show up by 1976. I do not know when the hotel buying groups started, but Gar Miller may have been the first to create this buying model for baseball cards. Gar was a true hobby innovator and pioneer and a good baseball player.
“Jim Beckett had the advertising display copy prepped and sent it directly to the paper. I did not know anything about ad placement, so Jim was the whole brains here. He understood how to work with the hotel front desk staff to get the sellers up to our room, etc. My main contribution was I knew what Illinois cities were prosperous in the 1950s and also of size, population-wise, from the 1910-40 era that may not have been picked over by earlier buying groups. Joliet was, of course, picked clean by Steinbach and Keasler from many years of advertising in the classifieds.
Ads were run a week in advance of the trips and would cost several hundred dollars. They might be lucky and have the local newspaper do a “puff piece” before their trips. Their Peoria ad sought pre-1960 baseball cards and displayed a 1934 Goudey. “Ask for Jim or Jeff.”
Getting buyers to the room not always easy
“Jim educated me in tipping the front desk and thanking them in order to get the collectors sent upstairs to our room with their boxes of baseball cards. Our ad mentioned pre-1960 baseball cards; the market for other sports was not my interest, and prices for other sports cards were pretty weak.
“People would call the hotel and be connected to our room. When they arrived at the hotel, they would stop at the front desk, and the desk was told to send them to our room, not something you would do today with a pile of cash sitting in the room!
“In some towns, local collectors were irate at the out of town buyers showing up on their turf. They would intercept the sellers walking into the hotel with boxes of cards either in the parking lot or in the hotel lobby. I heard in some buying trips things got a bit heated when the out of towners figured out no one was showing upstairs.”
Sizing up towns to visit
“You could not find cards in a town that was newly-born, so to speak. For instance, Orlando, Fla., had the population of about 100,000 at this time, but likely had so few cards, it would never have been visited by a hotel buying group for two reasons: air conditioning and human mobility.
“The South was not air conditioned until the 1950s, which means hot, humid climates had a large degree of problems with cardboard being able to maintain its condition without mold. More cards were thrown out relative to those same cards collected in dry climates.
“Secondly, and more importantly, Orlando was a relatively newly-born city. It had a small population in 1910-40 for the E and T and early R cards era. Orlando was comprised of lots of people who had moved there. When people moved, they threw out what was of no value. Baseball cards had no value to most people through the mid-1960s. Not until hotel buying ads appeared did the general public realize baseball cards had value. People downsize when they move; it’s that simple.
“One interesting demographic oddity is lots of high number series cards were in Canada cities, as it seems Topps dumped their year-end remainders up north and for some reason the kids bought them after the season ended, I guess?”
Hobby shows and sleeping on the floor
Escue continued, “The early shows of 1972-74 were not as well publicized as the shows in 1975-76; likewise the growth of the hobby was not as large in 1974 as in 1976. I attribute this to the influx of cards from the hotel buying groups, providing inventory and profits for the sellers and lots of choices for new collectors. Likewise the star card concept really picked up steam, and I suspect for the same reason – availability.”
A full-page SCD ad for one 1975 Chicago show mentioned $2 admission fees for three days, $7.50 table fees and $26 hotel rooms.
“To save money at conventions, we packed four or so to a hotel room, I slept on the floor to save money for cards. The shows ran normally from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. There was also typically an evening auction. Then people got together and talked until after midnight in the various rooms and swapped some cards, but mostly talked baseball and, of course, baseball cards. Cards were just left on the tables overnight for the most part. No one bothered the cards; you just put a sheet over them, no security, nothing.”
Escue didn’t recall running into any full-time dealers at these once or twice-a-year regional shows.
“At the shows I was absorbing all the knowledge in the room. I walked to every table and asked what everything cost. If it was underpriced, I bought it. I was persistent in asking prices from other sellers during the shows and acquiring knowledge, since I knew buying in bulk was the only way to make a sure profit, that is what I focused on. One seller got so frustrated with my questions that he tossed the card at me and said, take it but leave him alone. OK with me, a free card.”
Players on leaves?
“My first Chicago show where I set up a selling table was likely in 1974. I shared a table with another young collector, Charles. Keasler, one of the show promoters, arranged the table sharing. Charles had an acquaintance arriving at the show and delivering some cards. These were going to be “rare Leafs.” I had no idea what a rare Leaf was. I had T series printed on silks and had seen T series on leathers, so I was intrigued. Well it turned out to be something pretty simple, 1948-49 baseball cards by Leaf Gum Co. which, in this case, were most of the rare short prints.”
Dealers buying in bulk, collectors chipping away
“Don Lepore and another gentleman (likely Herb Ross) would hit the Midwest shows with big wallets of cash and literally buy out tables at the end of conventions. This is a key insight. You could not move a big volume of better items typically. People in the early shows just did not have the money, and the cards were starting to pour into the hobby from the hotel buying trips. For most collectors, their wife was ticked if they spent a lot (i.e. $200 or $300) – that was a very common theme. The big wallets came from NYC, the Northeast metro areas and California. The influx of cards eventually brought the money, and then it steamrolled from that point.
“Most people completed a set and moved on to another set. That’s it, no stockpiling, little speculation as to future price appreciation and no huge effort to upgrade, unless they knew they had a particularly ratty card. Condition was a minor consideration. Anyone would take the better of two cards offered, but it was not an all-encompassing motivation. Filling holes in your sets was the motivation.”
Gauging the market
The hotel buying trips and shows increased the awareness of card values and saved many cards from going into the trash, according to Escue.
“These hotel buying trips found 30 or 40 years’ worth of cards in three or five years maximum. The hobby did not increase 30 or 40 times the number of collectors during that same time. When the hotel buying trips arrived, collectors finally had nirvana, tons of quality cards to build their collections. One thing they saw with all the cards was that, relative to the number of collectors, they actually had way more inventory than they had collectors with spendable cash for a short while.”
Despite the uptick in card values and publicity, Escue felt hotel card buyers were concerned that the hobby momentum might fade and leave them holding the bag with a lot of cards that exceeded the future demand. For example, beer can collecting was also becoming popular at the time, but the expansion of that hobby never really took off. Years later the enthusiasm for Beanie Babies came and went quickly. In the 1970s, it would take someone several months to re-sell their purchases. Would the demand still be there?
For example, Escue said, “Around 1975, there was a find of ’52 Topps high numbers in either Canada or Seattle from a hotel buying group trip. The announcement raced through an Indianapolis baseball card show. As a result, the prices of high numbers collapsed from $10 each to $6 each, at which time I waded in and bought. By the next show six months later, they were $9 or $10 each again. Once again this reflects the lack of confidence in buying by the public.
“As a collector, I was willing to take the risk, and that risk paid off for me. Hindsight is quite easy; real-time decision making trying to gauge the future, with money on the line, is not so easy. What is obvious 40 years later is not necessarily so obvious in the moment.”
George Vrechek is a freelance contributor to SCD and can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.