By Alan Kleinberger
I’ve been a collector for more than 40 years (50 years if you count my childhood days), but I’m not rich. I can’t hop on a plane to get to the National when it’s too distant from the New York area where I live. That means that when it’s on the East Coast, I have to make the most of it. And that means doing what I have to do in a single day.
I’m not sure how you would define “enthusiastic.” I’m also not sure how you’d define “crazy.” I had back surgery a little more than two weeks before this year’s National, held in Baltimore Aug. 1-5. So when I got up at 4 a.m. to catch a commuter train to New York’s Penn Station, where I would catch the 6:05 a.m. Amtrak to Baltimore, I was wearing a neck brace. Yeah, I say enthusiastic. My wife and more sane people would say crazy. Not the first time I was called that, and probably not the last.
Getting on the floor
I’d timed the train trip so I could arrive at the National on Friday morning at about 9:30 a.m. Of course, the train ran into some problems, and I wound up arriving at the show at 11 a.m. Fortunately, Baltimore has a wonderful free bus system that got me from the train station to the convention center in a matter of minutes. Thank you, Purple Line!
It’s true that you can find a lot of terrific stuff at the National, but the real fun lies in meeting people in the flesh whom you’ve previously only known online or via correspondence.
The first person I encountered was Andy Probstein, who holds consignment auctions on eBay. He was giving away free duffle bags with “Probstein123” prominently stenciled on the side. He used to give away poker chips with his logo, but he said they just wound up on eBay as collectibles. I told him I gave it 24 hours before the duffle bags showed up there.
I was soon browsing at a table filled with a hodgepodge of items, and I selected a stack of back issues of The Trader Speaks, the great collectors’ magazine of the 1970s. The dealer remarked that his ads could be found in those issues, and that he’d like to have every one of those cards back at the prices he’d gotten at the time. It turned out the dealer was Eric Lange, who’d run a long series of large-lot auctions of off-condition cards back in the day. I introduced myself and told him that I’d won a ton of stuff from him. I also added that I wasn’t offering the cards back. Thirty-five years after I’d done business with the man, I was meeting him face-to-face for the first time. Talk about closure.
At the “Hot Corner,” I picked up several hundred dollars worth of non-sports cards, and I demonstrated my bargaining skills. I don’t know if it was the ongoing weak economy or the competition presented by the presence of so many dealers in one room, but the National was a place to bargain and get bargains. As long as you kept things civil, you could shave something off almost any price.
Another familiar name I met for the first time was Randy Kniffin, who goes back decades in the hobby. I picked up some more non-sports items and chatted a bit about the ups and downs of the National and of the hobby over the years. Great guy, great material for sale.
My old friend Steve Sabow, who was running shows in New York and selling sports and non-sports material back when Albert Pujols was in diapers, was good for a few minutes of conversation. He was offering an impressive array of empty wax boxes, B18 blankets and everything else imaginable on his table, and he observed that there was still a pretty strong market for quality items. Given how many strong items were on display, that would indicate a lot of money would be changing hands in Baltimore.
With only seven hours to scan the 800-odd tables in the show, I was already beginning to suffer a case of overstimulation. I was light-headed, staggering down the aisles, not looking at anything offered that post-dated 1980, or anything that looked too impressive or valuable. I didn’t care about the recent stuff, and couldn’t afford the amazing stuff. I would have liked to linger, but there were only so many hours for me that day. I’ve got the fever!
I sat down at Marty Krim’s table and passed the time, while picking up some 1930s G-Men cards. Marty is always good for a fine selection of old non-sports material and some amusing conversation. He offered me a chair while I pawed through his inventory, which is more than I got from some dealers. Marty probably felt sorry for me, what with the neck brace and all.
On to Dan Even’s table; readers will recognize him as the expert on baseball team postcard issues (for an example on Dormand postcards see the June 29 issue of SCD). Once again, I’ve read Dan’s articles for many years, corresponded with him and bought items from him, but this was the first time I’d met him. There’s nothing like the National to make you realize that all of the names you know in the hobby are actual people. Dan and I talked about Padres photo postcards of the 1980s, and I picked up some autographed postcards. A good visit.
I ran across Bob Ragonese, who had been one of the major New York area dealers years ago but was now largely retired. Bob and I talked about old times, reminisced about some friends who are now gone, and he managed to sell me some items. The National was revealing itself to be a profound social event; there’s nothing like reconnecting with a friend you haven’t seen in a while.
I saw some highly touted items out of the corner of my eye, and regretted that I just didn’t have the time to soak up all the hobby history. There were ancient tobacco cards, Hall of Fame game-worn uniforms, the “Black Swamp Find,” bats, gloves, everything you wish you’d see at the more everyday card shows but don’t. The National may be a once-a-year experience, but it feels like a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
I noticed one booth advertising the Benchwarmers sets, those cards picturing very attractive young women. Some of those attractive young women were signing autographs, handing out brochures and generally making their presence felt. And no, it wasn’t the fact that I’m married that prevented me from spending some time in that tent. I just didn’t have the time. Or so I told myself.
I stopped by Kevin Savage’s table to say hello. Kevin and I go way back – I won several lots in one of his very first SCD auctions, circa 1983. Kevin turns up in the New York area every now and then, so we’ve met many times before, but this was the first time in a while we got to shake hands and exchange greetings.
Sure enough, by the time we were done, I’d picked up two T3 Turkey Reds at a very reasonable price – Kevin had a bunch of them in off-condition, and “off-condition” might as well be my middle name. I got him to throw in a few 1930s G-Men cards, as well. Kevin is the opposite of his last name – he’s one of the most affable dealers in the business.
Making my way to the back of the room at a furious pace, I stopped by one table to inspect some autographed cards. A signed 1961 Topps Nellie Fox card caught my eye. It didn’t take long for the card to find its way into my bag, after a few bills found their way into the hands of dealer Roger Till, yet another hobby veteran whose pedigree goes back 30 years or more. Roger is still organizing shows in the Collinsville, Ill., area, and plans to give away some really good cards as door prizes. It’s a pity I don’t plan to be in Collinsville later this summer.
I stopped by autograph dealer Bill Corcoran’s table for some happy talk. The signed 1967 Topps Roger Maris he had displayed was a little rich for my blood, but Bill always manages to find affordable items for my collection. Bill has a well-earned reputation for two things. First, he’s famous for his road trips to Latin America for the purpose of getting cards, balls and photos signed by retired (and hard-to-reach) players. For example, anything autographed by the late Elio Chacon is probably in the hobby due to Bill’s efforts. And second, he is universally loved as one of the most honest and reliable dealers in the field of autographs. You have a better chance of finding the Loch Ness Monster than you do of finding someone with something bad to say about Bill Corcoran.
That brought me to my last major stop of the day – the table of autograph dealer Philip Marks. Phil has an inventory of signed baseball cards second to none, and I spent quite a bit of time digging out some cards I needed. Phil, like so many dealers, makes a living with this hobby but has a genuine love for it as well. He showed me an item he’d just picked up — a beautifully signed 1950 Bowman card of Gil Hodges. His pride at the purchase went way beyond the good bit of profit he’ll no doubt see when he sells it – Phil was excited by the purchase itself. That’s the kind of joy that guarantees that a hobby is more than just a job.
Phil also gave me a good discount on my purchase, noting my neck brace. He called it an “injury discount.” If this keeps up, I may bring the brace to the next show I attend, even when I don’t need it anymore.
That was about it for the day. By avoiding the stuff I didn’t collect and the stuff I couldn’t afford, I’d covered the entire show in seven hours.
I know that this is still the hobby for me when I go through the day in a state of perpetual excitement, nervousness and near confusion. I swore I could hear a sizzling sound as the sheer volume of collecting material kept my brains frying. I’ve got the fever!
As for doing the entire National in a single day, taking a pre-dawn train from New York to Baltimore – do not try this at home. I am a trained professional crash-test dummy and I can handle the stress. You might just come unglued.
To sum up, prices were strong but were subject to negotiation. There was a huge variety of material available, ranging from recent stuff and mainstream issues to regional rarities to old-time issues to autographed material to game-worn stuff. It’s hard to imagine that there wouldn’t be something for every taste at the show.
The lesson to take away from this busy, busy day? Sure, you could buy lots of stuff on eBay without leaving your room, but who wants to be stuck in your room? The National is all about making human connections with the dealers and the collectors you know but whom you’ve never met. That, and buying and looking at lots of cool stuff.
I can’t fly out to Chicago or Cleveland or wherever else the next few Nationals are going to be held. But the next time it shows up on the East Coast, you can be sure I’ll be there – having gotten up before dawn to do so.
I’ve got the fever!
Alan Kleinberger is a freelance contributor to SCD. He can be reached at email@example.com.