By Doug Koztoski
At the very least, you have likely seen some of the small late 1880s-era Old Judge cigarette baseball cards in a price guide, online or at a show. Heck, you might even own a few.
But on April 3 at a Smithsonian event in Washington, D.C., you had a chance to see some of those cards, and many others, about 12 feet in size. Even from my seat near the back of the theater, one Old Judge card made Connie Mack look like Connie Shaq.
The reason? The images were part of a PowerPoint presentation for “A Collector’s Big Score: The World of Sports Memorabilia,” in a cozy theater at the museum’s S. Dillon Ripley Center.
Frank Ceresi, the night’s first speaker, presented for about one hour, using the big screen. There was not a bad seat in the house, which was nearly full with about 70 people who paid $28-$40 each to attend the event on a blustery weeknight.
Known mainly in hobby circles as a writer and appraiser, Ceresi is also the curator of the newly launched www.TheNationalPastimeMuseum.com.
A baseball card history overview opened up the evening. The first part of the parade of pasteboards encompassed Old Judge cards, early 20th century tobacco sets (T205, T206, Turkey Reds) and 1920s strip cards, including a 1923 Babe Ruth.
“To this day,” said Ceresi, “Ruth is still the name in collecting.”
Other vintage sets also received some coverage: 1933 Goudey Sports Kings, 1933 Goudey baseball, 1941 Play Ball and the 1952 and 1954 Topps issues, just to name a few.
Next, the focus touched on the plethora of sports card shops opening in the 1980s and the emergence of eBay and the decline of many card stores in the 1990s.
When the information shifted to price guides and professionally graded cards, Ceresi spotlighted a 1933 Goudey Lou Gehrig (No. 92).
An ungraded ’33 Goudey Gehrig in higher condition “lists for $3,700,” he said. “A PSA 8 of that card lists for $12,500 and a PSA 9 is $35,000.”
In 2007, a PSA 10 ’33 Goudey Gehrig sold for about $275,000.
Ceresi reminded the crowd that price guide figures are not set in stone. The baseball fan also noted that “sometimes scarcity trumps condition,” with respect to cards (or any collectible), but, generally, better condition is the better choice.
The intersection of scarcity, distinctiveness and oftentimes reasonable prices and solid condition does not appear on the average sports memorabilia hobbyists’ GPS device. But Ceresi said that old newspaper wire photos and similar images can lead to a new avenue for one’s collection.
“One of the most affordable ways to collect sports is through photographs,” he said.
Many vintage wire photos on eBay, for instance, can be obtained for less than $30. Toss the picture in a frame and you have an even nicer piece – and it might just be one of a kind, or one of very few.
Ceresi concluded his presentation focusing on higher-end pieces. A “Shoeless” Joe Jackson minor league card, the 1936 Heisman Trophy, Muhammad Ali’s boxing gloves from “The Fight of the Century” and a PSA 10 1952 Topps Mickey Mantle all made it to the big screen in this segment.
On those and other artifacts from the hobby stratosphere, including autographs, Ceresi stressed to “investigate all big-ticket items” for their authenticity before even strongly considering adding them to your collection.
Now batting . . .
Hank Thomas, the other featured speaker for the night, then took the stage and talked about his grandfather – one of the original five members of the Baseball Hall of Fame, pitching legend Walter Johnson.
Thomas knows that topic in depth. He wrote Walter Johnson: Baseball’s Big Train, a biography covering the fireballer’s life, in incredible detail. The book won Spitball magazine’s 1995 Book of the Year award.
Also a sports memorabilia collector, Thomas brought several Johnson items to talk about. One of the most memorable pieces he shared with the Smithsonian crowd was a Johnson 50th birthday party program/menu autographed by the speed-ball king.
“It’s self-authenticating,” said Thomas of the 1937 birthday artifact. “Inside it says that Walter has personally signed each of the menus for his guests.”
Thomas also showed a reproduction of a 1912 Tuxedo brand tobacco broadside advertising display – and the actual 1912 photo that inspired the headshot from the ad.
“There are only two known in the hobby of the real Tuxedo broadsides,” noted Thomas.
Show and tell
With about a half-hour remaining in the two-hour get-together, members of the crowd were encouraged to “show and tell” any sports artifacts they brought to the event.
One woman had an autographed 1955 Brooklyn Dodgers World Series baseball that her father obtained in 1955, the lone Brooklyn World Series championship season. She was considering donating it.
Chuck Hilty of nearby Reston, Va., enjoyed the evening, he said, especially for “the kinds of things people bring forward (to the event).
“I have accumulated things for a long time, from the 1940s on up, when I became a baseball fan,” he said.
At 7 years old, Hilty “found” the St. Louis Cardinals, especially Stan Musial, in 1942.
“I first read about the team in the St. Louis Post Dispatch,” said Hilty, “and years later I eventually became an editor for the newspaper for five years.”
For the event, he brought a 1933 Who’s Who in Baseball book, an item he obtained while working at The Dispatch. The piece featured the likes of Ruth, Gehrig, Mel Ott and Rogers Hornsby, among others. Thomas called it, “one of the highly collectible books.”
Allan Moore, also from Northern Virginia, likely shared the most unusual item via the crowd. When first seeing it from a distance, it appeared to be a dish or commemorative plate of some sort. The item, circa 1955, featured the image of Dodger shortstop Pee Wee Reese. Turns out it was a planter, currently without any dirt or flowers in the back compartment.
A diehard New York (baseball) Giants follower, Moore obtained the roughly 6-inch high planter from his cousin Jaundine, a big Dodger fan, in the 1950s.
“It was her way of annoying me,” joked Moore. “I had fun tonight,” he added. “It was great how they went through the history of baseball cards.”
The evening concluded with some bonuses, one known to the audience from the beginning and one a surprise.
The event started with a short sports trivia quiz handed out to any interested patrons, with the winner announced at the end of the night. The prize: A baseball autographed by Joe Torre, the 1971 National League batting champ and MVP and four-time World Series winning manager.
The extra bonus occurred when Thomas said that he was giving away copies of his Johnson biography. All you had to do was ask for one. With that announcement, a small train of people formed at the base of the stage to snatch up one of about 20 copies of the book about The Big Train.
The baseball and book giveaways emphasized a point Thomas noted during his talk: “One of the things about collecting is you are preserving history.”
Preserving some history and sharing it with others with a night at the Smithsonian; what an appropriate place to do just that.
Doug Koztoski is a frequent contributor to SCD. He welcomes comments and questions related to the article at email@example.com.