Harry Lilien was a name I remembered from reading the Card Collector’s Bulletins published by Jefferson Burdick starting in 1937. Harry and his brother, Sid, corresponded and traded with many of the early collectors. I also remembered seeing letters from Lilien in the correspondence of Lionel Carter starting in 1938. Of the pioneer collectors from the 1930s, I had assumed that all were gone except the 89-year-old Carter, who started serious collecting in 1933. Carter assumed the same.
An e-mail I received a few weeks ago confirmed the age-old advice that you should never “assume.” Jason Lilien, Harry Lilien’s son, let me know that his father had just died March 8, 2007, at age 84. Jason had found some of my previous SCD articles mentioning his dad as an early collector. Harry Lilien had been even younger than Carter when he began trading cards with Carter, Jefferson Burdick and others in the late 1930s. Jason and his brother, Ian, shared many stories with me about their father and their uncle Sid Lilien’s (1920-98) collecting history. I also interviewed the Liliens’ surviving sister, Rose Solecki. Harry Lilien is survived by his wife, Shirley.
Collectors No. 35 and No. 37
Harry Lilien and Lionel Carter had the distinction of finding Jefferson Burdick and subscribing to his Card Collector’s Bulletin at the same time. Carter had been trying to find other collectors and came across Edward Golden of Connecticut in 1936. Golden let Carter and Lilien know about Jefferson Burdick’s publication. Both quickly subscribed to the Bulletin in the same month.
Carter, of Colfax, Ill., and Lilien, of W. 160th Street in New York City are listed by Burdick as the 35th and 37th collectors in his directory of collectors in the June 1938 CCB. Most of the collectors described their interests as “general collecting,” except for Carter, Golden, Lilien and John B. Wagner, who mentioned their particular interest in baseball in these early Bulletins.
A Dr. Lawrence Kurzrok of New York City appears in later Bulletins expressing an interest in meeting local collectors like Harry Lilien. Jason Lilien pointed out that other collectors had no idea how young his father was at the time and Harry may not have volunteered to tell them. He had a deep voice and acted older than his years.
The 16-year-old Lilien started trading cards with Carter and others sending groups of cards back and forth every week. Low-numbered Batter-Ups in the Midwest went east in exchange for high-numbered cards from the same set. Ed Golden joined in on the fun. Lilien, Carter and Golden traded and corresponded for years – but never met. Mail even showed up at the Lilien home in New York years later, misaddressed to Lionel Carter (of Colfax, Ill.), they were so closely aligned as collectors.
As teenagers, Harry and Sid Lilien worked for a relative who had a drugstore in New York City. The collection of cards they assembled may have come, in part, from the drug store days. Their sister, Rose Solecki, remembers all of them buying cards for a penny at a time at the local candy store. Mrs. Solecki fondly recalled her older brothers playing “toss the card” with her in the 1930s and eventually losing all her cards to them. As the boys grew older, they were less apt to mishandle the cards (there was less tossing) and their cards were in fabulous condition.
Lajoie and Gehrig
Harry and Sid worked together and created a joint collection. Harry was particularly fond of his extensive 1933 Goudeys. When Burdick obtained the missing Napoleon Lajoie card directly from Goudey, he received 10 copies of the card, all obviously in uncirculated condition. Lajoies were eventually sent out to Lionel Carter and Harry Lilien. Rose Solecki recalls her brother getting his Lajoie directly from Jefferson Burdick and that Harry met Burdick in New York City. Burdick was surprised to find that Harry Lilien was some 20 years his junior.
Harry’s sons felt that their father’s interest in baseball card collecting was a wonderful outlet for him during the Depression. Harry’s mother died at an early age. The family lived modestly, worked hard, and encouraged Harry’s interest in collecting and sports. Harry and Sid shared a small bedroom in their Queens apartment. Harry was a classic sports fan and an organized collector of cards, stamps, records, Indian head pennies, movie theatre programs and undoubtedly other items. He was a huge fan of the Yankees as well as the Giants. In the late 1930s, Harry even managed to get Lou Gehrig’s autograph and got to feel Lou’s bicep at the same time. Harry recalled how strong he thought Gehrig was. Harry and Sid Lilien were in the bleachers at Yankee Stadium when Gehrig gave his famous farewell speech.
Research by Harry Lilien – tights and paintbrushes
Lilien showed his interest in hobby history research as early as 1940 as an 18-year-old. In various 1940 Card Collector’s Bulletins, Harry reported on early tobacco cards and quotes from George H. Duke/Master Builder by John Wilber Jenkins (G.H. Doran 1927). He wrote: “Duke began to popularize his cigarettes in 1885 or 1886 by putting photographs of stage celebrities in each package. Then coupons were placed in the packages entitling the holder, for a given number, to a crayon picture of some historical notable… Later pictures of baseball players, sovereigns, rulers and flags of all nations were placed in cigarette packs. Boys began to make collections of cigarette pictures, to trade and preserve them, and the craze extended to every town and village … While Duke sent out sign painters who blazoned the names of his products on walls, barns and billboards, Allen & Ginter stuck to tradition, putting in each package of cigarettes a bright picture of a lady in tights. It was a spectacular fight, a battle of tights and paintbrushes”
Lilien returned with three more articles after finding the trade magazine Tobacco. This journal was sent to retailers and reported card issues, albums and censorship. Cards designed for the retailers to advertise cigarettes quickly evolved into insert cards put into the packs of 10 cigarettes. Information from 1887 and 1888 issues included: “Portraits of baseball players used to advertise Old Judge cigarettes attract much attention in the midst of the present baseball furor,” he wrote. Lilien deduced that the photos (Old Judge) preceded the colored litho types (A&G). The small colored cards were issued at the same time as albums to hold the cards, but by 1892 were virtually eliminated. “The small flare-ups of cards about 1899 were mostly issues with cigars.” Tobacco gives the dates of issue of various sets (mostly non-sport issues featuring attractive ladies) that seemed to come out at a rate of one new set per week in 1888, 1889 and 1890.
Harry’s last article in the Bulletin based on the tobacco research is in the December 1941 issue. Harry collected the 19th-century baseball tobacco cards as well as the tobacco cards from the early 1900s. Rose Solecki remembered the felt pennant inserts they had as well.
World War II
Harry Lilien went off to World War II from 1942-46 and his collecting went on hold. The only report in the Bulletin during the war years was from brother Sid, who was back in New York stationed in Brooklyn. Amazingly, collectors like Carter and Dr. Kurzrok continued to trade cards and keep up on the hobby, despite being in combat overseas, by utilizing their brief stays of home leave and keeping their copies of the Bulletin out of the mud. Lionel Carter and Harry Lilien were even in the Army and stationed in New Guinea at the same time, but still never met. Upon Lilien’s return in 1946 he again wrote Carter: “I guess you are surprised to hear from me after such a long time. I got out of the Army a few weeks ago … I haven’t looked over my collection since I’ve returned. My brother, Sid, was taking care of it until he went into the Army. From what I did see it doesn’t seem as much was issued during the war. I guess it was because of no gum.”
On March 10, 1948, 25-year-old Harry Lilien announced the formation of the “Cigarette Card Collectors Society” (CCCS) via an article in the Bulletin. Meetings were to be held monthly at the home of Dr. Lawrence Kurzrok at 9 East 96th St. in New York City. Dues were $1 for 6 months, with all correspondence and dues payable to Harry Lilien, acting secretary and treasurer. Jason Lilien added that Dr. Kurzrok was something of a mentor to Harry and that they shared an interest in completing sets and getting together with other collectors. Jason recalls his father talking about Dr. Kurzrok’s spectacular home being a wonderful meeting place where Harry Lilien had the opportunity to meet many early collectors. Honorary President Burdick reported in the Bulletin that this was the first “society for insert and advertising cards” and was enthused about the activities that were possible given the New York City location. Projects included a master checklist of all issues, including gum and candy cards.
Within a year, though, Harry’s name disappeared from the pricey ($1) full-page ads run by the Society. The treasurer became Mrs. John Lund and Ken Schoeneman was the vice president. Later Bulletins reported/advertised that the CCCS had produced checklists, received some early TV publicity, had a want list service and handled resales of duplicates for members. Famed British collector E.C. Wharton-Tigar and Harry Lilien also got connected during this period, perhaps through the CCCS.
By the early 1950s, though, news of the CCCS and input to the Bulletin by Lilien petered out. It appears that Harry’s interest in the newer cards went on hold after the mid-1950s. Harry became a manager with the brokerage firm of Bear Sterns; Sid was a probation officer and both raised families.
Harry and Sid’s surviving sister, Rose Solecki, was also a pioneer collector of sorts. Rose is a noted archaeologist who conducted significant excavations in the Middle East. She published on the subject with her husband, Ralph, and both remain active in the study of archaeology.
Bug Bites Again
Harry veered over to stamp and record collecting for a time but the card collecting bug bit both Harry and Sid Lilien again as they neared retirement and their own sons came along. Harry starting going to card shows in the 1970s and picking up cards for his young sons. Jason remembers his dad being particularly enthused buying rack packs of 1977 Topps cards at a McCrory’s store at the end of the season for 10 cents each. Harry thought his sons could use a set of 1969 Topps and assorted other cards, particularly those related to the New York baseball teams. He “cornered the market,” picking up 50 packs of Burger King Yankees. Jason recalls his father’s involvement as being very serious, getting plastic sheets, card set boxes, picking up regional sets, and continuing to go to the increased number of shows at Elks Clubs and VFWs. His interest seemed to be in the new cards, rather than going back to the 1930s and 1940s. Heck, he had most of the cards from those eras, even Lajoie.
With their dad’s assistance, Jason and Ian Lilien wound up with collections of cards starting in the early 1980s, all organized in plastic sheets, although they personally preferred flipping the cards and putting them through stress tests.
Mr. Mint Comes for Cake
Over the years Harry and Sid’s collection slowly dwindled away. By the late 1980s, the brothers thought it was time to sell what remained. They met Alan Rosen (Mr. Mint) at a 1986 show at the Nassau Coliseum on Long Island. Buying cards from the Liliens was one of Rosen’s top-three card-buying stories (along with the Topps high-number find and the 1987 Paris, Tenn., Topps/Bowman find).
Rosen remembers Lilien’s 1948 to 1951 Bowmans, Leafs and Berk Ross cards as being the best cards he ever bought. He recalled: “The 1948 Bowman actresses had snow-white edges. They had thousands of mint cards … They didn’t like the 1952 Topps, though, because they were too large.” The Liliens were in their late 20s or early 30s when these cards were collected, so they were never subjected to the card-tossing gambling with sister Rose.
In his book True Mint and in an interview for this article, Rosen described his experience of several visits to the Liliens. The brothers lived nearby in Queens and Rosen always went to Sid’s house. Rosen looked forward to the visits because he knew that the Liliens not only had great cards, but they also treated him with courtesy and respect. There was a civilized ritual to the entire process. Sid was serious. Harry was jovial. Nothing could be discussed until coffee cake and tea were served and finished while sitting at the vintage kitchen table. Harry would then wipe the table clean. Only then would cards appear from a small room off the hallway, a box full of fabulous cards, one box at a time. Mr. Rosen (as the Liliens called him) was asked to stay seated at the kitchen table and always wondered what was in the little room that seemed to produce so many great cards. The Liliens had Rosen rather anxious to buy cards.
Jokingly, Rosen even offered the Liliens’ wives $200 just to peek in the room from the doorway. “I would have loved to have gone in that little room.” (Jason Lilien reported that the small room was lined with industrial strength shelving to help keep the cards organized.)
Finally, Rosen purchased a set of 1951 Bowman baseball cards from the Liliens. The cards were stacked in numerical order and were great, as usual, but Rosen noticed that card No. 1 of Whitey Ford had an uncharacteristic crease across Whitey’s neck. For some reason, Rosen pointed out this relatively minor problem in the big scheme of things. Harry Lilien said to wait a minute. He made a visit to the small room and brought out two more 1951 Bowman Fords in mint condition to choose from. Unfortunately, after this transaction the Liliens said that they were sorry but “they were out of cards” (except apparently two 1951 Bowman Fords.)
Collector No. 37
Rose Solecki told me that I “would have loved to have talked to her brother, Harry. He retained a fantastic memory” and enthusiasm for collecting. He enjoyed seeing his sons and grandchildren collect. I missed him by a few months. I also missed finding out about him a few years ago when I looked for people who had ever met Jefferson Burdick. At his eulogy the family remembered card collecting as being part of their upbringing with fond memories of Harry Lilien, collector No. 37. ____________________________________________
George Vrechek is a frequent contributor to Sports Collectors Digest. He can be reached at email@example.com.