By Jeffrey Copeland
It seems like just about every time we open a hobby publication or auction catalog we read about one of the fabulous “finds” someone has stumbled upon at an estate sale, in a deserted warehouse, or in Uncle Charlie’s old footlocker.
Many of us have heard about the Alan Rosen (Mr. Mint) “1952 Topps Discovery,” which back in 1986 became the standard by which to measure all future mega-finds. Rosen received a call from a forklift operator who said his buddy’s father had just died, and now his friend had a collection of the father’s pristine 1952 Topps baseball cards he wanted to sell. Rosen drove over to look at the cards and was stunned by what he saw: over 5,000 cards, most of which were hi-numbers, including over 40 of Mickey Mantle alone. He purchased them, and his reputation in the hobby was enhanced and secured by this one lucky encounter.
The “Texas Bible Study Group Find” occurred some years later. At a Bible study session, a widow casually mentioned that her late husband, a very private collector, had amassed hundreds of thousands of vintage cards, all of which were now gathering dust in binders in his study. A card dealer was contacted, and this lucky soul ended up with everything from 1952 Topps Mantle and Willie Mays cards to early complete Topps sets to mint condition regional issue sets—literally hundreds of thousands of dollars of vintage cards, bought at a very good price.
The “Black Swamp Find” followed. A man going through grandpa’s attic in Defiance, Ohio, discovered almost 700 cards, most of which were from the 1910 E98 set, one of the rarest and most coveted of the early candy issues. The cards were in such mint condition that at first they were thought to be reproductions. Their value was approximately $3 million.
One of the more famous of the recent finds is the “Ty Cobb Lucky Seven Find.” Family members cleaning out their late great-grandfather’s house started to throw a paper bag into the trash pile but instead decided to take a look inside. Good thing. At the bottom of the bag were seven T206 cards with the ultra-rare Ty Cobb Smoking Tobacco back. The family decided to contact a card dealer to see if the pieces of cardboard were worth anything. The result? Already over a million dollars realized at auction and likely more to come.
These finds happen just often enough they both tantalize and tease us—and fill us with dreams of one day achieving the hobby version of finding the Holy Grail or winning the lottery. We rank-and-file collectors aren’t likely to come across finds such as these; however, this doesn’t mean we can’t find unexpected treasures for our collections. Although the monetary value of these finds might not be high, they still create pulse-pounding moments such as “This completes my set” or “I’ve always wanted one of these but couldn’t afford it before” or “I can’t believe I now have a (fill in the blank) in my collection.” These sorts of finds do happen, quite regularly throughout our hobby.
I recently contacted collectors from the ranks of our Sports Collectors Digest readership and others I visited with at card shows to see what treasures they’ve come across in recent years while building their collections. While relaying their stories, all became as excited, animated, and giddy as any group of collectors I’ve ever been around.
Here are their stories.
A couple years ago, Ron from Raleigh saw an ad in a local paper for a garage sale with “baseball cards” listed prominently in the description of the sale. Ron and a good friend arrived early so they’d be the first inside. The second the garage door started moving up, both bolted from the car. Inside the garage were boxes of cards, both sports and non-sports. Ron immediately picked up a shoebox and noticed it was filled with vintage cards, ranging from early tobacco issues to late 1950s Topps baseball cards.
He cradled the box in his left arm and kept looking around the front of the garage to see what else he might find. Suddenly, a woman he guessed to be in her mid to upper 80s entered the garage, craned her neck to look inside the shoebox, and then said to the man running the sale, “How much you asking for this box?” The man replied that he hoped to get twenty dollars for it. Before Ron could move, the woman shoved a twenty-dollar bill into the man’s shirt pocket, grabbed the box from Ron’s arm, and started down the driveway at a pretty good clip.
“I thought about running and tackling her,” Ron said, “but how bad would that have looked? The headlines zoomed through my head: ‘Man takes down eighty-year-old woman for baseball cards.’ It was a no-win situation at that point, so I just stood there with my mouth open while my buddy and the guy running the sale nearly laughed their heads off.”
However, this story doesn’t end there. The man running the sale felt so sorry for Ron he said he had held some of his late father’s favorite cards back and would sell them to Ron for the same sum of twenty dollars. He came back a couple of minutes later with a stack of cards about four inches high, all held together by a rubber band. The top card was a near-mint 1962 Post Cereal Roger Maris card, and by its edges Ron could tell it was the version that had been issued in early 1962 in Life Magazine. He also knew the Maris card was worth at least $20, so without even looking at the other cards under it, he gave the man his money.
It was after his buddy stopped laughing and as they were walking back to the car that Ron decided to take off the rubber band. The first card under Maris was a gorgeous 1959 Topps Mickey Mantle.
“I was thrilled,” Ron said, “but what came next took my breath away. The next card was a really nice 1952 Mantle. So, instead of being mad at that little old lady, I could have kissed her at that point because I never would have gotten these cards if she hadn’t shown up. Still, I’ll always wonder what was in that box. Maybe a T206 Honus Wagner? All I know for sure is what I ended up with was the greatest find of my collection.”
Robert from Kansas City found a treasure for his collection that still has him smiling. He saw a listing for an estate sale that said shoppers could come the day before the sale to check out what was going to be offered. He went early and was floored when he spotted two baseballs.
“The first was signed by Babe Ruth, and I had seen his signature enough to believe it might be legit. I then looked at the second ball and realized it had been signed by all the members of the World Champion 1926 St. Louis Cardinals team. I simply couldn’t believe I was holding such an important part of sports history right in my hand,” he said.
Robert sought out the person running the sale and asked if there might be a way for him to purchase the baseballs early. The man, a family friend running the sale as a favor, said he had decided he was going to purchase the Ruth ball for himself, but he was willing to sell Robert the other one if he was interested in it. After only brief negotiation, Robert left the house with the ball clutched firmly in his hands. He wouldn’t disclose the amount he paid for the ball, but he did say it was the find of his collecting life.
“There isn’t even one of these in the St. Louis Cardinals Museum,” he said. “I may donate it to them one of these days, but for now, this is a keeper.”
The next collector, Andy from Atlanta, wasn’t expecting a baseball treasure when he went with his wife to an antique and flower shop outside Chattanooga.
“I really didn’t want to go with her and acted pretty much like a jerk all the way there,” Andy said. “The place smelled like candles and soaps, so I pouted by the front door while she looked for treasures for her own collections. After a few minutes, she yelled over to me and said I needed to look at something in one of the cases.
I couldn’t believe my eyes. At the very bottom of the case was a really cool looking, framed print of Mickey Mantle in his uniform. I looked closer, and it looked like Mantle’s signature right across his chest. I had the shop owner open the case for me, and the first thing I noticed was an envelope taped to the bottom of the frame. The envelope held a certificate of authenticity for the autograph. I tried my best not to show my excitement as I asked the owner how much she wanted for the print. She said she had just put it in the case that very morning and wondered if twenty-five dollars might be too much. It was all I could do to keep from spitting all over myself as I pulled the money from my wallet. Wow—I’ll never forget that, and now I gladly go along with my wife every time she wants to go looking for antiques.”
Since he was a young boy, John from Oklahoma City has been collecting bobbleheads and has a pretty good collection of the original bobbleheads from the early 1960s. But being a teacher, he never seemed to have the extra cash to buy the two bobbleheads that many collectors consider the first baseball ones: the Roger Maris and Mickey Mantle bobbles issued during the historic 1961 season. At least that was the case until a day he visited a cousin, who lived about an hour away. The cousin had to work late that day, so John killed time by going to a local resale shop to dig around.
“I was just getting ready to leave the store when I spotted them—both of them—on a shelf in the front window,” he said. “Mantle was a little dusty and dirty, but the Maris looked like it was brand new. I looked under the bases, and both had price tags that said $2. I was so excited I almost dropped them. To buy them at a show, I would probably have had to pay somewhere close to a thousand in this particular condition. I got them for four bucks. They are the prized possessions of my collection, and I’ll never sell them. Never.”
It started out as a typical afternoon of playing baseball with his son in the park. Chris from Memphis brought along a big bucket of baseballs he had bought for under $10 at a garage sale on his way home from work. Relieved he didn’t have to stop so often to retrieve the dozen or so balls he had already pitched to his son, Chris reached into the bucket and picked up a ball that didn’t feel quite like the others. The seams were different.
“I paused to look at it, and in a bold stroke across the sweet spot was ‘Dizzy Dean,’ Chris said. “At first, I thought it was some kind of joke, but later that day, I looked at Dean’s signature on the Internet, and the one I had looked right. I sent it off for authentication, and it came back the real deal. I love the older memorabilia, so I now have it in a special holder. How lucky was that?”
Shortly after I visited with Chris, the stories of other finds started pouring in. I chose an even dozen of them to represent the excitement and joy shared with me by these happy—and lucky—collectors:
Jorge from Sacramento, California: While looking through a box of postcards at a local flea market, Jorge discovered tucked in between the postcards forty-three of the beautiful and highly desired 1909-11 T212 Obak cigarette cards of Pacific Coast League players (a few Northwestern Leaguers as well). So as not to show his excitement, he bought the box of postcards—and the Obaks ended up being thrown in for free.
Joseph from Bismarck, North Dakota: Joseph found a signed team-issued postcard of Roger Maris while digging in a box of exhibit cards found in a booth at a small antique mall. The Maris postcard was, like all the others in the box, priced at five dollars.
Chuck from Jacksonville, Florida: At his regular “last weekend of the month” flea market, Chuck discovered a near complete (missing only seven commons) 1959 Topps Baseball card set, with most cards in EX condition, stacked neatly in rows inside several Dutch Masters cigar boxes. The dealer, a specialist in jewelry, had the cards on consignment for a friend who had just downsized and moved to a small apartment. Chuck took the set home for $40.
Tom from Alton, Illinois: Tom saw an ad on Craigslist that said only “St. Louis Browns Items—call if interested.” When Tom arrived at the man’s home, he discovered uniforms, scorecards, game-used bats and gloves, autographs, and more. The items had belonged to the man’s father, who had worked for the team and had only recently passed. Tom said he felt too guilty to pay the man’s asking price for everything—$150—so Tom calculated a fair price to the point all parties were very satisfied with the transaction.
Amanda from Meridian, Mississippi: As an avid collector of books about baseball, Amanda was browsing through the offerings at a local library book sale. She picked up a copy of former Commissioner of Baseball Ford Frick’s book Games, Asterisks, and People. It was a first edition, which Amanda said made her shiver with delight. However, when she opened the book, she saw Mr. Frick had personalized the book, with a long note, to none other than Joe Garagiola, the former player and broadcaster. She took the book home for a $2 donation.
Tate from Galveston, Texas: Seeing an ad in a local paper that said “Major League Balls for Sale,” Tate contacted the seller and went to look at them. There were a couple dozen unsigned baseballs, but set to the side were these: two signed by Nolan Ryan, one by Rusty Staub, and one by Mickey Mantle. Tate carted out the bag of balls for $50.
Paul from Minneapolis, Minnesota: A former card shop owner, Paul still gets frequent calls from those who used to purchase cards and other items from him. A few months back, a former customer called and said he was downsizing and wanted to sell his sports ticket collection. Paul went to the customer’s home and saw the tickets were mostly from baseball games from the 1920s up through the 1970s. The man named a price that Paul found fair, so without looking closely through everything in the pile, Paul gave the man the money, picked up the tickets, and went home. Later, while looking through the stacks, he found a ticket in very nice condition from Game 4 of the 1928 World Series between the New York Yankees and the St. Louis Cardinals. He looked online and discovered that was the game during which Babe Ruth hit three home runs. That ticket alone made the whole purchase a bonanza.
Guy from Ontario, Canada: Guy attended a local swap meet to look for parts for a car he was restoring. An avid collector of sports memorabilia, he spotted a stack of hockey sticks next to some vintage tire rims. Glancing through them, he noticed one was signed on the shaft “Best Wishes—Wayne Gretzky.”
“I thought there was no way it really could have been signed by ‘The Great One,’ but I liked the look of it—so I bought it, for $5,” Guy said. The signature turned out to be authentic.
Jackson from Scranton, Pennsylvania: Jackson sells sports memorabilia out of a booth at a small antique shop near his home. One day, on the recommendation of the owner of the antique shop, a man called Jackson and said he had an old baseball bat signed by a couple of “Hall-of-Famers”—and would Jackson be interested. Jackson met the man at a local restaurant and was stunned when he saw the bat was signed by 27 members of the Hall-of-Fame. The man said he wanted the bat to go to a good home—and that he’d give it to Jackson if he’d pick up the check for their lunch, which Jackson did, gladly.
Joel from Toledo, Ohio: Joel found several dozen superb condition 1941 Play Ball baseball cards in a large pickle jar in his late-uncle’s bedroom. Among the cards were five of Ted Williams.
Mateo from Virginia Beach, Virginia: In the “Shirts for Men” section at a local re-sale/vintage clothing shop, Mateo spotted a baseball uniform that caught his eye because it seemed so out of place. Looking closer, he noticed a signature, in blue Sharpie, under the Cincinnati Reds logo: Ken Griffey Jr. Mateo asked a worker about the uniform and was told it had been donated by a person who got it at a charity auction some years before. Mateo made the purchase for $20, and it was later determined the uniform and signature were, indeed, authentic.
Dave from Columbia, Illinois: Dave, a part-time seller of sports memorabilia, reported finding at the bottom of a box from one of his purchases a stack of nearly 500 cards of the St. Louis Cardinals mascot, Fredbird. While the cards were not valuable in a monetary sense, Dave reports that this “find” has given him more joy than anything else he has come across. He gives the cards out for free to kids who come by his table at shows, and he said, “The smiles I receive back are priceless. To me, this is the greatest reward a person in this hobby can receive.”
The moral of these stories is clear: “finds” and “treasures” of all types are still out there. It may take good doses of patience, perseverance, and luck—but the possibility of finding a great item for a collection is still a very real possibility. To aid the rest of us in our searches, I asked those I interviewed where they suggested collectors look for these treasures. They recommended the following:
• Garage sales
• Yard sales
• Swap meets
• Charity stores (Catholic Charities, St. Vincent de Paul, and so forth)
• Charity auctions and events
• Goodwill Industries stores (Many reported great finds at these locations.)
• Re-sale stores
• Vintage clothing stores (Remember the Vince Lombardi “game worn” sweater found at one of these a couple of years ago by one lucky collector?)
• Antique shops (and especially the larger antique malls)
• “Local Shopper” magazines/newspapers (usually found, for free, on a stand just inside the main doors of convenience stores)
• Newspaper ads, especially the print versions—as opposed to online versions (Note: Several collectors believed more finds come from print versions because older individuals might be more comfortable with putting ads in this format rather than the more technical computer format. Is this accurate? At this time, many believe so.)
• “Radio Swap Meets” (call-in shows that take place on radio stations in larger cities around the country on Saturday mornings in spring and summer)
• Antique doll shows (For the men who are reading this, don’t feel like you need to leave your masculinity at the door when entering these shows. A Babe Ruth doll was found at one of these three years ago, and the lucky gent who purchased it was rewarded with just under $5,000 when the doll was sold at auction. He had paid $12 for it at the doll show.)
• Book sales, of all types (Many older sports books are removed each year from libraries because they are “dated.” However, these “cast-off” books can be quite valuable to collectors.)
• Comic book conventions (These often have vintage copies of rare sports publications. One collector reported acquiring several years’ worth of near mint Sport Magazine issues from the 1950s at a comic convention “Dirt-cheap—because none of the comic collectors present wanted anything to do with them.”)
• Antique/Curiosity shops abroad. (These shops offer the potential for a great find because, as one seasoned traveler and collector put it, “I’ve found most collectors in other countries couldn’t care less about our sports cards and related items, yet a lot of that stuff still manages to get over there. My experience has been I can pick up some pretty great things for pennies on the dollar compared to what I’d pay over here.”)
• Church sales and bazaars.
In the end, it may all boil down to perseverance and luck, but after hearing the stories of so many fortunate collectors, I’m more fired up than ever to get out there and search for my own “Holy Grail” items. Who knows—I just looked through a listing of the upcoming local garage sales, and maybe, just maybe, next week I’ll be rooting around in some old boxes of “Grandpa Floyd’s” possessions and find, under a pile of his old ties, a stack of T206’s held together by rubber bands. It most definitely could happen.
While thinking of this possibility, I was reminded of a line from one of my favorite movies. At the very end of “The Maltese Falcon,” Private Investigator Sam Spade (Humphry Bogart) shows the statue of the falcon to another person, who asks, “What is it?” Rick replies, with a smile, “The stuff that dreams are made of.”
And the potential and search for “finds” will also continue to fill our dreams as we continue building our collections.
Finally, what have been your greatest “finds” in the hobby? I’d appreciate it if you’d jot me a note and share these with me for a possible follow-up piece. In the meantime, happy collecting, everyone. u
Jeffrey S. Copeland is a contributing writer for Sports Collectors Digest, as well as an author. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.