A. C. Haeffner
WHEN THE CARDS CAME CALLING
By A.C. Haeffner
Sometimes the most important developments in a person's life come unbidden and quietly.
That's how my career in baseball cards and other sports collectibles began.
It started amid the low hum of murmurs that marked the newsroom in which I was working one night - a night like many others.
Let me set the scene - present this account as I might a play. For in truth, my memory of the specifics - as low-keyed and seemingly unimportant as they were at the time - is not something I fully trust. I will instead present the "facts" as my mind has fashioned them since: as a drama of sorts.
Imagine, then, the sight of two industrious editors seated at desks across from each other in the sports department in that late-night newsroom. Imagine three other staff members of the department seated some yards away, writing stories and completing roundups of the day's local sports activities - with deadline for the early edition fast approaching.
The time: The mid-1980s.
The place: A 40,000-circulation daily in Upstate New York.
Key supporting players at the paper: Two co-workers I will call Harvey and Thompson. (I'm using fictitious names for them because I have found in a long journalistic career that anyone will deny at almost any time saying or doing anything attributed to them in print, no matter how accurate. And the worst offenders, I'm convinced, are journalists themselves. They hate being written about - having the tables turned, as it were. And so I will affix pseudonyms to these two. It will just save me headaches.)
Harvey was my co-editor that night. Thompson - a writer - had the evening off.
Harvey: "Did you see Thompson's baseball cards?"
I might not have heard him at all if not for the words "baseball cards" - a commodity that had held a fascination for me in my childhood, but not since. In fact, it was a subject I had rarely dwelt upon of late - other than to occasionally wonder why my mother had thrown my cards out after I had left home for college. But that had occurred twenty years earlier, and so the sting and the frequency of the memory had weakened with time. Nonetheless, the words obliquely caught my attention.
Me: "Baseball cards?"
I said this almost automatically. I don't think I was fully engaged in the conversation yet, but was about to be.
Harvey: "Yeah. At his new apartment. He found them in a closet. A bunch of 'em sitting in a box."
My focus wandered from the computer screen in front of me to the thought of that closet. Well, I decided, they were probably just some new cards - purchased recently at some local department store. I tried to refocus on the sports story on the screen - but without success.
Me: "I take it you saw them."
Harvey: "Yeah. They're cool."
There was silence then. A quick glance told me Harvey's attention had returned to the story he was editing - which was good, since that's what we were being paid for. But curiosity propelled me forward.
Me: "Recent stuff, I gather."
Harvey: "Nah, and that's the coolest part. They're from '62. Put out by Topps. Pretty nice shape, considering how old they are. I was over there, and he showed them to me. Let me have a couple of them. I got a Willie Mays. I loved that guy. Mays was something."
Yes, I thought. Willie Mays was something. And so was the fact that this fellow across from me had gotten free cards - free old cards. I felt a rush of envy as my interest in editing ground to a halt.
Me: "No kidding. I'd kind of like to see them. How many did he find?"
Harvey: "Oh, about two hundred, I guess. Maybe a few less."
Me: "No kidding."
Thompson, one of our best writers, was not only off work, but also out of town that night. So I couldn't ask him about the cards right then. Maybe the next day, I told myself - if I could remember. Yeah, I answered myself like I would forget.
Me again: "Maybe I'll ask him about them."
Harvey: "Sure. He'll let you see them. He might even give you some. I don't think he really cares all that much about them."
Which turned out to be very true.
Thompson, in fact, brought the cards in to work the next day, before I even had a chance to speak to him. He was carrying the cards in a shoe box, which he set on my desk as soon as he arrived.
Thompson: "Cool, huh? They were just sitting in a closet in my new place."
Me: "I gather the last tenant didn't want them."
Thompson: "Beats me. They were way in the back. Maybe he didn't see them. Maybe they've been there since '62."
I reached in the box, and pulled out a few. They brought back sharp memories, '62 having been the last year I seriously collected as a boy. My mid-teen years had been calling then, and collecting had seemed suddenly silly. And so I had deserted the hobby, never to return until now.
Me: "This the box?"
Thompson: "No. They were in a bigger one, underneath some stuff. Clothes, rags "
I had come upon a Norm Cash card. He had been one of my Detroit favorites, especially after hitting .361 in 1961 - a figure that won him the batting title and helped my beloved Tigers (I grew up outside Detroit) to second place behind the hated Yankees. I flipped the card over to confirm the accuracy of my memory, and smiled. Yep - it said .361.
Harvey approached the desk - coming from an interview with a local sports figure held in a conference room at the other end of the building, as I recall. His eyes lit up when he saw Thompson and me going through the cards, and he joined in, grabbing a handful from the box. We were all silent for a few moments, poring over the cardboard treasure.
Then I noticed Harvey holding a few cards up for Thompson to see.
Harvey: "Can I have these?"
Thompson: "Sure. Take what you want."
Harvey: "Oh, these are all I need."
I noticed a couple of Yankees among his selections, but couldn't see the others.
Me: "What you're just giving them away?"
Thompson: "Oh yeah. I mean, they're pretty neat, and all, but I don't collect stuff. Why? Are you interested?'
Me: "Well, yeah. I used to love cards. And 1962 was the last year I collected. Had quite a few of them. But you know the old story: My mother threw them out."
Thompson: "Yeah, a common lament. Well, heck, if you want, take them all. I've got no use for them."
Me: "All of them?"
I wasn't sure whether to feel pleased or guilty.
Thompson: "Sure. Why not?"
I said it quickly, before Harvey - who I sensed was knocked momentarily speechless by this exchange - could register an objection. Not that he necessarily would have objected; he had, after all, said he'd gotten all the cards he wanted.
But I somehow didn't believe him. If he had known it would be this easy, I decided, he would have grabbed every one of them.
But I was, by accident, in the driver's seat. And so I ended up with the cards.
It was that simple.
That's how my collecting interest was resurrected and what led me eventually out on the road as a dealer.
I am almost ashamed to say what I did with the cards
Propriety seemed to call for me to embrace them, study them, and enjoy the good fortune of their deliverance and the warm feeling of lost childhood that they engendered.
But that's not what I did.
There was, on my route to work, a store with a sign painted on its side proclaiming "Baseball Cards," among other things. This was the first such shop in the area, for the hobby hadn't heated up yet - had not become the craze it soon would be.
I had had no reason to stop in that shop before, but now now I had cards to sell or trade.
And so I entered it one afternoon.
The store was actually more than a card shop. The proprietor, a man named Van Loan (his real name), actually opened it to cater to stamp and coin collectors, and decided as an afterthought - in response to repeated requests - to stock baseball cards. At that point, football, basketball and hockey cards were considered to be of little value, and so he rarely dealt with them.
After entering his store and briefly perusing his stock, I showed him the 1962 cards and asked him what they might be worth. I had brought them in the same box Thompson had utilized. Van Loan casually looked at them.
Van Loan: "Nice. But the value depends. There's book, and there's what a dealer pays. You'll only get a percentage. Are you selling them?"
Van Loan: On ?
Me: "How much I can get."
Van Loan nodded, pulled a booklet from the shelf behind him - a price guide, it turned out, which is something I had yet to own (and couldn't have told you existed, until that moment) - and started checking the values of some of the cards in the box. This took several minutes, and so I found myself wandering the store again, looking at the merchandise. That's when some cards in a small case on a back shelf caught my eye.
Me: "Are those what I think they are? Davy Crockett cards?"
I had been crazy about Disney's Crockett when I was a child, and had collected some of the cards issued in two series by Topps - cards with scenes from the three-part Crockett TV show. Somewhere along the line - my mother's handiwork again? - those cards had disappeared.
Van Loan turned and looked where I was pointing.
Van Loan: "Yeah. I have a few of those. Those on display, and some in a notebook. Want to see it?"
I did, and so he pulled it out from underneath his counter. The notebook contained several eight-pocket, clear-plastic pages, each with five or six cards in it. Some of the cards were of the orange-back (first series) variety, and some had green backs (second series).
Van Loan: "As you can see by the blank spaces, I've sold a few. The pages were full."
I nodded, puzzled at my feeling. I was annoyed that he had sold some of them. It was as though they should have been mine.
The feeling was strong enough - the need was strong enough - that I knew I could not leave that shop without the remaining Crockett cards. And so I determined, without much thought, that part of whatever money I got from the '62 Topps cards would go toward a non-sports-card purchase.
A couple of minutes later, Van Loan had made his determination.
Van Loan: "I'll give you $100 for the group."
I was stunned by the number. When did slabs of cardboard start bringing money like that, I wondered. But I didn't hesitate too long, for fear he might change his mind.
Me: "I'll take it. But I want the Crockett cards, so deduct their cost from the total."
Van Loan: "Will do."
And the transaction was completed that simply.
Within days, I decided I had been foolish. I had, after all, let the cards go without so much as looking at a price guide myself. And so, a week later, I stopped at Van Loan's shop again and purchased one, along with a few packs of the latest Topps baseball cards. I opened the cards there, sold one to Van Loan that he took a particular interest in, bought another pack with that money, and left with my purchases.
A study of the guide told me Van Loan had been quite fair with me, but the more I looked at the names of the players and the values of their cards, the more I regretted having simply unloaded my group of '62s.
The move now seemed frivolous disrespectful and above all uneconomical.
I decided that if I was going to sell such treasures in the future, it should be from the other side of the counter, where I could get more money. The dealer had the advantage of purchasing cards for less than a collector, and selling them for more. It made basic economic sense to me: I could build a greater personal collection - setting aside limited but specific cards that I might acquire in the course of business - by filling the role of dealer.
But I knew, too, that it wasn't that simple. I couldn't be a dealer if I had nothing to offer - and right now I had only some Crockett cards and a few new Topps cards. And I didn't have the wherewithal to order cases - as Van Loan did - from Topps or from Fleer or Donruss, the other chief card-makers. No, it would take time to build my collection enough to call myself a dealer to put my product out for sale and start developing my business.
The day did come, though - some three years later.
By then, I had invested what little funds I could in the card issues of the mid-'80s, purchased a smattering of older cards along the way, built sets, and bought an occasional autograph.
In 1988, when circumstance led me out the door of that newspaper and into the great void of the unemployed, my wife was understandably concerned.
Wife: "What are we going to do for income?"
I directed her to an old enclosed shelving unit in a corner of my home office. I opened its door and pointed. Inside were two dozen sets of Topps, Fleer and Donruss cards, some smaller boxed sets Fleer had issued, some unopened wax boxes, a small stack of autographed photos, and small plastic cases filled with cards of then-current stars: Clemens, Boggs, Mattingly, Ryan, Fisk, Seaver, Canseco and the like.
Me: "That. That's what we're going to do for income."
Wife: "Your baseball card collection?"
I shook my head.
Me: "No. My inventory."
By that time, the show circuit had heated up. Baseball card shows were in vogue both in our area and elsewhere around the country. And so I determined that rather than limit myself to a stationary store - unappealing since I had been pretty much confined to a sedentary desk job for years - I would join the fraternity of dealers who made their living (or at least tried) on the road.
I would, for the next few years, spend my weekends away from home, setting up at small shows and mall shows around the state, and at big shows in population pockets many hours from my base of operations. I would travel up and down the Eastern Seaboard - from Boston to Richmond - carrying my boxes of cardboard goods in my trusty van, peddling little pictures of players in an attempt to keep the cash flowing.
And most of the time, it worked.
(To be continued in later articles.)