Tuesday, May 18, 2010

My Early Days in the Hobby

Now that I'm writing this blog, I suppose it's a good idea to explain some of my hobby beginnings and try to explain how I became the collector I am today.

I grew up in Carthage, New York. Don't be afraid to say you don't know where it is, because not a lot of people do. The village is about 80 miles north of Syracuse, located outside of Watertown. It's close to the U.S./Canada border (the Thousand Islands) and near Ft. Drum, home of the U.S. Army's 10th Mountain Division. This Google map shows exactly how out of the way the town was:

That's right...there's a lot of nothing between Watertown and Lowville (that rhymes with "Cowville" by the way), and my hometown is located right in the middle of that nothingness.

By the mid 1980s, I was interested in making hobby contacts. I had a lot of baseball cards, and was interested in getting more (especially older cards, because I had a great deal of interest in baseball's "golden ages"). By that time though, many of my friends had developed other interests and weren't into collecting anymore.

In 1985, there were no card shops in Carthage, and a kid my age wasn't going to be allowed to bicycle 18 miles to Watertown and visit one. The only nearby dealer was an elementary school gym teacher, and he worked out of the garage of his house in the country, by chance or appointment. The only other place I could get cards at that time were in gum packs at little mom-and-pop stores with family names (Forney's, Waite's, Johnson's Dairyland and Williams' Market). There were a few card shows nearby then: the "Second Sunday" show in Syracuse, held monthly, an annual show at the State Office building in Watertown, and an annual "Collectibles convention" each July in Clayton. When I found out about these shows, I shifted into a mode familiar to any parent of a teenager -- I became quite persistent about wanting to go.

Finally, my persistence won out. The first show was in Watertown during the Summer of '85, and it hooked me on the hobby for life. That was the day I began collecting cards that were older than I was. At the time, I was even able to identify most Topps issues, and remember how some of the dealers were surprised that such a young kid knew what a 1954 Topps card looked like. Pete Rose was closing in on the all-time hits record and his cards were displayed at every table. There were also cards of hot rookies like Dwight Gooden, Eric Davis and the previous year's cards of Darryl Strawberry.

At one point, i saw a stack of about 60 cards from the 1952 Topps set, and started looking through the pile. The dealer told me I could have them for a dollar each, but my mother (who had the final say in all matters of financing my collection) told me there was no way on earth she was paying that much for a baseball card.
While I wasn't able to take home any '52 cards, I stopped at the table of that local gym teacher, Gary Rosintoski. He had a box on the table with hundreds of cards, and they were a nickel apiece. That was more along the lines of what the First National Bank of Mom was looking to pay, and I got a nice stack.

From that box, I pulled a handful of cards from each Topps set of the 1960s, including about 20 from 1962. I had cards of teams that didn't exist anymore or had moved to different cities. Most importantly, I had my first card from the 1950s: the classic 1959 "Lou" Burdette card. I soon learned that not only was Lew Burdette's first name misspelled on the card, but he pulled a stunt to fool the Topps photographer by borrowing Warren Spahn's glove and posing as a left-handed pitcher. I still own that card today:

Around that time, I made another great discovery: Baseball Cards magazine, by Krause Publications.  I bought every issue I saw on the newsstands for the next several  years and read them from front to back, including the ads. They gave me a great deal of information and probably started the chain of events that led me to designing my web site.

My first trip to the Clayton show in 1987 was just as memorable as the first show in Watertown. On that day, my mother finally realized that I was well-versed in the Hobby. This happened as I stopped at the table of a long-time dealer from New Jersey named Vin Minner. He had started collecting cards as a kid back in the 1930s and specialized in all kinds of vintage cards. He had tobacco cards of all types: baseball, Indian chiefs, actresses, flags of the world, airplanes, flowers, etc. He had strip cards, Goudey cards, Bowman and Topps cards through the 1950s. I think he saw a budding collector in me, because we spent a great deal of time talking about baseball cards. While he showed me what he had, I think I impressed him because I knew a T206 from a T205, and even knew that "T" stood for 20th century tobacco, and I was all of 14. That day, I finally bought my first 1952 Topps cards. In Mr. Minner's bargain box, I found cards of Pat Mullin and Sam
 Dente for a dollar each (ironically enough, this time I was allowed to buy them). On the way home that day, I remember how Mom told me how neat it was to watch me go toe-to-toe with a hobby veteran and how I came across as very knowledgeable...at that age, I was flattered.

I went back to that show every year until I moved out of the area, and always stopped to visit with Mr. Minner. I bought quite a lot from him: a half dozen T206s, some T205s, my only Old Mill red border card, a W516 Babe Ruth card, some Goudeys, my first '53 Bowman Color card (George Kell), a bunch of 1955 Bowmans and a dozen 1952 Topps cards. A few items I should have taken when offered were a Ty Cobb strip card, a '63 Fleer Maury Wills and a '52 Topps Andy Pafko (for $25). We always talked about cards. The last year I visited, I brought along my soon-to-be bride, and Mr. Minner mentioned how he had only seen me once a year, but had watched me grow up from a teen to a young man, through my time in the service, and here I was, a college student who was about to get married. I never saw him again after I moved, but I'll always remember how he took the extra time to talk to a young collector about the hobby and passed along some of the old stories.

As I got a little older and could hop in the car, I visited card shops in Watertown and the one I liked the most was called the Square Lion. It was in Watertown's Public Square (the city center) and was a store that sold jewelry and antiques. There was a large baseball card display and a lot of vintage cards available. The store was owned by a gentleman (and I use that word because it's a perfect adjective) named Doug Berry. Mr. Berry was another seller who seemed to have plenty of time to talk about baseball and the hobby. He was also so dedicated to his store's success that he would often sleep in the back of the store after balancing the books and taking inventory. Whenever I brought in my extra cards, he'd be happy to make a trade. Once, when I traded a 1987 Fleer Will Clark rookie for a 1972 Hank Aaron (a fair trade at that time), I began to consider selling my duplicates off to make money...which would allow me to buy more cards.

So, On December 2, 1989 (my 17th birthday) I went behind the table and became a seller. A picture from that show ended up in the local weekly paper (that's me behind the table. Sadly, some of that hair is gone today, as is the six-pack):

It was the first card show ever held in my little home town. I tried to be a seller who was hobby-oriented. Like Mr. Minner and Mr. Berry, I had no problem just talking baseball, even if the person wasn't buying. Gary Rosintoski (who had sold me a bunch of cards over the years) was at the table across from me, and I learned a lot about the business side of the hobby from observing him. After making back the money for renting the table, most of my profits went to other dealers, because I bought cards from them. I also did a lot of trading, so when the show was over I had a much better collection that I had when I set up the table. I worked a number of shows until 1992.  I never made much money, but I had a lot of fun.

Unfortunately, I never had a chance to thank Doug Berry for helping me realize -- even indirectly -- that I could sell my duplicates at card shows. A couple of months before that first show, somebody broke into his store after it had closed. That night, he was in the back and was murdered. 

A few years ago, I returned to the little town I once called home. I went and visited the Square Lion. It was still there, but was closed for the day. I didn't see if Gary Rosintoski was still selling cards. A card shop opened in town around 1990 but never lasted, and all those little mom-and-pop stores that sold me the hundreds of gum packages I bought as a boy have different signs today (and none sell candy anymore). Even the baseball field that hosted so many summer sandlot games in my youth looks different. 

I guess it's true that once you leave home, you can never go back. The town I grew up in is as different today as the hobby I grew up with. Yet, if enough people take the time to share the hobby with newer collectors -- in essence, take a young collector under our wings like Vin Minner and Doug Berry did for me -- the hobby will continue to flourish. Even if many newer collectors are foreign to the concept of wax stains, gum residue or 25 cent packs, there will always be some collectors who are as immersed in the "old stuff" as I was in the 1980s. They should get the chance to enjoy it as well.

1 comment:

  1. Nice story.

    I wish the State Office building show was still going. It stopped a number of years ago. I only got to go to it once.

    The Square Lion doesn't sell cards anymore. That's too bad. I bought a lot of my '75s there. It's the place that really sparked my return to the hobby.

    The Clayton show is still going. I go every year. The number of card dealers kind of ebbs and flows. Two years ago there was next to nothing. Last year there were several dealers.