You hear collectors of modern cards talk about "1 of 1" issues; manufactured rarities that sell for hundreds or even thousands of dollars. When vintage card collectors talk about such low print runs, it's pretty special. That might be the population of the 1894 Alpha Baltimore Orioles. Only one set is known to exist and the man who once owned it lives in a very nice house thanks to his decision to start collecting them about 20 years ago.
Dan McKee, a long-time collector of pre-War vintage cards, first saw them at a major auction. They didn't sell but he was intrigued enough to try and buy them one-by-one after the owner sold them off. It took awhile, but McKee finally completed the set.
John McGraw and Hughie Jennings would gain their biggest fame as managers after the dawn of the next century, but in 1894, they were two of the stars who made Baltimore's baseball team into the stuff of legend. Their cards, along with Willie Keeler, represent the most well-known players in the Alpha series, which may have simply been produced for a store display 119 years ago.
Word of McKee's set spread and a few years ago, a wealthy collector purchased them for a six-figure price that enabled McKee and his family to buy their dream house.
But a true collector never waves goodbye forever.
Read more on the 1894 Alpha set and why some of those cards have now come full circle through this feature by Jonathan Pitts of the Baltimore Sun.