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Chris Levy: National is About Meeting Old, New Friends

Looking back at my first National – Atlantic City in 2003 – I am struck by how much both I and the hobby I love has changed in just a decade. Having frequently attended recent Nationals and regional shows, participated in online discussion groups, and been part of numerous auctions and transactions, I found that every few feet I stepped brought me closer to a friend or an acquaintance. For it felt over the course of those five days last week in Cleveland I could hardly make it down an aisle without meeting someone I knew, or had heard of.

Posing with Bill Simmons of ESPN/Grantland on Day 2 of the National.

Posing with Bill Simmons of ESPN/Grantland on Day 2 of the National.

Bill Simmons’ trips to the National are viewed as something of a double-edged sword by collectors. While they welcome the national exposure that comes with the presence of an ESPN personality and the force behind the popular Grantland website, others are a little touchy about his social commentary that describes attendees as overweight white men wearing Hawaiian shirts and jorts. And so when I saw Bill on the show I could not help but apologize for not wearing such a wardrobe, to which he laughed and generously agreed to my request for a photo.

On a couch in an ill-fitting Steve Largent jersey with Josh Adams.

On a couch in an ill-fitting Steve Largent jersey with Josh Adams.

It can be safe to say that even the most athletic amongst us can find it difficult to traverse the unforgiving concrete floors of the I-X Center over the course of five days. While the 1893 Cy Young cabinet collection being auctioned by SCP Auctions was clearly the highlight of the show as relates to cards in my opinion, I found no sight more appealing than welcoming presence of Andy Becker’s couch present in the booth of MSB Sports Cards / BST Auctions he shared with partners John Spano and Brian Terjung, along with Bob Swick of Gridiron Greats, longtime collector Jay Wolt, and hockey aficionado Josh Adams. In a room where a chair can be hard to come by, Becker’s couch – a fixture at recent nationals – logged a veritable of who’s who in the hobby in need of a pit stop.

Banging the drum with John Adams at Progressive Field on Thursday night.

Banging the drum with John Adams at Progressive Field on Thursday night.

Whenever possible, I attempt to attend a baseball game during National week. As such I was very fortune to accompany a group led by Scott Alpaugh of Just Collect on Thursday night. Scott purchased tickets in the bleachers alongside John Adams, who has been banging his drum to cheer on his beloved Indians since 1973. Nearly a week later I can still hear the beating of that drum, but Adams was the consummate gentleman, answering all of our questions, and posing for numerous photographs.

This 1911 T5 Pinkerton of New York Giants shortstop Al Bridwell was the only item I purchased from a dealer at the show.

This 1911 T5 Pinkerton of New York Giants shortstop Al Bridwell was the only item I purchased from a dealer at the show.

As a collector of early twentieth century cabinet cards featuring members of the New York Giants, I attended the show with limited expectations in terms of acquisitions. However, I was fortunate to find that Glyn Parson was set up with a stack of rare T5 Pinkerton cabinets, where an example of Al Bridwell was to be found. Bridwell, who came to the Giants in the trade that sent fan favorite Roger Bresnahan to the Cardinals so he could have an opportunity to manage, never caught on with the fans in New York. But it fit my criteria and Glyn was kind enough to let it go for a price that allowed me to still eat dinner that night.

Reconnecting with friends is a highlight of the National for me, as few collectors live in the Jacksonville area. It was especially good to see close friends like Peter Fishman and Chris Bland at the show, as well as Michael Peich who helped me acquire a much needed item from boothmate and friend Tim Newcomb. Perhaps the most emotional moment of the show came when I reconnected with Dr. Frank Evanov, a fellow Long Island collector, who updated me on the progress of his Mickey Mantle master set. Mantle was my mother’s favorite player growing up in the 1950s, and is currently not doing so well so discussing both her health and Mantle is always a hard experience, which Dr. Frank greatly empathized with.

Old friend Chris Bland (L) with new friend Dan Studebaker (R) of Bid Brain.

Old friend Chris Bland (L) with new friend Dan Studebaker (R) of Bid Brain.

One of the best parts of the National is meeting people who you have discussed cards with online, or are introduced to by mutual friends. I enjoyed spending time with longtime collector Elliot Bassin, who introduced me to noted dealer and newfound friend Brian Wentz of BMW Cards.

A man I had always wanted to meet was Dan Studebaker of Bid Brain, if only to ask him if he was related to *the* Studebaker family – and it turns out he is. It was also nice to meet fellow SCDaily contributor David Rudd Cycleback, who without question was the best dressed person at the show (and managed to stay clean despite having to crawl under the table with his black light to examine photos he was authenticating).  I was also fortunate to have the assistance of grader Steve Hrusovsky, who helped me with a difficult submission I sent to SGC. I had seen Steve at several Nationals, but had never formally met him. It was also great to turn a name into a face when I saw Jeff Prizner, whom I had chatted with online for years, but had never met in person.

SCDaily columnist and photo expert David Cycleback greets a fan.

SCDaily columnist and photo expert David Cycleback greets a fan.

As a cabinet card collector, I covet discussions with cabinet experts, and at the 2014 National I had ample opportunity to do just that. I enjoyed meeting collector Jerry Spillman, who has been cataloging the W600 Sporting Life cabinet set for decades. Watching him make notations about the items in my collection showed me just how much I have yet to learn about the intricacies of the set. The discussions with Scott Brockelman and John Rumirez about the issue were also enlightening, as it is always a positive experience when collectors of a rare set full of mysteries come together.

Dealer John Goodman

John Goodman sold me my first pre-War card more than a decade ago.

It was good to see old friends like Chris Gilmore of Freedom Cardboard, who gave me my first paid writing job in the sports card and memorabilia industry several years ago. And it was especially satisfying to see longtime New York area dealer John Goodman still set up and looking well. For it was John who sold me my first pre-war card – 1933 Goudey Rogers Hornsby – and had first told me there was a show called the National.

My friend Peter Fishman (R) whom I shared a hotel room, along with friend Steve Suckow (L) showing off a rare N172 Harry Wright.

My friend Peter Fishman (R) whom I shared a hotel room, along with Steve Suckow (L) showing off a rare N172 Harry Wright.

If the days at the show were exhausting, then the nights at the nearby Sheraton Hotel bar were downright debilitating. Each night following the show Al Crisafulli of Love of the Game Auctions would hold court until the wee hours of the next morning with a varying cavalcade of notable collectors and dealers. Among the players we were fortunate to rub shoulders with were Rickey Henderson, Dave Winfield, Pedro Martinez, Pete Rose, Joe Morgan, and Frank Robinson. The highlight of the bar experience was the waitress Meredith, who each night had to put up with nearly 40 boisterous card collectors and made enough in tips to purchase the hotel.

Perhaps no image conveys the sadness of departing the National more than this one. (Photo credit: Brian Wentz).

Perhaps no image conveys the sadness of departing the National more than this one taken at the Cleveland airport on the last day. (Photo credit: Brian Wentz).

The realization dawned on me that the National was no longer a card buying experience for me. In fact, the two most significant items I added to my collection were purchased privately from friends in pre-arranged deals. Instead, for me the National has become a yearly pilgrimage to socialize with friends in the hobby – and to make new ones – both on the show floor and at the festivities that ensue surrounding it.

There is nothing sadder than the last day of a National. Perhaps in the future they should make Sunday free, as several dealers left before the show opened, and countless others were packing up by mid-show. And so the day was reserved to saying last goodbyes, skimming for final bargains, and making plans to see one another next year in scenes reminiscent of the last day of school.

See you all in Chicago in 2015.

About Chris Levy

Sports Collectors Daily contributing writer Chris Levy has been collecting sports cards for more than 20 years. Growing up in the suburbs of New York City provided him an early love for the legendary teams and athletes who dominated the headlines for most of the past century. His current focus is on the 1905 World Champion New York Giants. He can be reached at [email protected].

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