It sat undisturbed inside the wall of a house in Pennsylvania for over a century. Now, a previously unknown 1893 Just So Tobacco card of Hall of Famer Buck Ewing is about to hit the auction block.
For years, collectors of vintage baseball cards wondered if a card of one of the most celebrated players on the 1893-94 Cleveland Spiders actually existed.
The faces of the Spiders adorned the front of one of the earliest issues known. Just So Tobacco created a small group of cards from the legendary team and distributed them inside its products.
Cy Young. Jesse Burkett. Even George Stacey Davis, who was traded from the club two months before the 1893 season, had a card. The player Cleveland received in return for Davis was catcher Buck Ewing, who would hit .344 that season with 122 RBI, 47 stolen bases and 117 runs scored.
Yet as the 21st century's second decade approached, no collector had ever seen a Just So Tobacco Ewing card.
None of them had ever met Mike Gazo.
The man who owned one of the 19th century collecting world's holy grail cards had actually found it several years before-- in the oddest of places--but didn't know what he had.
Gazo was a fan and casual collector who lived, fittingly, not far from Jim Thorpe, PA. He also liked to tear things apart and when his mother's home in nearby Tamaqua needed a bathroom remodeling project about a dozen years ago, Gazo got to work.
The home had been built in the late 19th century. Gazo's family was its second owner, taking over the property sometime in the 1920s. His dad grew up there.
He began by tearing apart a wall--a painstaking, labor intensive project thanks to the construction techniques of the day that incorporated plaster and thin strips of wood. When the dust began to fly, holes opened. As the inside of the wall became illuminated by his flashlight, Gazo caught a glimpse of what looked like a small photo, stuck to a crossbeam with an old square head nail.
"The picture just sort of jumped out at me," he told Sports Collectors Daily. "It kind of startled me, actually."
It was actually a baseball card. An old one. But the name didn't ring a bell for a 20th century fan. "Wm Ewing".
The card was a little dirty. It had hammer marks on the front from where it had likely been used as a marker by the construction crew more than a century earlier.
The dark smudges made sense, of course. This was coal country and the card sat about a foot from the edge of an old chimney that once passed smoke from a coal-burning stove. But it was definitely older than any card he'd seen in person. Gazo had no idea what he had found was a one-of-a-kind sports collecting treasure, potentially worth thousands of dollars.
He hung onto it and began researching this "Wm Ewing". Not realizing Ewing went by his nickname, Buck, in baseball circles, he never found much even though Ewing is regarded as perhaps the best player of the 19th century.
"I just thought it was a cool card," he recalled. "I wasn't much for the internet back then so I just took it around. Had it in the glove box of my car. I showed it to a few local collector friends and some dealers but they didn't seem to know much about it. They thought it might be worth $100 or so. I kept it in my sock drawer. Sometimes it sat on my coffee table. My friends who collected when I did used to be amazed when we ran across something like a 1960 Willie Mays. We never had any tobacco cards."
Over the years, Gazo had found other items tucked in the home's nooks and crannies. 1920s non-sport cards. Old bottles of liver medicine. Newspapers from the era of Babe Ruth. But the little card was kind of baffling. Like a mysterious archaeological find with a story waiting to be discovered.
Finally last week Gazo got a little more serious about his research. His mom was in ill health and she had no medical insurance. He began scouting around for things to sell to help pay the bills. He remembered the Ewing and began writing emails and making calls to collectors and dealers who specialized in vintage baseball cards, hoping they could shed some light on its value. One thing led to another and last Saturday, Gazo got in his car and drove to New Jersey, where he met with Rob Lifson, president of Robert Edward Auctions. Lifson confirmed what others had told him. The card was not only real, it was really, really rare. Possibly the find of the year in the vintage sports card hobby.
"I was still unsure I was going to sell it," Gazo said. "I love old things. I love reading old newspapers and I just thought it was cool to have something that no one had seen before. But as a card collector, I thought about the people who have the other cards in this set who could really enjoy it for what it is."
Gazo decided to consign the card with REA, which will feature it in its next auction. The card has yet to be graded, but to call it 'poor' is a stretch. Pieces are missing, the hammer marks are prominent and the coal dust or smoke that's soiled the front will mean it's not a "pack fresh beauty". But in this case, the grade is almost irrelevant. A new find--one pre-dating the World Series--is always cause for excitement and some serious bidding among the hobby's most advanced collectors who want to own it.
Lifson believes as few as fifteen total Just So cards exist. It's certainly on the list of the most rare baseball card sets of all-time. "It has long been speculated that Buck Ewing was originally in the set, and presumed that an example just did not happen to survive," he said. "Sure (Gazo's card) has some serious condition problems, but it's still an extremely exciting find."
While a value is difficult to place on it since no comparative data exists, it's not a stretch to say the card could sell for well into five figures.
"Hopefully it does well," Gazo said of the auction. "But really, I just hope it goes to someone who appreciates it."