In 1999, Upper Deck was celebrating the tenth anniversary of their groundbreaking inaugural issue. In the years that followed the release of 1989 Upper Deck, competing manufacturers had caught up and had successfully implemented many of the innovations that had caused UD to stand out. In a market that was filled with manufacturers over-saturating the market, then-CEO Richard McWilliam turned to a revolutionary gimmick that once again transform the industry.
Building upon the success of including a card with a swatch of a jersey worn by Ken Griffery, Jr. in 1997, McWilliam sought to do the unthinkable: dismember a bat used by none-other than Babe Ruth and place a fragment upon one of their trading cards. Appropriately titled ‘A Piece of History’, this coveted set ushered in a new era of a rapidly expanding hobby. The stage had been set for countless relics of baseball’s cherished past to find their way into the hands of everyday collectors – after a painful experience with a saw or a pair of scissors of course.
Since the Ruth card was issued, nearly every Hall of Fame player the card manufacturers could obtain a piece of memorabilia from found itself onto a trading card. Whether it was a jersey, a bat, a jacket, or even a pair of pants, these unusual issues quickly became highly sought after by card collectors, and a painful loss to memorabilia collectors.
As these too became common, manufacturers once again turned to the next big thing by including vibrantly colored swatches from uniforms, which quickly became known as patch cards. Nameplates from the barrel of a bat soon found their way into packs of high priced packs along with buttons, bat knobs, letters cut from the back of a jersey, and even shoes and gloves whose leather scent remained as pungent as the day they took the field decades prior.
For one collector, this area of the hobby has become less of a passion, and more of a quest. Thomas Miller has managed to acquire at least one relic of every Hall of Fame player issued, save one: Leon Day. A Negro League inductee in 1995, Day was included in 2001 Upper Deck Gold Glove, as part of the Leather Bound insert set, and featured a leather swatch clipped from a game used glove. Although numbered to 100 and not statistically rare, it has been the one card that has eluded Miller in his journey towards Hall of Fame completion.
There is a term used to describe a card coveted by a collector like Miller, which seems to lurk just beyond the horizon, chased endlessly in the hope that it will one day be acquired. That term comes from one of the most revered works of American literature, Herman Melville’s 1851 classic: Moby-Dick. For when a card sits just beyond the view of the forecastle, it can only be called a white whale.
Miller has been searching for the past four years for the Leon Day glove relic, experiencing two close calls that nearly brought the beast to bare. For like Ahab, a collector must chase their card round perdition’s flames before it can truly reach the coveted white whale status. Then came heartbreak when he learned of its existence in a retail store due to a message board posting on Freedom Cardboard, but phoned only to learn it had just been sold to a customer. The cardboard equivalent of losing one’s leg to the behemoth.
The journey for Miller has been one of bust, such as last year when he overpaid upon Panini’s release of a new relic of Hall of Fame manager Miller Huggins, to boom, such as when he picked up a swatch of the legendary Christy Mathewson’s pants for a fraction of the going rate.
Still, a passion like Miller’s has not translated into profits for cardboard manufacturers, as he acquires his cards on the secondary market. For Hall of Fame collectors, the decision to no longer allow licensed manufacturers to produce sets containing entirely retired players, has diminished their desire to purchase products. Instead, Miller finds himself longing for the days of DLP’s Prime Cuts and UD’s Ultimate Collection and SP Legendary Cuts.
“In the beginning, I didn’t even think twice about it. These days, I do worry a bit. It would be nice if the card companies made even the tiniest effort to show the provenance of the material,” stated Miller, when asked about certain scandals that had plagued relic cards in recent years. Among them, the dubious wording on the back of the card stating that the item was simply “a piece of memorabilia from an official game,” rather than directly linking them item to a specific player or era.
In addition, the 2009 inclusion of stadium seat relics designed to mimic bat relics and the FBI investigation of some phony goods being sold to card companies several years ago has led to questions of just how real some of these relic cards are. But even under the worst scenario, you will not find Miller listing his cards on eBay.
“If a doomsday scenario came to pass, it would be too late to sell everything, so probably not. Also I think only some of the material might end up being fake, but most of it is likely real,” Miller commented, echoing the sentiments expressed by many collectors on sports card message boards.
The relic game has expanded to larger pieces like bat knobs, which were very popular inside 2012 National Treasures Baseball from Panini. Virtually every product produced by all trading card companies today now includes a sizable quantity of memorabilia cards, some of which are autographed. It’s the autographs and relics–the “hits”–that drive product sales
As Miller waits for Leon Day to once again hit the market, he has begun to collect cut signature cards of Hall of Fame players. These autographs of deceased legends began finding themselves into packs as early as 2001, once again spearheaded by Upper Deck with their SP Legendary Cuts release.
Many collectors will surely relate to the saga of Thomas Miller, as they too sail off into the unknown in pursuit of their own white whale. If you happen to come across a small fragment of leather that once comprised a glove worn by Leon Day, Miller can be reached at [email protected].