It’s the type of story that keeps collectors going to garage sales, estate sales, flea markets and antique shows. The kind of discovery that most of us have literally dreamt about on more than one occasion.
An old, forgotten room in an old, forgotten building. A willingness to look, no matter the obstacle, in hopes of finding abandoned treasure. Most of the time, you shake the cobwebs off and realize it was just that: a sweet dream. Sometimes, though, reality is better than anything your brain cooks up in the middle of the night.
This is one of those times and collectors will have a chance to get in on it.
The first part of a major discovery of hundreds rare uncut eight-card panels of 1941 Play Ball baseball cards is coming up for sale at Robert Edward Auctions beginning this Friday.
Yes, you read that right. Hundreds.
On a Saturday afternoon last August, a 75-year-old veteran antique collector with 40 years of experience was taking it easy in a town south of Pittsburgh when his wife, a fellow collector, suggested maybe he should check out an estate sale five miles away. Although he’s a self-proclaimed weekend warrior who loves to hit yard sales for crockery, paintings, and civil war pieces, it took him a while to summon the energy.
The sale was in an old, abandoned building in the Mon Valley region, the heart of the Rust Belt where steel factories closed decades ago. Some young people were clearing out a building in an old mill town. After finding nothing more than boxes of clothes upstairs, the collector asked if there was any old material. He was pointed to the basement where he didn’t find much until entering a small, 8’x10’ room. Met with total darkness, he took out a flashlight and began making a pile, consisting of a metal Sunshine Biscuit display, a pendulum clock from the 1930s and 1940s, and antique Westinghouse fans with brass blades.
As he continued to search for items, he came across a bottom shelf with a box containing the cards. “I grew up in the ‘50s and had many Topps cards,” says the collector, who prefers to remain anonymous. “My parents threw them away when I got married like everyone else. I wasn’t even sure these were real.”
The collector gathered up his items and completed his purchase. He took the box of cards home determined to learn more about this trove he’d discovered. His research led him to REA and Consignment Director Calvin Arnold. After a few exchanges of pictures via e-mail, Arnold was on his way to Pittsburgh to see the panels for himself.
The 1941 Play Ball set is revered for its treasure trove of Hall of Famers, all of whom appear in these strips: Joe DiMaggio, Ted Williams, Pee Wee Reese (rookie), Lefty Gomez, Jimmy Foxx, Bill Dickey, Mel Ott, Hank Greenberg, Carl Hubbell, Bill Dickey, Chuck Klein, Bobby Doerr, and Arky Vaughan.
Unlike the 1939 and 1940 Play Balls, the 1941 were colorized in vivid hues, making them the most popular of the three sets. They were also the last cards issued for seven years due to paper shortages during World War II.
A small number of strips have surfaced in the past and some have even been authenticated and graded but the only known examples had been those with four cards, not eight. As of now, the eight-card strips are too big to accommodate holders.
“Play Ball strips are definitely rare and ones of this size are unheard of,” said Arnold. “These eight-card strips may have been free with a purchase or given out at confectionary stores to get kids excited about the upcoming release, especially the first year they did color.”
Judging from the contents the collector found in the small room, Arnold’s explanation stands to reason. The collector, who taught history in grade school for 37 years and is a history buff, believes it was a mom-and-pop general store. He discovered receipts stretching back to the 1920s and magazines from the 1950s, beer crates from local breweries, old pop bottles still in wooden crates, and fireworks.
“It was probably one of those stores where the owners lived above it and, maybe, they tried to pass it down to relatives who weren’t interested,” he says. “All that stuff in the room was put down there and just forgotten about.” The collector walked into a veritable time machine from 75 years ago, the stuff all treasure hunters’ dreams are made of.
The collection will be presented over a series of auctions with the November auction featuring the first six lots. Three lots will include five strips of eight for a total of 40 cards while the other three lots will consist of 50 strips amounting to 400 cards. .
Now, the lucky consignor will sit back and watch, along with the entire hobby, to see what this newly discovered group yields on the auction block. And there’s a good chance that he’ll heed his wife’s urging the next time she suggests a sale. That is if he hasn’t already decided himself to make the trip knowing that another incredible discovery might await.