Sam Droganes’ business pedigree includes confectionaries and fireworks. And after Heritage Auctions’ Fall Sports Catalog Auction ended Friday night, the Kentucky businessman had scored a sweet five-figure profit worth celebrating.
Including the buyer’s premium, the baseball cards fetched $57,600. Meanwhile, a box of unopened 1955 Rails & Sails cello packs sold $13,200, while cello packs of the 1953 World on Wheels set went for $11,400.
Not bad considering they’d been a gift from his enterprising father who bought them on the cheap during a business liquidation buyout in 1964.
Talk about getting a bang for your buck.
“I was expecting higher (for the 1959 box), just from what Heritage was telling me before the auction,” Droganes said. “But the end result didn’t disappoint me, that’s for sure.”
Droganes, 53, was 14 when his father, James Droganes, gave him the boxes of cards. Sam had been collecting baseball cards since 1972 and was a full-fledged collector by 1979, when the cards were gifted to him. A cache of unopened cards printed six years before he was born was a gold mine.
But why didn’t Droganes open the packs?
“I’ve got to admit there was a part of me that did want to open them, but Dad was very meticulous, he’d always look for things in pristine condition and keep it that way,” Droganes said. “I kind of knew that the packs had more value if they were unopened.
“I don’t want to say I was smart, but I had self-control. It was tough not to open.”
The box “sat in the (family) store for the better part of 30 years,” Droganes said.
The fourth series in the 1959 baseball set covers card Nos. 265 to 352 in the 572-card set, which was the largest number produced by Topps since the company began selling cards nearly a decade earlier. So, included in those cello packs could be pristine cards of Hall of Famers Ernie Banks (No. 350), Robin Roberts (No. 352), Luis Aparicio (No. 310), Richie Ashburn (No. 300), Hoyt Wilhelm (No. 349) and a combo card of Willie Mays and Ashburn (No. 317). Other key names collectors would recognize are Gil Hodges (No. 270), Billy Martin (No. 295), Joe Adcock (No. 315) and Sal Maglie (No. 309).
Droganes’ father acquired the cards in December 1964, when he and a fellow businessman turned in a successful sealed bid for the contents of the Cincinnati Paper & Woodenware Co., which had fallen into receivership. The two men often partnered to buy the inventory of failed companies.
The items in the five-story building included paper goods, school supplies, office equipment, household items, novelties, sundries and “many other items too numerous to mention,” according to a public auction sale notice in the Cincinnati Enquirer in late November 1964.
“They were going to sell off all this stuff, but selling five stories worth of goods was impractical,” Droganes said. “My father and his friend agreed to take whatever they wanted first, and they would sell the rest.”
That resulted in a more manageable two stories worth of items, and among the items James Droganes found were the boxes full of unopened 1950s Topps cards, unsold inventory that had been sitting around for several years.
“Oh yeah, they still had scads of things to sell,” Sam Droganes said.
Droganes became quite a salesman himself, following in the footsteps of his father and grandfather, who had come to the United States from Greece.
His grandfather, Soterios D. Drouganis, was born in Neokoreon, Greece, in 1879. Soterios sailed to New York in June 1903 and became an American citizen in 1920. In 1918, Sam Droganes (using his new, Americanized name) opened a candy store in downtown Covington, Kentucky. James Droganes became interested in selling fireworks in 1932, when he was 14, reasoning correctly that the Great Depression was limiting the confectionary business due to sugar shortages.
The Premium Fireworks Co. was established, and, like his father, young Sam took to the business early.
“I was working in the store by the time I was 5,” Droganes said. “I couldn’t spell or read, but I could count.”
Droganes grew up in Fort Mitchell, Kentucky, and rooted for the Cincinnati Reds. Pete Rose was his favorite player.
“I met him once when I was young, ironically, at a racetrack,” Droganes said, noting that the encounter occurred during baseball’s offseason.
“Some of the people I’ve admired the most are the ones who fell from grace,” he said, mentioning Rose and former Louisville basketball coach Rick Pitino.
“I don’t know what the parallel is, but it’s there,” Droganes laughed.
Droganes graduated with a bachelor’s degree from Northern Kentucky University and then earned a master’s degree in communications from Western Kentucky University. He spent time crafting stories for the Kentucky Post’s Extra section, writing “mostly fluff pieces,” before deciding to go into his father’s business.
He sold fireworks for decades, but Droganes was constantly fighting with the federal government over the types of products he was offering to the public. Droganes was in the business of selling 1.4G fireworks, or consumer fireworks, and federal agents maintained on several occasions that Premium Fireworks was also selling 1.3G fireworks, known as display fireworks.
Droganes denied the allegations, claiming the display fireworks were part of his personal collection. But after a long legal battle he lost and had to serve some time in federal prison.
That gave Droganes the idea to write a book about the fireworks business.
“I got it mostly put together while I was a guest of the government. I had to write in on paper since, you know, they don’t supply typewriters,” he said. “It’s going to be an amazing story.”
Equally amazing is that Droganes has even more boxes of unopened packs he is going to sell through Heritage Auctions.
Included in that group will be packs from the 1957 Topps football set, and the 1956 Topps Davy Crockett series. Droganes also said that he may consign some of the baseball card collection he assembled as a child. He said that Heritage representatives would be reviewing his collection in January.
Droganes admits that he collected a wide range of items other than baseball cards, including firecracker labels, model trains, stamps and other sports cards.
“My father collected banks, fireworks, cap guns and slingshots,” he said. “I kind of had the same problem.
“A friend of mine once said I was an eclectic collector, and I suppose it was true. I’m 53 — a boy trapped in a man’s body.”