My son was calmer than me.
“$20,” my nine-year old countered staring down the white-haired linebacker of a man.
I am in part to blame for this negotiation. I showed The Sandlot movie to my family on a cold winter night several years ago. All my kids took something from the movie. My daughter embraced the plot. My youngest son learned to say “Oh S___!” and my oldest, Will, learned of “The Great Bambino”.
“Dad, do you have an autograph Babe Ruth baseball?” he asked.
I told my wife I could make one in the garage, but I knew forging historic memorabilia was a good way to go to jail. It would also send our father-son relationship, built on trust, down a path I didn’t care to venture. Instead, I did something arguably worse.
“Will, this is your Dad’s late 1980s’/early 1990’s baseball card collection. There are about 15,000 cards. They are basically good for kindling sans for a Griffey Jr rookie and a Michael Jordan in a White Sox jersey,” I said to him.
“Dad, these are so cool!” he exclaimed. He had never seen so many cards in one place. To him they were a treasure chest of cardboard gold.
“Well, let’s not go through them unless I’m with you,” I said. When I was in junior high I sorted by card number, brand, and year, and the sunk cost of my categorizing of the cards still had some sentimental value to me. I also didn’t want see them spread all over the basement floor as another dad sponsored clean up.
Will’s interest in baseball grew. He started buying packs of cards of 2018 Topps, a basket of random twenty-year-old packs, a couple of single cards. He even haggled down the price of an unopened wax box of 1990 Upper Deck at a flea market to five dollars.
The wax box really stung me on a personal level. When I was a kid I would buy a box of cards to kick off the start of the baseball season. I distinctly remember buying a 1990 Upper Deck box when it was released for fifty dollars, and here my son was buying the same box a tenth of the price. Any remaining hope of my collection leading to an early retirement was officially decimated.
One goal of every father is to help guide his children from repeating his dad’s mistakes. In this case, I was attempting to divert him away from accumulating mass produced, cheap cards which almost destroyed the hobby a generation ago.
I took him to a recommended card shop where Will scored an unopened pack of 1981 Topps. Despite a huge urge to tear into the pack, he left it sealed. Now, he was starting to build a collection.
Will read the books Babe and Me and Honus and Me by Dan Gutman. The questions started flowing. Did Babe Ruth really call his shot? Was Babe Ruth the greatest player ever? What was the Dead Ball era? The question I knew was coming: How can I get a T206 Honus Wagner card? I could handle the first set of questions, but the last one was going to be tough.
“Well, the Honus card is the world’s most expensive card,” I said, “it is also incredibly rare.” He was a bit disappointed, but we did order a reprint off eBay which pacified his Honus craving for the time. What I didn’t know is this replica only sparked his further interest in tobacco cards.
I discovered a regional card show coming to our area in several months. Will went to work. He shoveled snow covered driveways and did odd chores around the house for cash. He stopped buying fifty cent packs to save money. Almost daily I would get questions: How many vendors will be at the show? Will there be lots of tobacco cards? Will Honus Wanger’s card be there? What about a Babe Ruth autographed baseball?
The day of the show finally arrived. Will, who normally slept in, was the first one up. He had his money in hand and was ready to buy. Once we entered the Chicago Sport Spectacular, he was overwhelmed by the tables of cards. I asked him what he was here to buy to get him refocused on his search. Some of the cards there beyond impressive; near flawless Cobb cards, autographed Yankee’s memorabilia, and every type of new card imaginable.
Will looked out over the sea of middle-aged men and began the search. He finally found a dealer with tobacco cards. Most of the cards were out of his price range, but he persisted in his search.
“How does a boy his age get interested in tobacco cards?” a dealer asked with a smile, “good to see young blood in the hobby.”
After making his way through most of the room, he found a dealer with close to three hundred t206 cards. He took his time as he flipped through them. I stood behind him trying to keep my distance and not interfere with his quest.
“Dad,” he whispered to me, “come here.” He had three to four cards put aside as he showed me one card.
“Look,” he paused, “this guy played on Chicago and look at the name.” I was shocked, but even more surprised, with his enthusiasm, he picked up on the small detail. The name of the player was “Purtell”.
“You think he was a relative of mine?” Will asked.
“Not a clue, but pretty cool card,” I said trying not to draw attention from the dealer.
“How much is this card sir?” Will asked the dealer. I stepped back to let my son work his own deal.
“$30 is the price,” the veteran card dealer said.
“$20,” my son replied followed by a solid egging of the dealer, “you can do better than $30.”
The dealer leaned in towards my son and asked for the card. He did some type of cursory inspection. Maybe it was just for posturing, but my son didn’t flinch.
“28,”, the dealer followed exhibiting no type of derision toward my son.
“The best I can do is $25,” Will shot back with unwavering confidence, but without a hint of temerity.
The dealer conceded. My son handed over the money and took his prize.
“Dad, can we come to the next show? I want to get more tobacco cards,” he said as we walked out of the show.
Someday, Will may get the autographed Ruth ball and the most elusive card of the T206 set. His most valuable card will never be the first card he picked up at the show with his dad, but I’m guessing it will be the one he will cherish the most.
See graded T206 cards you can buy on eBay for under $50 here.
Get Sports Collectors Daily headlines in your email each morning. Sign up here.