Baseball card finds have turned up in all kinds of places over the years. Inside walls. On dusty garage shelves. Under floor boards and in countless old desks and dressers.
Add one more to the list.
Inside an old piano.
It’s not a new find, but one you’ve probably never heard about because it’s been under wraps since the 1990s.
The 1916 M101-4 Babe Ruth blank back rookie card found in a player piano is a key piece in Goodwin and Company’s Masterpieces and Uncommon Commons auction, which ends April 25. It wasn’t alone, either.
The “Piano Babe Ruth” card, which carries a 2.5 grade from Beckett, is pushing toward $100,000 as bidding continues. And for a western Maryland woman named Ellen Kelly, that is sweet music.
Kelly found the card in 1992 and decided this year to sell it. But if it wasn’t for that piano, which had been in the family for nearly a century, she never would have been looking at a wonderful retirement nest egg.
As a child, Kelly wanted to play the old, heavy player piano at her aunt’s home in Westernport, Maryland. But Aunt Nora always said no.
“She didn’t like us banging around on it, and she was a grouch, anyway,” Kelly, now 65, remembered. “I never remember it working.”
Nora Kelly died in 1969, but the piano remained in the family until around 1992. That’s when Ellen Kelly bought it for $25 in the family’s estate sale.
“Best $25 I ever spent,” she said.
When the piano was moved to her home in Westernport, Kelly noticed it seemed to be out of tune and the pedal was sticking. When a friend came over to fix the piano, he noticed a pile of baseball cards inside the pedal — about 112 of them.
“He was looking at a pile of cards and I said, ‘Hey, there’s Babe Ruth,’” Kelly said.
The card, depicting Ruth as a pitcher with the Boston Red Sox, was part of the M101-4 set.
More than 20 Hall of Famers — and 110 overall — are part of a second Goodwin auction lot that were consigned. The list of Hall of Famers in the second auction is mind-blowing: Connie Mack, Eddie Collins, Grover Cleveland Alexander, John McGraw, George Sisler, Ed Walsh, Clark Griffith, Chief Bender, Mordecai “Three Finger” Brown and Joe Tinker.
Stars who didn’t reach Cooperstown include Joe Wood, Boston Braves manager George Stallings, Buck Herzog and Black Sox players Eddie Cicotte and Chick Gandil.
Kelly’s stash did not include Ty Cobb or “Shoeless” Joe Jackson.
“If I’d had those two (plus Ruth), I would have retired a long time ago,” Kelly laughed (you can find Jackson and Cobb along with some other M101-4s on eBay right now).
For now, the Ruth card alone will help her retire quite nicely.
Kelly speculated the cards were put in the piano either by her father, Charles Kelly, or her uncle, Robert Kelly, to stash them away from neat-freak Nora.
“They had to hide the cards because my aunt threw everything out,” Kelly said.
For being hidden for decades, the condition of the cards was surprisingly good, except for one imperfection.
“They all had this crimp, most of them in the middle of the card, like there had been something heavy on top of it,” said Andy Broome, a senior grader for Beckett. “They all line up. If they didn’t have that crimp, they’d be beautiful.”
Broome, who graded the card in early March, also said because the cards had accumulated dust through the years, there were dust stains on them.
“It’s a bigger issue with comics,” he said. “Cards don’t usually seem to be stacked in one place for very long.”
In this case, they were.
Kelly is no stranger to baseball, growing up a Pittsburgh Pirates fan. She loved listening to the Pirates’ venerable announcer, Bob Prince, saying that when she was young, “I’d rather be listening to it on the car radio than watch it on television.”
Her favorite Pirates player was third baseman Richie Hebner, who played in Pittsburgh from 1968 to 1976 and again in 1983.
“He was just wonderful,” Kelly said.
Kelly also counted Hall of Famers Roberto Clemente and Willie Stargell as favorites and remembers a time at Three Rivers Stadium in Pittsburgh when she caught a foul ball off the bat of Al Oliver.
“I’ve been a Pirates fan all my life,” she said.
Kelly, has worked for 39 years as a hospital receptionist at Potomac Valley Hospital in Keyser, West Virginia (“I can spit into West Virginia from my home,” she said). She originally kept the cards in a bank safe deposit box, but as she got older and her brother’s medical condition became an issue, Kelly decided to consign the cards.
“Different people had offered to do it before for me, but it didn’t feel right,” Kelly said. “Someone offered me $40,000 for the Babe Ruth card and I thought, ‘That’s Babe Ruth, he’s worth more than that.’”
Longtime friend Jerry Waybright, had pestered Kelly to get the cards appraised. “He said, ‘I want to see those cards appraised before I die,’” Kelly said.
That did not happen. Waybright died in October 2017, but Kelly enlisted Waybright’s brother, Larry Waybright, to shop the cards. Larry connected with Goodwin Auctions, and 22 cards depicting Hall of Famers and stars were sent to Beckett for grading.
“Larry was the brother of Jerry, who was a family friend,” Kelly said. “Jerry wouldn’t steer me wrong.”
The card graded at 2.5 by Beckett.
“We thought $60,000 to $75,000 was a fair estimate for this card,” Steve Bloedow, Beckett Media’s Director of Auctions, said in news release. It’s already shot past that with bidding at over $98,000 as of Monday–and that doesn’t include the buyer’s premium that will be added to the final bid once the auction ends. It’s a great story–but also witness to the strong market for iconic baseball cards.
As for the piano, Kelly never mastered it.
“I wanted to play it, but I could never get out of the first book,” she said. “Same with my brother.”
Kelly is considering selling the family home and moving closer to her brother, who is receiving medical care.
She just wants to retire comfortably, help her brother and buy a new truck. If she downsizes, the piano will have to go. But for a $25 investment, Kelly got more than her money’s worth.
“I don’t guess I realized what they (cards) were worth when I found them,” Kelly said. “My brother’s Subaru is broken down and so is my Ford Ranger truck. I just want to get a new truck to get around in,”
“That is such a great story, when people make finds like this and use the money to help their family,” Broome said. “It (Ruth) is such a beautiful card with nice centering.
“It’s a card that for a long time was very underappreciated.”
Want sports collecting news & features delivered to your email every Monday-Friday for free? Sign up in seconds here.