I grew up collecting baseball cards about an hour and fifteen minutes from Larry Fritsch’s headquarters but in the 21 years I lived at home, I never met him.
Even after I became one of the weirdos who got to college and was still interested in cards, I never made an attempt to drive to his office. I did see him at a card show once in the early 1980s, set up behind a table full of vintage cards I knew little about at the time. It was a rarity, I was told. He just didn’t do shows that often. He didn’t have to. His collection was so advanced there wasn’t much for him there and he could sell more from the comfort of home than he could set up behind a table for six hours. He was sort of a collecting god with a plaid shirt and cap.
I was probably a little intimidated by him. Sometimes guys with a lot of card knowledge aren’t always overly friendly with young punks and I probably felt safer keeping my distance. I just knew he had a boatload of cards and sold them to people all over the world. I had seen his ads in the backs of magazines since the time I learned how to read. Later, I heard others say he was a good guy who really loved the history of cards. It makes me wish I had gotten to know him at least a little and tried to see some of his incredible collection.
A fellow collecting acquaintance of mine was several years older and sold some of his duplicate stock to Larry over the years. Fritsch Cards always laid claim to being the first full-time dealer and that was probably true. He was always ready to buy. It became a living for him in 1970 and you wonder what his family thought about that. Larry knew, though, that there were a lot of ‘closet collectors’ out there who started collecting like he did as a kid and never gave it up. They were faithful to him and he built a strong business that survives to this day, still operating as sort of a mom-and-pop type outfit.
A few years ago, curiosity finally got the best of me and I did journey up just to see the place while visiting family. One of the biggest card dealers in the world was indeed run out of a little building in the middle of a wooded area in central Wisconsin. You have to know the area–and the folks who live there– to realize it’s not that surprising.
Larry Fritsch could have kept buying and selling cards through the mail and not done much else but he was a true hobbyist at heart so he went about the business of creating cards on his own once the business was well-established. The sets will never be worth a fortune but I suspect he was as proud of their creation as he was of some of the rare vintage cards he had.
Fritsch Cards was not the cheapest place to buy cards and the grading standards were decidedly old school but chances are if you needed something, they had it. He had so many good cards in his own stash, he wanted a place to show them off and for awhile, he ran a little museum not far from the Baseball Hall of Fame just to do that.
Even if we’ll never know the scope and breadth of his collection, the fact that he was able to make a living selling baseball cards opened the door for the eventual growth of the hobby to support businesses of a similar nature. It gave adults the chance to keep their childhood alive. And for that he deserves his own spot in the Baseball Card Hall of Fame.