You’ve had the dream. You run into a pile of old baseball or football cards that no one else knows about with a comic number of rarities staring up at you. T206 Wagners. ’52 Mantles. Ruth rookies. Usually the dream ends. You wake up with a smile but still wish something like it would actually happen one day. For an auction house and a long-time hobbyist, that dream became reality not long ago. They know they’ll always be a part of one of the coolest moments in recent hobby history: A stunning find of ten 1935 National Chicle Bronko Nagurski cards tucked into one improbable childhood collection. They belonged to a man no longer with us, someone whose simple devotion to collecting cards in the purest sense is about to be celebrated as they find new homes with appreciative modern day collectors.
‘Holy Grail’ of Football Cards
The 1935 National Chicle Nagurski is the single most valuable football card and ranks among the sports memorabilia industry’s most important due to its difficulty to acquire, in any condition, because it is part of the scarce high number series in a set that is rare to begin with.
The sheer quantity is the stuff of sports collecting legend. Among the thousands of beautifully dusty sports and non-sports cards collected by young Jim Heaney in the 1930’s, the unprecedented discovery of ten Nagurski cards shone the brightest. Never before have so many been found in one collection.
In addition, the auction lots from the collection will include other National Chicle football cards along with 1930’s Goudey Baseball, Sport Kings, non-sports, Batter Up and Diamond Stars cards, all in mixed condition and all collected by Heaney, mostly as a child.
“What’s fascinating about the Heaney collection is that he treasured the cards,” said Mike Wilson of Wilson’s Auctioneers and Appraisers, which has been assigned the task of selling the cards this coming week. “This was a collector who just loved these cards for what they were, not for what they might be worth someday.”
Hunter Heaney consigned his father’s cards, signed sports memorabilia and valuable pieces of art to Wilson upon his father’s death.
Wilson elected to auction all ten Nagurski cards simultaneously in the company’s October 16 live auction in West Chester, Pennsylvania.
Wanting to ensure the items were accurately assessed, Wilson first sought the advice of nationally recognized sports card expert, Kevin Heffner. With a resume that includes lead cataloger and head writer for several national auction houses, Heffner specializes in pre-war sports and non-sport cards.
“The day that we looked through the albums will be one I never forget,” Heffner recalled. Leafing through the first few albums, he saw some intriguing baseball cards including a Lou Gehrig, Jimmie Foxx, and a trimmed Babe Ruth. As Wilson describes it, “Then came the football cards, first some (Sport Kings) Knute Rockne cards, great…and suddenly Heffner looked at me and proclaimed, ‘Oh man, you’ve got a Bronko Nagurski! Amazing’! And as he turned to the next page, he exclaimed, ‘There’s two more! And then another on the next page!’ I’ve been in this business a long time and moments like this rarely happen; but this was one of those moments, and we were in it.” Wilson recalls Heffner looking at him, mouth open, smiling from ear to ear. “But then things became surreal,” continued Wilson. “A few more pages into the album and there was yet another, then two more, then three more.”
Nagurski (1908-90), a Hall of Fame fullback who played with the Chicago Bears (1930-37; 43), is featured on card number 24 of the heralded 1935 National Chicle set. In the highest grades, it is a six figure card. The $240,000 paid by an East Coast collector for a Nagurski graded SGC 96 in 2006 established it as the ‘holy grail’ of football cards. A sale of a PSA 9 Nagurski in 2011 for $350,000 represents the highest price ever paid for a football card. The cards being consigned weren’t at that level, but what they lacked in quality, they definitely made up for in quantity.
The cards were turned over to California-based PSA, where the ten cards were given the following grades: PSA 5 (1), PSA 4.5 (1), PSA 3 (1), PSA 2 (3), PSA 1.5 (1), PSA 1 (1), PSA 1 MK (2).
A check of the PSA population reports shows 142 Nagurski cards with just 8 obtaining a grade of PSA 8 or higher. Even the most advanced football card collectors can go for years only encounter one or two examples of the Nagurski card, so the revelation that one Pennsylvania based collector had amassed ten examples is causing quite the stir among collectors.
Why So Many Bronkos?
Heaney, an Olympic rower in 1952 who went on to a long career as a stock broker, grew up in the posh suburbs outside of Philadelphia. A fan of the local teams, such as the Phillies and Athletics, his children doubted their father was a fan of Nagurski – and certainly not of the Bears. Hunter Heaney described the circumstances in which his father may have acquired so many.
“I bet my Dad knew a bit about Nagurski’s story and probably it was prestige with the neighborhood kids and their impromptu card flipping competitions that he had won a bunch of them more than anything, I bet that was the significance. They would flip the cards with each other,” he told Sports Collectors Daily. “I think there were a couple of ways they did this. Like the first person would flip one down to the ground from standing position, let’s say it landed face up, and then the second guy would then flip his down – if it matched, (meaning also landed face up), I think the second guy got both cards, and if it didn’t, (landed face down) then the first guy got both. My dad said he got so good through practice, he could almost always make the card land the way he wanted to.”
“And I think there was another version of this, similar, where from a distance, whoever got it closer to a wall without touching. I think with this version, the guys would have a throwing card to shoot towards the wall, one they could do whatever they wanted to and they had these coated with wax and tape and all tricked out, and with this version more than 2 people at a time could play and you’d try to win the pot of cards that people had put up for risk. We have some of my dad’s shooting cards and they are unrecognizable at this point, so covered in old wax and whatnot.”
A Life Well Lived
“I remember as a kid when I’d look through the cards and ask about this one or that,” said Hunter, “and dad would never say that was a valuable or not a valuable card; he’d start telling us the story of the player, who he played for, for how long, but also if he drank a lot, if he was a loud mouth or a soft spoken nice guy.”
Jim Heaney was competitive and played sports well into retirement. He also coached his sons. He had other interests, too, however and the auction of his treasures reflects that.
“My dad was this rare breed of renaissance man though, in the truest sense,” said Hunter. “He was such an amazing athlete, but his passion was art and collecting; he had a real sense for it. He famously bought a Picasso print as a young man for $15 and later sold it at Sotheby’s for $120,000. He told his rowing buddies about this great young artist that he found so often, that they nicknamed him ‘Picasso Heaney’.”
Extended previews for this sale are Monday and Tuesday, October 14 and 15 from 12-7 pm and 12-2 pm on the day of sale. Online bidding for the collection will be available at liveauctioneers.com.