Good Sport: Another man’s treasure

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by Anthony Harrison

Childhood obsession sometimes transforms into nostalgic devotion.

Many adults let loose their eccentric inner children at the Triad Antique & Collectible Toy, Hobby & Sports Card Show at the Greensboro Coliseum complex last weekend.

There was a hell of a lot of different stuff spread across the expo; everything a hobbyist, collector or hoarder might want: action figures, video games, movie posters, vinyl records, coins and currency, die-cast cars, model planes and tanks, cigarettes, Elvis relics and, of course, cards representing stars from every sport, from baseball to wrestling.

Toys probably occupied the most tables of all. Memorabilia from many franchises, from “Star Trek” and GI Joe to Buck Rogers and “Mork and Mindy,” could be found among the sprawl.

Unsurprisingly, the Star Wars faithful showed up in force.

Star Wars is the blue chip stock of the collectible market,” said exhibitor Neil Drummond, who lives in Greensboro.

Drummond‘s offerings overran an entire corner of the bazaar, with buckets and stacks of Star Wars toys, including models of every craft from the Millennium Falcon to the sleek Naboo starfighter from The Phantom Menace.

Drummond claimed to have hundreds of figures — “maybe a thousand if you count the little loose guys,” he added.

Drummond said he sold his original collection of toys because he thought, as he put it, he was “too old for this.” But he rekindled his love for collecting after going to expos with his father.

Many of the exhibitors shared the same moments of rediscovery, especially the sports card collectors.

Exhibitor Steven Webb’s first card was a doozy: a Johnny Unitas rookie card from when the legendary quarterback’s first year with the Pittsburgh Steelers.

“I ain’t got the one I had,” Webb said, “but I got his rookie card again.”

He brought it out, but it wasn’t for sale; he brought it to augment the story. It’s his personal favorite, after all.

“I hunted drink bottles to get my cards,” Webb said. “I’d be rooting in a briar patch by the railroad tracks to hunt a bottle for an extra penny to get the card I wanted. That’s old school.”

Webb’s tables, topped with glass cases filled with baseball, football, basketball and NASCAR cards, stood opposite from the other sports cards collections, but not because they were any less impressive. A whole case was devoted to North Carolina’s most famed athlete: Michael Jordan.

“The Jordans still do well, ’cause he was the greatest,” Webb said.

However, one popular card still does remarkably well, despite the athlete’s troubled life: Mickey Mantle.

“Mantles are becoming a commodity,” Justin, a buyer who wished for partial anonymity, told me.

The New York Yankees’ great switch-hitter’s cards command a premium of thousands of dollars for pristine examples, depending on the year.

“A 1952 Mantle in Grade-A condition went for $486,000 two days ago,” exhibitor Edward Lawson said.

Lawson, a collector from Knoxville, Tenn., had excellent examples of impressive cards: quite a few Mantles, Jackie Robinsons, Yogi Berras, Roberto Clementes, a Sandy Koufax rookie and other greats. He estimated his entire collection’s value at $125,000.

He said that, along with the Mantles, Pete Rose cards sell well.

“They’re affordable,” Lawson said. “What people can afford is what sells.”

As I spoke with Lawson, he and Justin haggled over a ’59 Mantle in good condition, one with a 4.5 Sportscard Guarantee Corporation rating. Lawson settled for $225.

It was likely a good investment on Justin’s part; according to Lawson, Mantle cards hold better than pricier cards, like Babe Ruths or even the famed Honus Wagner.

Retired academic dean cum card dealer Larrie Dean, who runs Dean’s House of Cards in Virginia, is a Mantle fan, unsurprising considering his Yankees jersey.

“My favorite card is his 1952 Topps; No. 311,” Dean said — the same card which had just sold for a fortune.

Different reasons abound for the popularity of Mantles.

“He was the iconic player of the ’50s and ’60s,” said Dean.  “He’s not typically listed as one of the Top 10 greatest of all time, but he has his legacy as a wholesome, handsome, good-ol’ country boy.”

Lawson had a slightly different opinion.

“He was the Golden Boy, a great white star in a time when many stars were black,” Lawson said. “Players like [Giants center fielder Willie] Mays were so racial — still is — and lots of Southern fans liked Mantle just ’cause he was white. They were more comfortable with that. So, when they’d sign autographs, there’d be a line out the door waiting for Mantle, but Mays might have 50 people waiting.”

Lawson ended his explanation with a shrug.

Both explanations may be true. But further still, Mantle captured something quintessential about the game of baseball: He exhibited extreme potential and talent, yet suffered from injuries, demons and addictions, thus failing to live up to lofty expectations.

He was flawed. So, he was human.

Then again, many of those at the show probably represent a decent cross section of the typical baseball card buyer: middle-aged, white, Mantle fans who have just enough sentiment and too much money.