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Baseball Hall of Fame has more cards than players

The Hall has over 200,000 baseball cards, some displayed in the spokes of a bike
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Photos: Milo Stewart Jr./National Baseball Hall of Fame

Photos: Milo Stewart Jr./National Baseball Hall of Fame

It’s a baseball card collection unlike any other.

It features four of the most iconic cards of all time: 1909-11 T206 Honus Wagner and Eddie Plank, 1952 Topps Mickey Mantle, and 1933 Goudey Napoleon Lajoie.

There are just a few other cards in the collection – oh, 200,000 more, in fact. No this is not a private collection, it’s quite public. It is owned by the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum. Anyone visiting Cooperstown, N.Y., can check out a number of these top-of-the-line cards.

“We’re thrilled to have as an amazing collection as we have,” said John Odell, who is the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum Curator of History & Research. “The fact that people have thought so highly of us to donate anything is amazing.”

The Hall of Fame started accepting donations and artifacts in 1936, three years before the museum actually opened. The museum does not have a budget to purchase cards, so all 200,000 cards have come from donations.

Odell said there is a rhyme and reason behind the collection, but there hasn’t always been.

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“There’s three different levels of collecting that libraries do when you’re figuring out what you want to acquire and what you want to preserve – museums, also,” Odell said. “Often, it’s broken down into representative, comprehensive and exhaustive. So, representative is, you’ve got some cards. You’ve got kind of a sampling. Comprehensive is bigger than that. Exhaustive is like everything. We consider our collection to be comprehensive. That is, we have as many cards and as many styles and as many players as we can reasonably get, but we don’t feel compelled to get – oh, here’s the Mickey Mantle with the yellow print ‘Yankees’ vs. the Mickey Mantle with the white print ‘Yankees.’ We don’t need to do that. The way that we use our collection is to tell stories. We’re not investing. We don’t buy and we don’t sell.”

The Hall of Fame’s collection has cards from 1870 to the present. The museum’s oldest card is an 1870 Peck & Snyder Mutual (Green Stockings) B.B. Club of New York. The first card ever acquired was a 1911 Turkey Red T3 portrait of Boston Red Sox/Cleveland Naps utility player Harry Niles.

Between 1937-39, the Hall received two significant donations of multiple tobacco cards. Another amazing gift came in the 1950s when 250 T206 cards were given to the Hall.

The Hall of Fame has two T206 Wagner cards and two 1952 Topps Mantle cards. The museum does not have a graded version of the Wagner; remarkably there have only been 33 of that card graded by PSA. The first Wagner was donated in 1984, the second in 2000. One of the Mantles and the Nap Lajoie 1933 Goudey came in the early 2000s, too.

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The Hall has a section in its Shoebox Treasures exhibit called, “The Holy Grails.” It features some of the most legendary cards in the hobby. It includes the aforementioned Wagner, Mantle and Lajoie, along with others such as a 1949 Leaf Jackie Robinson and the T206 Plank. The potentially multimillion-dollar cards are protected by thick sheets of opaque glass.

“Everyone knows about the Honus Wagner. Very few know about the Eddie Plank, at least outside of the field,” Odell said.

Although it is not graded, there have been only 78 examples graded by PSA. It’s an extremely rare card.

Speaking of grading, the Hall of Fame prefers to get its donated cards raw and not encapsulated, just because of how they are displayed and stored.

“We’re not investing,” Odell said. “So long as the appearance of the card does not detract from the card itself…Honestly, from our perspective, if someone gave us a 10 and it’s not encapsulated, but we can look at it and go, ‘Oh, this is a great, great card.’ What we would do is we have the polypropylene sleeves. They go into a three-ringed binder – that’s how we store ours. It’s a much more efficient way of doing it.

“If a corner got dinged, that would be a terrible thing for an investor collector, because that matters. For us, it doesn’t. We’re not so concerned about the grade.”

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Over the years, the Hall has received some cards that have already been slabbed and they will be kept that way for provenance or appearance. However, most of the museum’s cards are raw and will be removed from slabs if they come that way.

The Hall of Fame has a list of donors, which includes Topps. According to Odell, into the 1980s, the museum had an arrangement with Topps where the card company would send them a regular stock set each year. That agreement was halted for over 20 years, but it was renewed this past year.

“We did so in sort of the same way that a lot of people did and it was when there were so many different companies that started up and we couldn’t accept all of them, and so the decision was made not to collect any of them,” Odell said. “That ended up kind of putting us in kind of a bind because using baseball cards to tell stories is kind of a fun way to show people that beautiful design of baseball cards and secondly, here’s what this player looks like.”

Shoebox Treasures exhibit

Two years ago, the museum put together the impressive Shoebox Treasure exhibit.

It’s a 700-square-foot montage dedicated to telling the history of cards through interesting activities.

“What we’ve done now is taken the story of individual baseball cards and expanded it to tell the story of how baseball cards were created and collected and designed and traded and the wide variety and different kinds of cards and different companies, the Bowman vs. Topps bubblegum card war – talking about how the cigarette cards were used to promote the cigarette brands, the element of play within cards,” said Odell, who was the lead curator for the exhibit. “One of the fun things we have in our display is a bicycle that has baseball cards attached to the spokes and you can actually crank the pedal of the bicycle and make the motorcycle noise that was so classic for the ’50s and ’60s and ’70s. You might not put Mickey Mantle in the spokes, but Cookie Rojas was fair game.”

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The permanent exhibit has a mixture of vintage and modern cards. There is a section in the exhibit called “The Cards Your Mother Threw Away.” It contains 2,300 cards from 1887 to 2020. The cards are in chronological order in drawers and Hall visitors can pick out a certain year – the year the person was born, the year the person started collecting, etc. – and pull out the drawer to look at about a dozen cards from that year.

The National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum has an exciting collection of cards any collector or even non-collector would revel over. Odell feels fortunate to be able to see the exemplary cards each time he comes to work.

“We’re thrilled beyond belief to be able to have a lot of these,” Odell said.  

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