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Father John Ubel was ready to throw away his childhood sports card collection, mostly baseball cards, particularly of his beloved Minnesota Twins.

He was literally at the garbage dumpster that day in 2003, ready to part with his relics from the early-1970s.

Instead, he put the box of cards back in his car.

“I changed my mind at the very last second and kept them,” said Ubel, who at the time was switching assignments and paring down his inventory of, well, everything. For instance, he parted with 500 books, helping a group of religious sisters who were forming nearby.

A few years later, Ubel started re-engaging in the hobby, which was a vital part of his childhood. Ubel was, you see, a diehard Twins fan growing up, so much that he wanted to go to a Twins game for his birthday instead of having a pizza party.

Ubel and his brothers were collectors, especially from 1970-1974. They used money earned from chores to buy packs of cards and candy.

Father John Ubel began collecting baseball cards in the 1970s.

Father John Ubel's 1970s card collection. 

“(Card collecting) was something that I really, really enjoyed as a young kid,” said Ubel, whose childhood collection was stored in a Girl Scouts box.

A few older cards in the box were likely his older brother’s. When his brothers went to college, and the cards were still in the attic, Ubel assumed possession — by default, he said, laughing.

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They also had football cards from the early-1970s.

“I couldn’t tell you why I stopped collecting in, oh, 1974 or 1975. I guess, life happens, and I got involved in other things,” he said.

In 2008, Ubel got re-engaged in the hobby, purchasing several vintage graded cards on eBay. His purchases included a 1948 Leaf Jackie Robinson card, graded PSA 4, which he paid $570 for; and a 1954 Topps Hank Aaron, a PSA 5 which cost him $400.

He also sought cards of some of his all-time favorites, such as high-quality Harmon Killebrew and Rod Carew rookie cards instead of the cards in lousy condition he had from his childhood. He also pursued cards of Roberto Clemente and Carl Yastrzemski, among others. He put cards in protective sleeves and submitted some to be graded.

Father John Ubel collection featuring favorite Rod Carew.

Father John Ubel collection. 

Father John Ubel collection featuring favorite Harmon Killebrew.

Father John Ubel collection. 

Hank Aaron was his favorite non-Twins player growing up, and the home run-hitting legend is a key cog in Ubel’s card legacy. Aaron passed away on Jan. 22, 2021.

“I had not been looking at prices or anything for years, literally years,” said Ubel, rector of the Cathedral of St. Paul in St. Paul, Minn.

After hearing about Aaron’s passing, he went to his cabinet, where the Aaron rookie card had long been stored.

Father John Ubel's 1954 Hank Aaron rookie card.

“I had heard that cards were going up in value, but I literally had no idea (how much),” he said. “At the same time (of Aaron’s death), I had been talking about Catholic schools, the in-person learning or at-home. The Catholic grade school had been doing a really good job with in-person learning and people weren’t getting sick for the most part. Someone used the phrase, ‘They’re hitting it out of the park.’”

That struck Ubel, who was told he could sell the Aaron card and make some money.

“I wanted to do something different,” he said.

So, he researched the value of the Jackie Robinson card, which, when he purchased it, was a nerve-racking financial decision for him.

“I slept on the idea and prayed about it for a week,” he said.

In early-February, Ubel called the Aim Higher Foundation, which helps low-income children with scholarships to Twin Cities catholic schools and where Ubel sits on its board of directors. Ubel suggested they hold a baseball card auction fundraiser.

Executives at Aim Higher were leery at first. Well, until Ubel mentioned that the cards he wanted to sell might bring in $25,000. Then they were extremely interested.

Selling vintage baseball cards as a fundraiser was an unusual formula, Ubel admitted, “but my heart (told) me it’s time to let go, to do something better with them; they (were) just sitting in my cabinet.”

A mid-March auction was scheduled with about 70 cards offered, filling 25 lots. The auction was a home run. Some might say, it was a grand slam.

They raised $152,000 for the Aim Higher Foundation.

Because of his contributions to the foundation and Twin Cities catholic schools, Ubel was selected to be inducted into the newly-established SCD Collectors Hall of Fame as the Goodwill Ambassador. 

Because of his contributions to the foundation and Twin Cities catholic schools, Ubel was selected to be inducted into the newly-established SCD Collectors Hall of Fame as the Goodwill Ambassador. 

“I never envisioned (such success),” Ubel said. “I first thought I’d sell one card on eBay to raise funds. Then I wanted to make it an event.”

The auction led to strong local and national media coverage heading into the fundraiser, including coverage from CNN.

“I never could have dreamed all of this would or could have happened. The auction did really well,” he said.

The 1954 Aaron sold for $8,609. The 1948 Robinson sold for $35,000. With other sales and donations, Ubel’s idea generated $152,000, including $1,000 for a 1-of-1 Ubel-signed Topps card, with Ubel wearing his eighth-grade baseball jersey. And unsigned Ubel kid cards went for $100 each.

Father John Ubel card featuring himself as a kid in 1977.

Father John Ubel's own trading card from 1977. 

Ubel said it was harder for him to sell his 1970 Nolan Ryan card than the Jackie Robinson.

“Sure, I love Jackie Robinson and his truly inspiring story, but the difference is, I collected that as an adult. The Ryan, I bought as a kid,” he said.

Ubel has stopped by small card shows this year in the St. Paul area, wearing his clerical collar, of course, yet pridefully talking cards and collecting.

“I hope this has shown another side of a priest. We are real people, with interests, lives besides our church work,” he said. “I received so much more (from collecting and the auction) than I was able to give.

“If this humanizes the priesthood a little, amid all of the bad news about the Church, then that might be a positive as well.”

Ubel, who was ordained a priest in 1989, was sent a care package of cards from the MLB Players Association when it heard about the auction. So, he now has a foundation for another card auction — to help others, once again.