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Philly Phavorite: Irv Lerner

He authored the book Who's Who in Car Collecting, manned the Philly show for the past 25 years and is a well-known dealer at The National. Meet Irv Lerner.

When you dwell in the hobby past like I do, you run across names that keep popping up for years in publications and correspondence. The lesson is that once you are a collector, you are probably always a collector. One such name I kept running across was Irv Lerner.

In my search to find information on Jefferson Burdick, the “Father of Card Collecting,” I found a 1970 publication Who’s Who in Card Collecting published by Irving W. Lerner, managing editor, and Bob Jasperson and Richard Reuss, associate editors. This first edition had, what I later found to be, a very concise, accurate biography of Burdick. The first person listed in the “Card Collectors Hall of Fame” as described in the publication was Burdick in 1969, followed in 1970 by Walt Corson, Charles Bray, Preston Orem, E.C. Wharton-Tigar and Robert Payne. In 1971, the second edition of the publication added Lionel Carter, John Wagner and Buck Barker.

National and Philly Shows
I was pleased to find Lerner was very much active in the hobby when I first talked to him in 2002. He put me in touch with two other veteran collectors: John Rumierz of Detroit and Lionel Carter of Evanston, Ill.. Both helped me continue my research on Burdick.

It has taken a few years, but I finally circled back to Irv – waiting for him to pick up another six years’ experience in the hobby. Irv was getting organized for his dealer’s booth at this year’s 29th Annual National Sports Collectors Convention in Rosemont, Ill. He has had a table at every National except the second one ever held. He was also organizing for his 100th straight appearance at the Philadelphia Sports Card and Memorabilia Show, which began in 1975.

To get a sense of Irv’s vantage point, I asked him if he was a dealer or a collector. Irv described himself as a longtime collector who supported his interests by setting up as a dealer at a few shows each year. I had the opportunity to meet Irv and his wife, Eleanor, at this year’s National.

Lerner’s livelihood has been as an accountant, serving for 35 years as a vice president of a life insurance company. As a C.P.A., he has also handled individual accounting and tax matters in his independent practice. His organization and attention to detail are evident in how he organizes his booth at shows. Being in the exciting world of accounting myself, I could relate to his approach.

His cards for sale are all in albums, with stars on the top followed by commons – everything priced and in numeric order. Each book is placed on the tables in chronological order, and the cards are in great shape. All cards are ungraded, and they range from the early tobacco cards to 1980. He has baseball, football, basketball, hockey, other sports and non-sport. He is very aware of variations and test issues and notes them accordingly in his albums.

The cigar store start
How did he get such great cards in a seemingly endless supply? It helped to start collecting in 1948 and have a father who owned a cigar store.

Lerner was born in Brooklyn in 1936. His family moved to Philadelphia in 1938, and Irv had to wait until the postwar era for cards to be issued. As a 12-year-old, Irv knew the players and was particular about the condition of the cards.

His dad’s store sold cigars and lots of other handy items as well, like candy, gum, ice cream, canned goods and, most importantly, baseball cards. He remembered getting the 1951 Topps Red Backs in 5-cent packs packaged with Undated Team cards and Connie Mack All-Stars. Irv later learned that the Blue Backs were issued in New Jersey and packaged with the Dated Team cards and 1951 Topps Major League All-Stars.

The cigar store provided Irv the opportunity to gather many mint cards as they were issued. He collected everything, including non-sports cards, put them in order, kept them out of flipping games and then squirreled them away while he went to high school and college.

Returning to the hobby in 1959
Irv’s collecting took a hiatus beginning in mid-1952. But the cards were still around and Irv got bit by the collecting bug a second time in 1959. He noticed some kids were throwing out baseball cards and volunteered to take them off their hands. Lerner wanted to find other collectors, but collectors weren’t out in the open in those years.

Irv persisted and later found an ad in a Cub Scout booklet advertising cards for sale through Woody Gelman’s Card Collectors’ Co. of Franklin Square, N.Y. Irv quickly went from adding just a few youngster discards to his collection to going after everything in earnest. What a great time to get the old cards – when they weren’t really very old.

Bill White and others
With additional initiative, Irv contacted Bill White, a long-time collector from Norwood, Pa. White was only one year older than Lerner but had been collecting almost continuously since 1945. Irv went over to see Bill and was astounded by Bill’s cards and the infant hobby of card collecting.

For example, Irv learned that the 1948 Bowmans didn’t consist of just the 36 cards he had collected from those arriving at the cigar store, but an additional run of 12 cards that White had collected. On Lerner’s first visit with White, he stayed until 1 a.m. White confirmed the feeling among collectors at the time. “There were so few of them and the market for cards was narrow. They didn’t really know each other except through correspondence. People were often too embarrassed to let people know they collected cards,” he said.

A long-distance phone call was viewed as rather pricey among cost-conscious hobby pioneers. Irv’s visit was a rarity for collectors. The now 73-year-old White has stayed in touch with Lerner for nearly 50 years as a friend and collector.

In the early 1960s, Lerner found Bruce Yeko, Goodie Goldfadden and Larry Fritsch as early dealers who could help fill in his set needs. He also found other collectors, such as the condition-conscious Carter, and started swapping quantities of mint, well-centered cards.

To give you an idea of the prices, here is an excerpt from Card Collectors’ Co., March 1963 price list preamble: “Many cards of recent years are now selling actively at over 50 cents a card ... There’s money in collecting and selling sports cards. One of the rarest of all cards is a card of Honus Wagner ... Today, one of the cards bearing his picture, which was issued around 1910, is worth $250.”

The ’52 Topps high numbers were up to $1 each in Gelman’s price list. What highway robbery for an 11-year-old card of old players.

Local knowledge
It didn’t hurt Irv that Topps cards were printed in Philadelphia at the time. For example, Irv explained the origins of the 1962 Topps Green Tints based on his knowledge of Topps.

Zabel Brothers of Philadelphia was printing the Topps cards in 1962. Topps felt that the demand for their second series cards would exceed the supply that Zabel had printed. However, Topps didn’t want to reprint the cards and divert Zabel from printing the third series. In the past, Topps had experienced the problems of late distribution, the arrival of school and football, and the lack of sales of their high-numbered series. To meet the demand and not slow Zabel’s production, Topps contracted with another printer and sent the plates to upstate New York for a second printing of the second series of 1962 cards.

The plates were damaged in shipment and several cards had to be redone, creating the variations in that series. The printing job was not the same quality as cards printed by Zabel, resulting in the Green Tints. I had always assumed that Topps first printed the Green Tints and then fixed them with a second run. According to Irv, it was the opposite. I’m still a bit mystified by the Green Tints in that they were also centered differently than the regular cards within the wood borders.

Irv was able to meet Bill Haber, who did the comics and quizzes on the backs of the Topps cards. Irv recalled that Haber viewed it as one on the greatest jobs in the world, “getting paid to play all day” working on creating baseball cards.

Haber traded Irv uncut proof sheets and test issues from Topps. Topps would send proof sheets to the Library of Congress for copyright purposes, Topps proofreaders and district salesmen for cut samples, and occasionally, the sheets found their way into the hands of people like Lerner.

Haber was six years younger than Lerner and died several years ago.

Errors and variations
With his attention to detail and knowledge of the printing process, Irv got interested in errors and variations. An outlet for Irv’s error and variation enthusiasm was Ball Card Collector magazine.

Irv began his longtime career as a mostly unpaid contributor to the hobby publications. He wrote columns on errors and variations and reported on current issues.

In addition to the 1962 Topps story, Irv told me about the 1942 Play Balls. I thought, wait a minute Irv, there was no such thing unless you are talking about some collector issues. I was wrong again, according to Lerner.

He said that the higher numbers of the “1941” set were actually printed in 1942 and the rest of the set was reprinted at the same time. If you look at the back bottom left corner of the Play Balls, some low-numbered cards will have the copyright shown as © 1941 and others will be just ©. The ©-only versions are from the 1942 printing and include all the higher numbers. The highest number I found in my collection with the © 1941 version was No. 42 of the 72 cards issued. Irv’s cards for sale depicted a number of other “unlisted” color variations from the 1948-49 Leaf set and the 1949 Bowman issue.

The Who’s Who idea
Trading cards with other collectors in the 1960s was done almost entirely by mail. Lerner remembered you would deal with people, and you would have no knowledge of their age or background. There were no shows at the time where collectors could get together.

Irv thought it would be a good idea to put together some type of directory, hence the Who’s Who in Card Collecting book. Irv organized the process with the assistance of Jasperson and Reuss.

Jasperson had authored a Sport Fan Who’s Who directory in the 1950s. Subscription lists from the The Ball Card Collector and The Trader Speaks were used to do a mailing asking people to provide their addresses, age and collecting interests as a vehicle to encourage activity among collectors.

An added feature to the more than 100-page publication was the Collectors Hall of Fame idea. Lerner sent more than 300 people a nomination form to elect Hall of Fame members. The votes were tabulated and winners determined. The next step was getting information from the nominees and other collectors to put together biographies. While the information about a collector may have come from others, it was Lerner and his other editors who wrote the bios. The directory is still a useful source of information on most of the early collectors.

In true Lerner fashion, the publication is well organized with a Burdick-like foreword extolling the virtues of card collecting. Next is a thorough list of acknowledgments with thanks to Carter, Charles Bray, Yeko, Frank Nagy, Buck Barker, Jim Nowell and Wirt Gammon. Collectors throughout the country could have their names, addresses, birth dates, professions, collecting interests and bios included without charge.

You could find bios on Bill Mastro and Keith Olbermann, ages 17 and 11, respectively, at the time, or go the other way and find John B. Wagner, age 71, or Burdick collaborator, Fred Baum, age 65.

Advertising space was sold to dealers and collectors to help defray the cost of the publication. Lerner described at length the Hall of Fame selection process, including a selection committee, voting by collectors and rules and regulations for being involved in the process.

Who’s Who was extremely well done and represented a major step forward in the hobby,” said veteran collector and writer Jim McConnell.

Lerner at the first shows
It wasn’t too long, however, before collectors started to meet at shows, which lessened the need for publications like Irv’s Who’s Who. When the shows started, Lerner was soon there, attending the second such event in 1970 at the Brea, Calif., home of Nowell.

According to McConnell, who attended the three Nowell shows, “The first gathering in 1969 was attended by 13 collectors. The only out-of-state collectors for that one were Dennis Graye from Detroit and John England from Fort Smith, Ark.

“Southern California attendees included Nowell, Ed Broder, Goodie Goldfadden, Ray Medeiros, Ray Hess and the author, plus some younger collectors.”

Thanks to assistance from people like Lerner and Dan Dischley of The Trader Speaks, Nowell contacted others, and attendance at the second gathering was more widespread. Attendees included Lerner, Carter, Richard Egan, Haber, Medeiros, Bob and Mike Jasperson, Lloyd Toerpe, Goldfaden, Ray Hess, Dick Dobbins and about a dozen others.

Shortly thereafter, shows started to pop up in Detroit, Philadelphia, Chicago and St. Louis. The first event in the Detroit area was inspired by Graye, who attended the first Nowell show. The result was a gathering of 12 collectors at the Toerpe’s home in Flint.

McConnell remembers that the first real show in Detroit “was an outstanding event with a great turnout, a lot of fabulous walk-in material. Ernie Harwell attended. The Detroit show got great reviews.”

At a third Dearborn, Mich., show, Lerner was in attendance. Sports Collectors News reported that Lerner uncovered and halted the sale of a counterfeit No. 68 of the 1959 Fleer Ted Williams set being offered in quantity by an unscrupulous dealer.

Naturally, Lerner was also there for the first Philly Show, held in 1975, and has been at every show there since, enduring moves to different locations around Philadelphia. White made most of the Philly Shows, along with Jerry Blank and Lerner.

White remembers also attending Middle Atlantic Sports Collectors’ Association (MASCA) shows with Lerner, “consisting of collectors gathering in a hotel conference room.” At that time, it was mostly collectors swapping with one another from their individual tables. Stars, rookies, commons, mint cards and low-grade cards all seemed to fly around the room, sometimes in bricks of cards.

Eleanor Lerner and White’s wife, Marlene, would accompany Irv and Bill to most of the Philly Shows, and they even traveled to early shows in Cincinnati. They would bring the kids, go to each other’s homes after the shows and talk about collecting.

Fleer Corporation
The Philadelphia connection was again important for Irv in that Fleer Corp. was in Philadelphia at the time. Lerner knew that Topps bought out Fleer’s 40 or 50 baseball contracts in 1966 for $395,000, and Fleer entered into a 15-year non-compete agreement with Topps.
Maury Wills was the most notable player under exclusive contract to Fleer. Fifteen years later, when Fleer re-entered the baseball card market, Lerner was directly involved as a market liaison representative for Fleer working for Dr. Donald Peck, Fleer’s principal owner.

Wagner, Wilt and rings
In addition to the sets from his youth, Lerner completed most sport sets through the 1980s. He also went backward, picking up tobacco cards by the bushel as a result of advertising in local papers in the 1960s. He accumulated many Old Judges and T206s, including the Wagner. He completed the T201, T202, T205, T206 and T207 sets, including known variations at the time. He would also buy popular non-sports sets such as Dick Tracy, Hopalong Cassidy, Superman, Wings, the Beatles and Casper the Friendly Ghost.

Lerner has also been involved in collecting championship rings, uniforms and autographs. Just his collection of championship sports rings has been described as legendary. A fellow collector bestowed on Irv the name “The Ring Man,” although he could have also been described as the original “Gem Mint Man,” as well.

Lerner has mixed emotions with autographs, at one time owning an autographed 1967 Philadelphia 76’ers jersey worn by Wilt Chamberlain in a championship game, But he’s less-than-enthused about sloppy signatures and arrogant manners from some of baseball’s biggest stars from the past.

He has been the subject of considerable publicity over the years, particularly when the hobby was emerging and it was news that there were collectors, dealers and money involved.

At the suggestion of the people at Topps, Lerner once did a show with Joe Garagiola, who had a regular Monday night TV program, “The Crazy World of Joe Garagiola.” One of the shows was filmed at Irv’s home and featured many valuable cards, including the T206 Wagner. Irv also met Sy Berger of Topps in connection with this show.

Eleanor Lerner has been with her husband at most of the many shows he has attended. She knows the cards, prices and people; she keeps track.

Irv excels at engaging customers in stories about the products and collecting. It is hard to find any vintage card subject that is news to Irv. If you get to a Philadelphia show or a future National, make sure you stop to see Irv Lerner, “The Ring Man.”

Ask him if he knows anything about variations, print runs, Topps monopoly, rings or meeting some of baseball’s greats. You’ll get a wealth of information in return.

George G. Vrechek is a freelance contributor to SCD.

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