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The world of Jefferson R. Burdick; Research sheds more light on some mysteries

Sports Collectors Digest columnist George Vrechek concludes his two-part series about the life of Jefferson R. Burdick, the godfather of card collecting.

By George Vrechek

In part I of this article, which appeared in the Aug. 3, 2018 issue of Sports Collectors Digest, we traced Jefferson Burdick’s family life and residences between 1900 and 1939 from the small farm town of Central Square, New York, to Syracuse, 20 miles away.

Burdick’s job

In 1940 Burdick was a lodger living with a family of three at 417 S. Crouse Ave. The 1940 census asked for annual income and other information. Burdick was an assembler for Crouse-Hinds Company with two years of college and an annual income of $1,065. That’s right, Burdick had been collecting plenty of cards on an income of $1,065 per year. After deducting room, meals, taxes and transportation, his weekly disposable income was likely under $10. No wonder he debated whether a card was worth 1 cent or 2 cents.

 Burdick lived with his parents at 628 S. Main Street, Central Square, N.Y. He sold the home in 1942. (Photo courtesy Central Square Community Historical Society, Heather Stevens, Village Historian)

Burdick lived with his parents at 628 S. Main Street, Central Square, N.Y. He sold the home in 1942. (Photo courtesy Central Square Community Historical Society, Heather Stevens, Village Historian)

Perhaps, the inheritance helped him accumulate the cards. (The median annual income for a man in the U.S. in 1940 was only $956. Adjusting Burdick’s 1940 wages for inflation would get you to a current equivalent of $19,000 per year.)

In a 1961 letter to Lionel Carter reflecting on the past 25 years and his declining health, Burdick wrote, “I worked a lot of 45 or 50 hour weeks….All that time I was doing a lot of card work, too, and it meant a tight schedule as I couldn’t work late hours at night as most do. I have to get a full 9 hours sleep. At that time, I went to bed at 8 p.m., read the paper for an hour and slept from 9 to 5:30 or 6 a.m.”

Burdick wrote long letters to many Card Collectors Bulletin (CCB) subscribers. Telephone calls were rare. Cards and wantlists would be sent through the mail, sometimes with “Jeff B” stamped on the back of cards sent for possible trades. Burdick wrote others to get information for his catalog. What he charged for the publications was meant to just cover costs.

A boarder near the university

How did Burdick have time to do all this? One observation is that he was likely a boarder, which meant a room and meals; he didn’t have to worry about a kitchen to supply or clean.

 A rare photo of Woody Gelman, Jeff Burdick, Charles Bray and Gene DeNardo from a 1952 edition of Card Collectors Bulletin.

A rare photo of Woody Gelman, Jeff Burdick, Charles Bray and Gene DeNardo from a 1952 edition of Card Collectors Bulletin.

In August 1943, Burdick moved to 420 S. Crouse. You get the impression that Burdick enjoyed living near the Syracuse University campus. He could have likely made use of their library facilities, yet I found no mention of such. While Burdick appears to have been on Crouse Ave. during this time, the property tax bills for his inherited home in Central Square were sent to a modest residence near the Crouse-Hinds plant at 904 LeMoyne Ave., Syracuse, from 1937 to 1942.

Burdick reported that his free time had been greatly reduced, yet the CCB was loaded with information and news all by Burdick, all for 30 cents annually for six issues. In 1942 he sold his extensive stamp collection. In 1946 he published his second card catalog, now titled the American Card Catalog (ACC).

Met donation and family

In December 1947, Burdick announced in CCB that he was donating his collection to The New York Metropolitan Museum of Art. He wrote that he had “no immediate survivors qualified to carry out my wishes,” yet his half-brother Myrl, sister Beatrice and two nephews were nearby at the time. There were dozens of other more distant relatives as well, given the size of the families of Burdick’s ancestors. Jeff may never have lived under the same roof as his half-brother Myrl, and his sister Beatrice had married by the time Jeff was nine.

I found no reference by Burdick to any of his siblings or their families, but he included minimal personal information in even his letters. His “qualified to carry out my wishes” comment may have been short for, none of my family members are collectors and I’m not sure what they would do with the stuff after I am gone.

Family tree of siblings

 Letterhead used by ACC publishers in 1952 from Card Collectors Bulletin.

Letterhead used by ACC publishers in 1952 from Card Collectors Bulletin.

Myrl and his wife Edith adopted a young boy who was known as Joseph Burdick (1910-2004) and then had their own son, Ward Burdick (1920-2002). Ward Burdick and his wife Thelma had two sons: Scott (1957-2008) and Steven (1955-). Steven and his wife, Dawn, have two children, Kyle and Kristin, and live near Jeff’s boyhood home.

Beatrice Burdick married Neal Watkins (1893-1935) and had a son, William Burdick Watkins (1920-1998). William Burdick Watkins had two children: William Burdick Watkins, Jr. (perhaps adopted, 1948-2006) and Betty Watkins (Betty Clark/Elizabeth Taorima, 1955-). The closest living known blood relatives of Jefferson Burdick and his siblings are, therefore, Elizabeth Taorima and Steven Burdick.

1111 Wolf Street

In 1949 Burdick turned over publishing CCB to Charles Bray. In the 1950s, unable to drive and with arthritis crippling him and cortisone treatments producing side effects, Burdick still managed to write many letters and CCB articles. He spent vacations visiting museums, dealers and collectors as far away as Chicago and Boston. He visited Bray in Pennsylvania several times.

His move around 1953 to 1111 Wolf Street in Syracuse as a lodger enabled him to get to and from work just at the end of the block more easily. He published the 1953 ACC and a 1956 update. He also published catalogs and updates to Detroit Publishing and Pioneer Era postcards in his spare time. Woody Gelman of Topps and John B. Wagner likely contributed artwork for the ACC. The heading on stationery touting the 1953 ACC is “A Gateway to Enchantment of Days Gone By.” That wording had to have come from Burdick.

Carter visited Burdick on Wolf Street. He remembered Burdick living in a very small, bare room and that most of the cards had been shipped to The Met. DeFlores also visited Burdick and helped him mail cards. Unlike the Crouse Ave. residences, the 2,600-square-foot Wolf Street house still stands and sold for $68,500 in 2011. Apparently there have been no cards found under any floorboards.

Yes, Burdick made a few thousand dollars a year and lived in a small apartment with cards now likely worth tens of millions. Burdick’s lifetime wages probably wouldn’t buy him more than a few of his own better cards today.

Burdick and baseball

Some Burdick stories mention that he never attended a baseball game. However, hobby writer Troy Kirk was in contact with noted British collector Edward Wharton-Tigar in 1990, who wrote Kirk, “I knew Jeff Burdick quite well and once took him to a World Series baseball game at the Yankee Stadium in New York with Charlie Bray!”

Although Burdick may be viewed as collecting primarily non-sport sets, his letters to Carter showed an enthusiasm for figuring out the different baseball issues and backs. He frequently complained about how much people were willing to pay for a T206 Wagner and was reluctant to raise its value in his catalog.

He wrote Carter in 1962, “I am more concerned about the card collecting angle (than the baseball season). Looks to me like there are too many long sets being issued. Also a lot of prices being paid are too high. I may be wrong but that’s the way it looks from here. I personally discontinued collecting all the sport sets about ten years ago, also the funny jokes and horror monster stuff. I have most of the others and even a token lot of the sports and monsters but nowhere near completion, and I’m not trying to fill them in in anyway.”

Totally disabled and move to NYC

Burdick retired from Crouse-Hinds in 1959. He wrote Carter that doctors gave him a “totally disabled” rating. He moved to New York City to work frantically on mounting the 306,000 cards (including 30,000 baseball cards) which he had shipped there but were not yet in albums. In 1960 he was also managing editor of the ACC. He took a room at 35 Madison Avenue three miles from The Met, living there until he was admitted to Bellevue Hospital in 1962.

In 1961, Burdick wrote Carter, “It wouldn’t take too much to put me out of commission…. I am getting pretty badly bent and twisted out of shape and my clothes, for example, just don’t drape around me gracefully any more. Some might say I look like something the cat dragged in.”

In another 1961 letter to Carter, Burdick wrote, “I made arrangements for my cards in 1948 (actually it was 1947) when I was only 48 years old, as at the time I was getting rather poor physically and I didn’t know how long. However, the miracle drugs (cortisone) came on in 1950 and allowed me to work until 1959 and in the meanwhile to sort out from 2 to 6 cartons of cards each year and ship them on. Now I’m finishing the job here (The Met). Another full year before I can scrape bottom.”

Burdick finished pasting his cards in the last of 394 albums at The Met on Jan. 10, 1963, entered University Hospital in New York the next day and died there March 13, 1963. According to Gelman in 1963, Burdick established a fund at The Met to further expand the collection. I found no mention of how that fund was ultimately used. It is possible that medical bills ate up whatever savings remained.


 Jefferson Burdick’s headstone at Hillside Cemetery, Central Square, New York

Jefferson Burdick’s headstone at Hillside Cemetery, Central Square, New York

Burdick was eulogized in the next CCB by many. They saw Burdick not as badly crippled but as “a remarkable man with deep courage and determination (Gelman)” who could “talk interestingly and capably on any number of subjects, yet made no effort to dominate the conversation (Carter).”

The director of The Met’s Department of Drawings and Prints, Hyatt Mayor, wrote, “Early in life arthritis began to stiffen his joints and warp his fingers until finally so simple an act as putting on his hat cost him a painful minute to contrive. Living in meager lodgings and spending little on himself, he threw his earnings as well as his energy into publishing books and acquiring the finest collection of American cards and ephemera.”

Collectors contributed $318 to pay for a brass plaque for Burdick which was given to The Met in 1964. Burdick was buried in Central Square, without a headstone. In 1997, Burdick’s friend DeFlores learned that his grave was unmarked and paid $500 to have Burdick’s name placed on a stone to fit between those of his parents.

Growing up in the country outside a small farm town had a lasting impact on Burdick. His family had been farmers and their ancestors had been in the U.S. since 1651. Isolation and physical limitations had a role in his interest in collecting pictures of the past and his sentimentality. He inherited some money, but lived frugally. He developed an enthusiasm for his hobby and for communicating through his articles and letters. The first impression of a frail, bent man was not reflective of his intellect and the generous spirit within.

George Vrechek is a freelance contributor to Sports Collectors Digest and can be contacted at Special thanks go to Heather Stevens for her interest in Jefferson R. Burdick.