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An old friend - and fellow pioneer - remembers Fritsch

Fellow hobby pioneer Kit Young remembers Larry Fritsch and the remarkable inventory of pristine cards that he collected.

It might have been an ad in The Sporting News or maybe a listing in the original Sports Collectors Bible when I first saw the name Larry Fritsch. It was the mid-1970s, and that name kept popping up in sports magazines like Baseball Digest, Sport and others. It was inevitable that I found him . . . heck, every serious collector in the 1970s knew of this guy up in Stevens Point, Wis.

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Remember, this was the Stone Age of baseball cards. There were only a couple of small card shows – in Plymouth, Mich., and Los Angeles. There were no price guides, and card shops like Hall’s Nostalgia and Sports Collectors Store in Chicago were still on the drawing board. Yet, this Fritsch guy seemed to be everywhere, advertising both new Topps sets and oldies, as well. Was he really selling bubble gum cards? Was he actually selling cards for a living? Who was this guy?
I decided to find out. I still remember my first call to Fritsch. Larry, of course, answered the phone himself (he was a staff of one, with Jeff still in grade school, I believe). I was excited that I might be able to actually talk to someone about old baseball cards and maybe even buy some cards. I also wanted to find out who this guy was, so I quietly grilled him on his background, how he got into cards, what guarantees he had, etc. He seemed nice enough, spoke slowly, but seemed to know a lot about cards. I sort of envisioned him as a country boy working out of his closet. Boy, was I wrong, as I later learned.

I doubted he could help me, but I asked anyway . . . you see, I was trying to become the king of 1955 Topps Doubleheaders, which I thought were cool cards, very undervalued and hard to find. When I asked if he had any available, he said something like, “Yep, how many of each player would you like?” That was followed by, “Do you want perforated or unperforated versions, or both?” It seems he had a couple hundred in stock, with several each of Aaron, Ted Williams and Jackie Robinson.

This proved to be the beginning of a 35-year relationship between us. I went ahead and ordered my treasured Doubleheaders, paying a couple bucks apiece. It took a while for the cards to arrive, but it was worth the wait; they were in nice shape. I bought more from Larry over the next couple of years, sometimes 1952 Topps high numbers, other times Goudeys or Play Balls. Service was always leisurely, but it didn’t matter, he had the stuff . . . he was the source. Larry’s pricing was another matter. Most cards seemed normally priced compared to Gar Miller’s list or the new Beckett guides that were coming out, but some seemed to be in the Twilight Zone.

Like $35 for a 1961 Moose Skowron? Double book for some 1967 highs? I asked him about his unique pricing, but he was unfazed. He just priced them at whatever price he thought he’d get. He figured he knew more about the scarcity and values of various cards then the price guide folks did. And he was probably right!
Collectors would ask me about his pricing. I’d tell them to buy from someone else if they didn’t like his pricing. They’d usually respond, “But no one else has the card!” I’m sure Larry grinned to himself when he heard this, and I’ll bet most of these collectors ended up buying from him anyway.
This was one of the first ways I learned Larry was not just a simple country boy. Clearly, he had business instincts and understood the law of supply and demand. If five collectors are all looking for the same card and can’t locate it, it means the card is a toughie or priced too low. Larry recognized that and charged accordingly.

It has taken me about 25 years to learn the same lesson, but I finally have. Now if we have a nice 1965 Dick Allen or Tony Oliva, we list it for 1-1/2 times guide. Same for a 1966 Topps Jimy Williams/Joe Hoerner card or a 1973 Candy Lid of Nolan Ryan, cases where demand greatly outstrips supply. Now I tell our guys to think like Fritsch when you price these scarcer cards.

I could never figure out how this guy had so much stuff. If I needed Obaks, he had them . . . ditto for Darigolds or Sugardales. Finally, I asked him. He said, “Well, I’m a collector. I buy deals so I can add to my collection . . . then I sell the extras.”

Collector? Hey, I know we all started as collectors as kids, sometimes adults, but what dealer actually collects? Bill Goodwin is not a big-time collector, nor is Dick Decourcy. I’m not, except for a small collection of Mantle and Vada Pinson items. But a dealer who is a big-time collector? There is no such bird.

Then again, there’s never been another Larry Fritsch. This passion for collecting is what separated Larry from the rest of us. He was first and always a collector. Look, we all know baseball cards are cool, but the thrill of collecting ended once I became a dealer. Who wants another set of 1952 Topps when you already have two? That never stopped Larry; he just kept buying and buying. It wasn’t just vintage stuff; he’d buy hundreds of cases from Topps each year. If you asked him what he was going to do with them, he’d just seem to shrug his shoulders and say he was putting them away for the future.
In the following years, my relationship with Larry changed, sort of a role reversal. I had figured out how to pick up vintage stuff (road trips, primarily), so I was now a source of cards for Larry. He’d buy from our catalogs, but seemed to enjoy auctions more. Typically, he’d bid on odd lots of regionals or prewar cards, such as Crispettes, Brunners or Firesides. Condition didn’t seem to matter much; middle grade was OK, and clearly he didn’t mind duplicates, since he’d keep the singles he wanted for his collection and sell the rest.

Oddly enough, despite our long relationship, Larry and I had never met head to head. I’d hit the road a lot in the 1970s and 1980s, mainly buying trips, but Larry was content to stay in Wisconsin (I tried to get him to leave the tundra-like winters there to come to our Hawaii conference, but he demurred). This was about to change.
Following one of the Chicago Nationals, I headed toward Sturgeon Bay, Wis., to visit an old childhood vacation spot. That trip took me near Stevens Point, so I thought it was an ideal time to make a surprise stop at Larry’s home. The folks at SCD thought it would be an interesting feature for the magazine – you know, two dinosaurs finally meet, swap war stories, etc.

T.S. O’Connell and (then-SCD editorial director) Kevin Isaacson accompanied me, and we just showed up at his door (by the way, a very nice colonial-style home with manicured lawns – hardly country-boy stuff).

His response was terrific; he was genuinely excited to see us. He quickly escorted us into his large home to a great room laden with sports memorabilia. It took us about 30 seconds to exchange pleasantries, then – surprise – we began to talk about baseball cards. First, he said I had to see his collection . . . next thing he said was, “Can you stay until tomorrow? I need to get my good stuff out of the safe deposit boxes, but I can’t until tomorrow.” He seemed crushed when I said I had to head north the next day, but we agreed to discuss it at lunch.

But before heading for lunch, Larry said I had to see “the warehouse.” Now, I’d heard stories about a fortress stocked with cards, but I didn’t quite know what to expect. Words don’t really describe it properly; there were various rooms, some with vintage stuff, but mainly rooms with unopened cases of cards stacked floor to ceiling.

There were hundreds of cases from the 1970s, ’80s and ’90s. Not just baseball, but football, basketball and even hockey! I thought I was in the Topps warehouse. I asked him what he planned to do with all this stuff. He just shrugged his shoulders again and said something like, “I’ll move them some day.” I suspect that those cases were still there a decade later.

I left, a bit dazed, and we headed to lunch to his favorite restaurant, Applebee’s. It was immediately apparent why – the restaurant walls were filled with sports stuff, from Larry! Plus, he had a regular table, and they treated him like a king.
Conversation with Larry was unlike any other I’ve had with dealers. Normally, the rest of us talk shop about current problems, like how are sales at shows, how are card values holding up, what are PSA 8s selling for? That kind of thing.
But not Larry. He talked about the history of the hobby, what’s wrong in recent years, the advent of the “everyone is a dealer” era, how graded cards are going to kill the hobby, etc. And we talked about his collection (one of the top four or five in the world), about his favorite sets and what he was missing (not much).

Yeah, we discussed war stories, mainly about how much fun it was to buy in the “old days” when most folks thought Larry and I were idiots for buying cards from hotel rooms, about some of the great “cigar-box finds” of the ’70s and more. One of his favorites was the time some guy brought him half a dozen or so 1954 Bowman Ted Williams cards in high grade. The guy was amazed to learn that Larry was willing take them all.

The chat must have lasted a couple of hours, but the tone never changed. Larry relished the history and the past. He didn’t give a hoot that a PSA 9 Clemente rookie just sold for $25,000 or that the market was hot for ’60s cards. No, he wanted to talk about some of the cool cards he’d just picked up, about the Doyle variation card he’d found or the deal he’d just made with Keith Olbermann.

That was the essence of Larry; he was still a kid in the candy store, wheeling and dealing with other collectors and excited about his newest find. Sure, he made a good living at cards, but with him, it always somehow seemed secondary, like making a living was a byproduct of putting together a killer collection.

The hobby has lost a true giant . . . he will be missed.

Kit Young, of Kit Young Cards in San Diego, is one of the most well-known dealers in the hobby, and was a longtime columnist for SCD.