EDITOR'S NOTE: This story is from the Aug. 15 issue of Sports Collectors Digest magazine. To subscribe, click here.
He called them his “paper babies,” and when a new one arrived, it was a joyous occasion for Dr. Thomas Newman.
A lifelong baseball fan, Newman stored his massive collection of sports cards all over the place. His most valuable treasures were stored in a huge safe at his home in Tampa, Fla. Others were heavily secured in cabinets and closets. Even more were stored in a locked room on the top floor of his nearby medical practice.
Newman owned millions of trading cards he had collected since the 1980s, many of them replacing cards he adored as a kid. And though some were more valuable than others, they were all precious to him.
He loved nothing more than taking them out and examining them like pieces of fine art and showing them to family and friends. Sometimes he would slip away from work for a while, telling his staff he was going to “play with his paper babies.”
“It was just part of him. It was something that he did every day and got so much joy out of,” said his wife, Nancy. “His staff would always laugh about his paper babies because he was always ordering from eBay and stuff was always arriving at the office. He was just so excited about everything that he purchased and added to his collection.”
For more than 40 years, Newman, a Tampa neurologist, assembled one of the largest and most valuable collections of sports cards and memorabilia in the country. When he passed away at age 73 in January, his family followed his wishes and assigned his collection to Memory Lane Inc. to be auctioned off to other collectors.
The result was the sale of one of the most extensive sports collections in history. The Thomas Newman collection sold in July for more than $21.5 million, highlighted by a rare 1933 Goudey Babe Ruth card that sold for a record $4.2 million.
The Magnificent 7: Iconic cards of Ruth, Mantle, Gehrig highlight Newman Collection
JP Cohen, president of Memory Lane, believes Newman’s collection was one of the 10 largest ever sold at a public auction. He compares it to the Barry Halper collection that sold for $21.8 million in 1998, with many of those items going to the Baseball Hall of Fame.
“It’s one of the biggest collections we have ever handled,” he said. “It had some one-of-a-kind pieces that we may not ever see again come to market, at least not … for another 30 years. When you look at one actual representation of a collection sold, this is probably one of the top ones that has ever come to market as far as sports cards are concerned.”
Of the 976 lots, five cards sold for more than $1 million, including the 1933 Goudey Babe Ruth #53, which was the highest graded version of the card (PSA 9) known to exist. Another 1933 Goudey (#181, PSA 9) sold for a record $1.2 million, while a 1916 Babe Ruth Sporting News rookie card brought $1.4 million.
But perhaps the most impressive card was the 1952 Topps #311 Mickey Mantle that was part of the iconic 1952 Topps Baseball find discovered by famed collector and dealer Al “Mr. Mint” Rosen in 1986. The PSA NM/MT 8 sold for a record $2.1 million. In all, more than 50 cards and memorabilia items set industry records.
Newman’s collection included some of the finest examples of the most valuable baseball cards in the hobby, featuring such immortals as Ruth, Mantle, Lou Gehrig, Willie Mays, Joe DiMaggio, Ted Williams and Jackie Robinson. Of the top-selling cards, 27 sold for more than $100,000.
“He had a knack for finding quality,” said Cohen, who developed a close relationship with Newman. “He always wanted to improve on his collection, especially his star cards. He was always striving to improve those.”
He also owned some of the most rare cards in existence, some dating as far back as 1887. An 1888 N162 Goodwin Champions Cap Anson card sold for $207,484, while cards from the early 1900s featuring Cy Young and Shoeless Joe Jackson also topped six figures. Tobacco cards featuring Ty Cobb and Honus Wagner topped $80,000, while he also owned some of the best-conditioned 1911 Turkey Red cards in existence.
It was also an incredibly diverse collection, highlighted by numerous rare items across a broad spectrum of sports and entertainment. His collection of football cards ranged from a 1935 National Chicle Bronko Nagurski to rookie cards of Jim Brown, Joe Namath and Tom Brady, as well as complete sets from 1935, 1948 and 1957.
His basketball collection featured a 1948 Bowman PSA 9 card of George Mikan and included every star from Lew Alcindor and Bill Russell to LeBron James. The collection even included a collection of 1940 Superman cards that sold for more than $42,000 and a 1959 3 Stooges card that brought $11,297.
His memorabilia collection featured everything from a program from the 1903 World Series ($112,000) to a 1929 baseball autographed by Babe Ruth ($34,421) that included a rare video of the signing and a Ruth home run.
“He was fortunate enough to start collecting 30-plus years ago so he was able to acquire things that today would be almost impossible, especially at the numbers and dollars that they bring,” Cohen said. “There were so many rare, unique and record-breaking sales.”
The success of the Newman Collection was yet another example of the booming sports collectible industry, but also a story of one of the most passionate and dedicated collectors in the hobby.
A TRUE COLLECTOR
When Stewart Newman was a kid, his father took him to card shows often, including a trip to The National every summer. But things were different in the 1980s and ‘90s. There were no auction houses, no eBay, and cards were not even graded. They were sold during personal, face-to-face negotiations, and Thomas Newman was a master at the art of the deal.
“He always bought a good amount of stuff,” Stewart said. “He accumulated the collection he had, which was immense, pretty strategically. … There was no show that he went to that he didn’t buy something.”
At events like The National, which he attended almost every year, Newman was in his element. He was so intense he sometimes forgot to eat or feed his son.
“From the minute that it opened until it ended, he was immersed in it. To the point that we didn’t take any lunch breaks so I had to beg him to give me a few dollars to go buy a hot dog,” Stewart said. “He was into it and didn’t want to miss a minute of the action.”
Thomas Newman, who grew up in Cleveland, was a baseball fan as a kid and collected cards of his beloved Indians and the Yankee greats from the 1950s. But like most kids, his mom threw out his collection when Thomas went off to college.
In the 1980s, he jumped back into the hobby, starting with cards from his childhood in the 1950s.
“He had really been into baseball as a kid and that’s what really drew him back to it,” Stewart said. “It started with just nostalgia for the same kind of players and cards that he collected when he was a kid and then it grew from there and, of course, became much bigger.”
In 1986, he made a phone call that would change his life forever. While starting his collection, he called noted collector Al Rosen, who casually mentioned that he had just discovered the famous “Mr. Mint” collection of 1952 Topps cards and asked Newman if was interested.
Newman was intrigued and wound up buying several cards, including the 1952 Mantle, which would become one of the most coveted cards in the hobby and Newman’s favorite.
“That was the biggest breakthrough in his trajectory of being a collector,” Stewart said.
For the next 40 years, Newman was committed to building his collection, picking up cards at local card shops and shows and adjusting to the rise of eBay and memorabilia auctions. He bought items during nearly every Memory Lane auction, Cohen said, and picked up more at other auction houses.
An avid golfer and musician, collecting trading cards and sports memorabilia were his real passion.
“He was a true collector, someone who really had a passion for collecting,” Cohen said. “It wasn’t about the monetary rewards, it was about a love for the hobby and collecting. He really loved collecting, he loved the history and he loved going to the shows and interacting with people.”
Newman collected his most valuable cards years ago, when they were much less expensive. As he watched them rise in value, nothing pleased him more than showing off his treasures to his family and closest friends.
“He was always showing them to me,” Nancy said. “He would pull them out on a rainy day and look at all his great stuff and show me the colors and give me a little history about them.”
“He loved those things, everything about them,” Stewart said. “He was just so excited about each one of them. Every single time he got something he would be excited about it. There was no question how much he loved them.”
Newman had no interest in selling his collection while he was living, selling only duplicate cards so he could buy more or to upgrade his best cards.
“He wouldn’t even sell any individual cards, much less the whole thing,” Stewart said.
“You could offer him $100 million for his collection and he would have never sold it,” Cohen added.
According to Nancy, her husband had numerous offers for the Ruth Goudy that sold for $4.2 million, but never considered parting with it.
“He always told me that if something happens [to him], I want you to work with JP Cohen and Memory Lane,” she said. “He knew that his children and I weren’t collectors, and I think it’s really great that all these great cards now are in the hands of other collectors.”
Shortly after Newman passed away from complications of COVID in January, Cohen and his Memory Lane team arrived in Tampa to begin the arduous process of taking inventory of his collection. Their biggest task was sifting through hundreds of thousands of cards that were not included in the July auction. Stewart says his father owned millions of cards, only about 10 percent which were sold.
Watching the company remove Newman’s collection from his home and office was difficult for his family, employees and friends.
“There wasn’t a dry eye in the place as we were carrying out his collection,” Cohen said of removing cards stored at Newman’s office. “There was a lot of history and memories there between him and his employees. Every one of his employees came up and told us stories about his paper babies.”
“It was very hard,” Nancy said. “It was a lot of hard work for them, but it was also very emotional. I feel like JP and his wife are like family, so it was nice to have them there at a really tough time.”
The Newman family was thrilled with the outcome of the July auction and the way it was handled by Cohen and Memory Lane.
“They did such a wonderful job of promoting it,” Nancy said. “It was the kind of attention that Tom deserved and it was right for the collection.”
Stewart is most pleased with the attention and notoriety his father has received for his devotion to his collection and the passion he poured into the hobby.
“I think we are all happy about that part of it,” he said. “A lot of people had some idea that he had a pretty good collection, but most didn’t have any idea that this much stuff had been accumulated. … They did a phenomenal job with the whole process. I think Memory Lane did an excellent job of telling the story and doing it right.”
Cohen is proud of the work his company did in honoring the memory and achievement of his long-time friend and client.
“We did our best to celebrate his collection by putting on this amazing auction, and I think we accomplished that,” he said. “He curated this amazing collection over the years and the way we sold the collection was the right way to do it to allow people to see what an amazing job he did setting an example for other collectors.
“Now he has handed the baton to new people who will carry those items and enjoy them until the next generation of collectors take over.”
More importantly, they will remember the Thomas Newman Collection, an historic assembly acquired by one of the hobby’s most passionate collectors.
“I think he would be very, very happy,” Nancy said. “I think he is smiling looking down.”