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Hobby Pioneers: Yeko, Gelman and Fritsch

The hobby pioneers of Bruce Yeko, Woody Gelman and Larry Fristsch paved the way for the hobby boom, including some of the first catalogs to circulate through the hobby.

Once upon a time, around 1970, when our hobby existed but hadn’t yet become what it ultimately would become (respectable, for adults, and expensive), there were three major dealers.

There were others, of course, and more commonly, there were collectors who would sell stuff to other collectors (which happened sometimes when they couldn’t agree on a trade). But as I said, there were three major dealers, who did something that the others didn’t do – they advertised
out there in the big outside world.

The three major dealers I’m talking about were Bruce Yeko (Wholesale Cards, Connecticut), Woody Gelman (Card Collectors Co., of New York), and Larry Fritsch (Larry Fritsch, Wisconsin). My recollection is that ads for Wholesale Cards showed up regularly in Boy’s Life (which is where I found him, starting my serious hobby career at the tender age of 11), Card Collectors Co. advertised in Baseball Digest, and Fritsch – well, as I recall he placed an ad or two in the Street and Smith Baseball Annual, or some similar publication. All were outlets designed to snare the hard-core baseball enthusiast, and in Yeko’s case, to grab the attention of young boys. Not that there was much difference between those two demographics.

As far as classic baseball advertisers go, I don’t want to slight the memory of the legendary Manny’s Baseball Land (located across the street from Yankee Stadium), in either its original incarnation, or as operated later on by Stan Martucci. But that operation wasn’t a baseball card dealership in any sense. Manny’s sold pennants, 8-by-10 glossies, souvenir coffee mugs, and miscellaneous stuff like that. Lots of what appeared in Manny’s display ads over the years would fetch top dollar today, but his place simply wasn’t where you would go if you needed six cards to complete your 1963 Topps set. And that’s what set these three dealers apart. A place where you could actually buy the cards you were missing, as well as cards you’d never seen before, was a very new idea back in the mid-1960s.

Wholesale Cards
We can start with Wholesale Cards, run out of Connecticut by a young fellow named Bruce Yeko. I can recall bemused newspaper and magazine reporters interviewing him off and on throughout the 1960s and early 1970s, clearly thunderstruck at the idea of a grown man dealing in baseball cards.

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Yeko was a successful accountant, if memory serves, but he dutifully ordered case after case of cards from Topps, sorted sets, and did all the things so many fledgling dealers did throughout the hobby 10 or 20 years later. Those articles about him always seemed to carry the unspoken question of, “What’s wrong with this guy?”

Yeko certainly had the best strategy for expanding his audience. His ads appeared every spring in Boy’s Life, as I’ve already mentioned. For those of you who don’t know, Boy’s Life was a large-sized magazine of general interest designed for boys in the 8 to 16-year-old range. It wasn’t sold at newsstands, but came free with membership in the Boy Scouts (or Cub Scouts) of America. Talk about your core card collecting audience.

Yeko’s ads seemed magical, because he would begin advertising that year’s Topps sets with the March issue, which would arrive two to four weeks before the first series of cards would actually appear. Since the display ad featured a postage-stamp sized picture of a card, this allowed a perceptive youngster (hi there!) to brag to his friends that he knew what that year’s cards were going to look like. The first time around, such pronouncements were met with skepticism, but believe me, by the next year, my supernatural ability to make such a prediction offered me a lot of status in the neighborhood. Apparently none of the other kids in the schoolyard were inclined to read as closely as I did. Actually, I’m not sure some of them could read, period. Another story for another day ...

Back to Yeko. His 1966 price list was a simple affair, a four-page, typewritten mimeographed list, exotic in its lack of detail (what does a “Redback” look like? And how could he get away with charging 90 cents per card for 1952 Topps high numbers? An outrage!).

By 1970, the Wholesale Cards price list was not just the most amply-illustrated, impressive catalog of them all, it was a resource for every collector.

What had happened was that Yeko had bought out the entire dealer stock of another pioneer dealer, Marshall Oreck, and had taken over Oreck’s impressive catalog as well. And what modern-day collectors may not realize is that a large, illustrated price list was an irreplaceable resource. Jim Beckett was still a decade away from publishing the first comprehensive checklist book. Young collectors had no Internet, card shows didn’t exist yet, there were few national card collecting magazines (The Trader Speaks was just getting off the ground, other publications were too small, too limited or just weren’t generally known), and for the most part, every collector was an island onto himself.

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Since most kids getting started collecting seriously were, well, kids, they were too young to have seen any cards more than a few years old. How was a 12-year-old collector in 1967, for example, supposed to know what a 1954 Bowman card looked like? That’s where the Oreck/Yeko price list came into play.

I, for one, studied every page of that 32-page booklet with an intensity most of us haven’t experienced anywhere in recent years. When I discovered Playboy magazine a few years later, I’m not sure I studied that as intensely. Well, maybe I did. I sure would have if the stuff in Playboy was available for mail order ... but, again, I digress.

The Wholesale Cards price list illustrated almost every set it offered with a small black-and-white photo, and this afforded young collectors a chance to see what cards looked like in 1959, 1952, even 1948 and 1949. The Bowman sets looked primitive and different from what we were used to. And the really old cards! The Play Balls, the Goudeys, even the lone illustration of a tobacco card – these were all the first examples of such cards most of us had ever seen. It was like a glimpse into another dimension, and it opened many of us up to the endless possibilities of collecting.

The variety of cards available in that catalogue showed us that baseball card collecting could be more than just a matter of filling in a few holes in a few contemporary sets. It showed us that baseball cards (and football and basketball and even ice hockey – who knew in 1967 that there was such a thing as hockey cards? Unless you lived in Canada, I suppose) could be as varied, as challenging and as consuming as stamp collecting.

Even more interesting for me than the older sets was the endless display of regional issues Wholesale Cards had available. I had no idea that there were cards issued all the time that were specific to the local team, cards issued with hot dogs, milk, cookies, soda, you name it. Yeko’s inventory included sets and singles from classic food issues or regionals such as Red Man Tobacco, Red Heart Dog Food, Lake to Lake Dairy, the Pepsi Houston Colt .45s issue, Johnston Cookies, and Union Oil. It all seemed to go on forever.

Card Collectors Co.
By comparison, Woody Gelman’s Card Collectors Co. list was a much more modest affair. It was only about half the number of pages that the Wholesale Cards list boasted, and while the Yeko list was a big 8½-by-11 inches, Gelman’s was a much more modest 5-by-7. The photos illustrating the sets available were much smaller, almost impossible to make out at times. Gelman’s prices were all over the place, cheaper than Yeko on some issues and much higher on others. And he had far fewer of the exotic sets, the regionals and the very old stuff. So, what was his strength?

Well, Woody Gelman’s strength was that he worked for Topps; he was their art director. So he had access to some very oddball, unusual issues that nobody else did. Only the Card Collectors Co. offered sets of 1969 Topps Super Baseball, the one issued in a regular-card size. Ten dollars for a set of only 66 cards seemed like highway robbery then, so I passed on the chance to pick that up. That large bruise permanently tattooed on my rear end comes from a lifetime of kicking myself.

In the realm of the truly oddball, and illustrating further that Gelman had an inside pipeline to Topps, for a brief time in the mid-1970s, CCC offered a grouping of 132 different 1974 Topps wrong backs. These were mint condition, decently-centered cards that all had a completely different player’s statistics on the back. Obviously the product of a sheet having been pasted-up incorrectly, Gelman had these cards available in quantity. A grand total of $4.95 got you the whole 132-card lot. This one I did get, and I haven’t regretted it. Although I still should have gotten those 1969 Supers ...

The CCC price list offered real bargains for collectors who were just starting out. You could get an assortment of 25 different exhibit cards for only $1.50. I wasn’t even sure what exhibit cards were, but I took advantage of that one. He would offer cards and sets in special sales as well. I recall getting a complete mint set of the 1963 Bazooka Old Timers cards, a beautiful, rare issue. Cost me all of $1.95, and that was a great price even then.

Best of all, Gelman didn’t really differentiate much between common and superstar cards. With very rare exceptions, if he had the card in stock, you could get it for the common card price. I built a set of 1960 Fleer All-Time Greats simply by ordering five or 10 cards at a time, and when he had No. 3 Babe Ruth in stock, it went in with my order. Other dealers would charge extra for the Mantles and Mays of the day, although they didn’t charge extra for most other players.

Larry Fritsch Cards
That brings us to Larry Fritsch’s price list, circa 1973. Unlike Fritsch’s earlier lists, which were simple typewritten affairs, this one was nicely illustrated as well. In fact, it looked a lot like The Card Collectors Co. list of a few years earlier. Like the other two dealers, Fritsch emphasized postwar cards, the Bowmans and the Topps sets. He offered runs of football and hockey sets as well. Unlike Yeko, he didn’t guarantee availability of full sets for some of the older cards, but it was clear that he carried a good supply.

Fritsch’s 1973 list brings up an issue that was largely ignored or taken for granted previously: condition. That’s right; the two earlier lists I’ve been discussing are silent on the matter of card condition, because it was taken for granted that the cards offered for sale would be mint, or at least excellent. Forget about third-party grading, or trying to distinguish between a 90 and a 96 on the grading scale. Cards ordered from a dealer would arrive without any major defects like creases, stains or dinged corners.

That was the collecting world circa 1967-70. By the time Larry Fritsch had issued his 1973 list, the times were changing. Fritsch set up his price structure so that cards up through 1960 were available, singly or in sets, in three conditions: excellent-mint (described as “a ‘like-new’ card”); good-excellent (some wear, no major defects, but not quite ex-mt); and fair-good (considerable wear, creases, a “space-filler”). There, that’s pretty clear, isn’t it? Nobody’s asking me, but I could live happily in a world that has only those three grades.

It wasn’t so long ago that I saw a card at a show described as “poor plus.” I know that hairs are meant to be split, but seriously ... That brings us to the other major innovation featured in Fritsch’s 1973 list, although this is something he’d been doing for some time. Rather than trying to isolate a couple of superstars who might be subject to higher pricing, or listing numerous cards in a set that might be considered “rare,” Fritsch’s pricing during this period took the approach of listing a number of “Very High Demand” players and a greater number of “High Demand” players, and listing prices for them for each set by category.

So, if the price for an excellent-mint common in a particular set would be 10 cents, Fritsch might list the High Demand cards as being worth 25 cents, and the Very High Demand cards going for $1. The multipliers between the categories would vary from set to set.

It’s therefore interesting to see which players were considered to be Very High Demands (listed in the first pages of the price list). For the most part, we see what you would expect, but there are a few interesting entries. For example, the Very High Demand cards include the usual suspects – Mantle, Mays, Ted Williams, Stan Musial – and a catch-all for any player in the Hall of Fame. But Dick Allen is on that list – we forget how highly regarded he was during his career, which ended somewhat abruptly and somewhat too soon. Boog Powell is there as well – he was viewed as an integral part of the Baltimore Orioles empire, and it’s intriguing to see how his star has fallen.

It’s particularly interesting to see Joe Torre listed among the top echelon. He had recently had his career year (in 1971), and many felt he was bound for Cooperstown. Joe Torre wound up with a very nice career, but until he managed the Yankees and strengthened his case for enshrinement, he was the poster boy for the almost-but-not-quite-good enough-for Cooperstown group.

The High Demand listing has some surprises as well. You would expect to find most of the then-current minor stars listed, and you do. But you would think that by 1973, Rod Carew would be viewed as a bit better than a minor star. Same goes for Orlando Cepeda, who’s a mere “High Demand” card. He made it to the Hall of Fame eventually, and here he’s already at the end of his career, but I guess he wasn’t a Hall of Famer in most collectors’ eyes. Others who made it to the Hall of Fame later on who are mere HD players on this list include Nellie Fox, Larry Doby, Don Drysdale, Whitey Ford and even Reggie Jackson.

Some High Demand players would be found today in the common bins. Bill Freehan was a fine catcher for Detroit, but he hasn’t inspired much special attention among collectors. Dick Groat won the National League MVP in 1960 and he’s High Demand according to Fritsch, but he’s treated as a common today. Lee May? Bill Melton? Rico Petrocelli? All of them were a big deal in 1973. Remember that the next time you try to predict which player is going to be considered a star years from now.

I wish I could tell you precisely how much an excellent-mint 1952 Topps Mantle would have cost you, but the truth is that many of the special category, High or Very High Demand cards are listed with the price “POR” – which meant Price On Request. You would send Fritsch a self-addressed, stamped envelope and a list of card prices that you wanted, and he would send the prices back to you. Can you imagine waiting that long today, just for a price?

This was the true sign that the times were changing. In the Wholesale Cards and the Card Collectors price lists issued only a few years earlier, the prices were what they were, at least until the next price list was issued. Fritsch’s Price On Request approach meant one or both of two things. First, it probably meant that he didn’t have every card available in every condition. And second, it meant that he could assess the market price on the spot, adjusting it as necessary. It also made it darn difficult to comparison shop prices with the other dealers.

The mid-1970s saw a huge series of changes hit the hobby. Card shows began to crop up where collectors could work on filling sets in person (Bruce Yeko turned up at some of those early New York-area shows). Hobby papers like The Trader Speaks, The Sport Hobbyist and yes, Sports Collectors Digest popped up and became increasingly visible, offering classified ads as a means of getting collectors together with the cards they needed.

Bruce Yeko got out of the hobby in the mid-1970’s when he discovered a new passion, producing original cast albums for musical shows that had flopped on Broadway and had never released a recording of their score. He’s still doing that, on CDs, preserving musical theater that might otherwise be lost. I’ve heard that the last of his dealer stock, whatever he hadn’t sold at that point, went up in flames when his barn burned down.

Woody Gelman suffered a devastating fire to his warehouse holdings around 1975, destroying lots of those oddball Topps issues. His business was never the same. Gelman died in 1978 and his son, Richard, carried on the business for many years, occupying the perennial inside front cover ad slot in SCD throughout much of the 1980s. He would sometimes offer large card lots with water, smoke and fire damage. Like 1,000 1960 Topps commons, slight water damage, $15 postpaid. Smoke and fire scorching, 1,000 for $8. The CCC faded out of view some time ago, like so many of the early dealers, and in later years, they specialized in selling reprints of various rare sets. A handsome chunk of that more-recent inventory ended up in the Fritsch inventory after a huge sale around the turn of the century.

Larry Fritsch stayed the course, remaining active to the end, even trying his hand at an ultimately unsuccessful baseball card museum in Cooperstown just a couple of blocks from the Hall of Fame. He died in 2007.

What have we learned from all this? Well, we’ve learned that the field of baseball card dealers with a national clientele was once pretty limited, but actively advertised in mainstream magazines aimed at hard-core sports fans and young boys. We learned the card pricing and attitudes about condition were once very different. And in the case of Bruce Yeko and Woody Gelman, we learned that it’s a good idea to keep your fire insurance up to date.

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