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Sports

Card collectors search for pieces of history

Jeff Himler
| Friday, July 1, 2005

INDIANA--If you hear Scott Neuroh talk about trading Oliver Perez or Ben Roethlisberger, it's not because he's somehow cornered the market on Pittsburgh's professional sports franchises.

He's just pursuing the pastime which has been his passion since 1979: buying, selling and swapping the many trading cards which celebrate America's sports figures.

Neuroh has seen the hobby of sports card collecting expand and recede again over the ensuing years. But his card holdings have steadily increased as he's shifted from simply amassing the collectibles to also dealing in them.

"I had probably 5,000 cards when I started out" as a dealer, Neuroh said. "It just keeps growing. It's tough to get out of it; it gets in your blood."

Neuroh is among dealers who turn out for five sports card shows held throughout the year at Indiana Mall--a tradition he helped begin locally in '79, when he organized a show at Indiana's Regency Mall as a cancer benefit.

He also offers his cards at a handful of shows each year at Johnstown's Galleria.

Those events attract everyone from the casual collector to the completist. In addition to buying, Neuroh said, "People will come to the show and just talk to you for hours."

Neuroh counts himself one of the few smaller-scale dealers in the area who trade extensively in older sports cards.

"I get very little of the new cards except for the Pirates and the Steelers," Neuroh said. "I prefer the cards from 1973 and back."

Major price guides, such as those published by Beckett, class cards issued before 1974 as "vintage."

Baseball is the sport which first inspired collectible cards, dating back to the first professional team--the Cincinnati Red Stockings of 1869.

Among baseball players from the vintage era, Neuroh noted, "Mickey Mantle's cards are the ones that hold their value and increase in value the most."

Then there is the "Holy Grail" for baseball card collectors, what Neuroh refers to as "the grandfather of all cards." He's referring to a card which depicts an early star on the Pittsburgh Pirates roster--shortstop Honus Wagner--issued as part of a 1909 major league set by the American Tobacco Company.

There are other early baseball cards which are fewer in number. But none matches the mystique which has been attached to "the Wagner," which disappeared from circulation soon after it was issued.

According to Neuroh, "Wagner didn't believe in the use of tobacco, and he had the cards pulled."

Another version of the story holds that Wagner was upset because he wasn't compensated for the use of his image on the cards.

Of those which were sold before his intervention, less than 50 are known to still exist, Neuroh said.

Fifteen years later, Neuroh contended, "The ones that are in the nicest condition are worth up to $1 million." In fact, one sold in a 2000 Internet auction for more than $1.2 million.

Sports cards are a collectible commodity that is "condition-sensitive," Neuroh noted. The most desirable and valuable "mint" designation means no folds, rounded corners or surface marks.

But with "the Wagner" card, "Even with a crease in it, you're talking a worth of $50,000," Neuroh asserted.

Neuroh used to own some of the older tobacco cards. But, currently, his earliest is a 1943 card featuring Gordon "Mickey" Cochrane, a Hall of Fame catcher with the Philadelphia Athletics and the Detroit Tigers.

It is among cards issued by the Goudey company, which began producing them in 1933, packaging them with its chewing gum as a promotional item.

When it comes to purchasing cards, rather than trading them, Neuroh makes most of the additions to his collection via bidding on the eBay Internet auction site.

He estimated he spends up to two hours a day scanning through the site's offerings.

Occasionally, he noted, he can obtain a card for a Pittsburgh sports team for a steal because the owner who posted it on the site is a poor speller: "Sometimes people don't spell Pittsburgh right, and you can get away with a good bid because other people aren't looking in the right area."

Even when he doesn't place a bid, Neuroh said his time on eBay isn't wasted: "It gives you a general idea of what's hot."

The cards of Roberto Clemente, by virtue of his status as a legendary player and member of the Hall of Fame, remain the most highly prized among the Pirates ranks.

Still, Neuroh noted, purchasing Clemente's cards over the Internet from an owner on the West Coast can be cheaper than trying to buy them locally, where the player's popularity is strongest of all.

Regional demand is even more of a factor for such local heroes as Indiana's Michael Ryan, an outfielder with the Minnesota Twins who returned to the roster this season after a stint in Rochester with the AAA International League.

Neuroh has sometimes snagged Ryan to personally sign fans' cards at his shows, which adds to the value of the collectibles.

A baseball card with an original Clemente autograph, as opposed to a signature reproduced as part of the card, is a rare and valuable commodity.

"He was a very tough autograph," Neuroh noted. "His autograph is very sought-after."

Verifying such an autograph's authenticity can be just as challenging as finding one in the first place, Neuroh noted.

For Indiana collector Mike Rieg, the true value of his baseball cards goes beyond dollar signs.

Rieg is among those card enthusiasts who are involved in the hobby solely for the love of collecting rather than any thought of cashing in on their investment.

To make sure he's paying a fair price for cards he intends to purchase, Rieg researches their values on the Internet and by using price guides.

But, he confesses, he seldom tracks the cards' subsequent shifts in value, since, "I don't intend to sell any of them."

One of the most recent additions to his collection, which he purchased from Neuroh, was an autographed card from Clemente's rookie season in 1955.

"It's a card I'd been looking for for 15 years," Rieg said. He'd spotted a similar card previously. But, when he hesitated at the dealer's asking price, another collector walked away with the prize.

"I decided I wasn't going to make the same mistake again," Rieg said.

"I have an affection for Clemente," he said. "That's the centerpiece of everything."

While Clemente is tops in Rieg's pack of cards, Willie Stargell, the charismatic captain of the Pirates' 1979 world championship team, runs a close second.

A niche collector, Rieg has settled on seeking out only Pirates cards, and solely those issued by the most well-known manufacturer of trading cards, the Topps company.

"You have people who concentrate on different things," Neuroh pointed out. "Some collect just Hall of Famers, some just quarterbacks."

Since he started collecting in earnest in 1988, Rieg has obtained complete sets of Topps cards for Pirates teams from the 1970s through the current season, as well as a majority of those athletes who played for the club during his childhood in the 1960s.

Now he's concentrating on the Topps cards issued in the 1950s. He acknowledged, "That's going to be the hardest of all because there are less of them around."

Among the cards missing from Rieg's Pirates collection is the 1963 manager card of Danny Murtaugh, which was issued as Topps number 559 in that year's major league series.

Rieg noted, "As they got to the end of the series, they printed fewer cards." So, "The higher the number, the harder it is to find."

In one instance, Rieg collected an autograph first-hand on a classic 1959 Pirates card years after it was issued. He discovered Dick Groat--who had been a shortstop with the Pirates beginning in 1952, and National League MVP in the glory days of the team's 1960 world series win--was only too happy to sign one of his cards for an appreciative fan who still recognized his contribution to the ball club's legacy.

About 10 years ago, Rieg caught up with Groat at the local Champion Lakes Golf Course, which the former Pirate co-owns.

"I golf all the time," Rieg noted. "When I went there, I decided to take the card. I saw him in the clubhouse and asked him to sign it. He was excited that someone was still interested in the old Pirates."

During more recent Pirate Caravan pre-season promotional stops in Indiana, Rieg has obtained rookie card autographs from such current players as Oliver Perez.

Though Rieg turns to the Internet and eBay for research, he believes in making card purchases in person--whether at one of the largest established regional collector shows, held at Robert Morris University near Pittsburgh, or the occasional flea market or yard sale.

He hasn't turned up any hidden gems so far, but that doesn't stop him from hoping. "Sometimes at a yard sale, someone will have a shoebox full of cards, and they don't realize what they have," he said.

Though he wouldn't realize it until later, Neuroh made one of his best card purchases in the mid-1980s.

At the time, he noted, he and a friend had reached an agreement to buy all the cards a local five and dime store was unable to sell at retail. Among them were Fleer brand cards of Michael Jordan in his 1984-85 rookie year in the National Basketball Association.

Neuroh recalled, "I had 15 to 20 of them." But, as no one then realized the major star Jordan would become, he said, "I sold them at a buck apiece."

Now, collectors will shell out as much as $1,500 for one of those cards.

As with most things connected to popular culture, sports card collecting is a hobby that runs in cycles, Neuroh said. "In the mid-'80s it got hot; everybody started buying cards."

Initially, he explained, the demand for cards outstripped the supply, and the core of dedicated hobbyists was expanded by others who jumped on the bandwagon solely for investment purposes.

"People were thinking they would buy some valuable cards and put their kids through college," Neuroh said.

But, eventually responding to the demand, "The companies just kept printing and printing the cards," until the market was glutted, and, "A card you had paid $25 for wouldn't sell for $10."

A similar drop in value occurred during the 20th anniversary of the Kmart discount chain, in 1982. To mark the occasion, Topps released through the stores special sets of baseball cards depicting MVPs from both the American and National leagues.

Originally, "They were going for as high as $20 a set," Neuroh recalled. But, later, "They were blue-lighting them for a nickel a piece."

That same cycle was reflected locally, when Neuroh and others founded the Indiana County Sports Card Collecting Club.

At its height, the club boasted 20 members, with some also belonging to a neighboring hobby group in Monroeville.

But, then, Neuroh noted, "The bottom fell out of the card market. After about three or four years, the club was disbanded."

The ranks of dealers went through an identical fluctuation.

Said Neuroh, "In the late '80s and early '90s, a lot of collectors became dealers." Since then, "A lot have gone out of business."

An occasional dealer concentrating on newer cards, Aultman area resident Nick Bonarrigo can be found on some Saturdays displaying his sports sets for sell at Runzo's flea market in Homer City.

"I do it for the fun," he said. "It's the different people you meet and the stories they tell: 'I remember going to see that guy play.' "

"After the 1994 strike, a lot of people went away from collecting baseball cards," Bonarrigo said. But many returned, along with new collectors, when the home run race between Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa took center stage and generated excitement four years later.

Since then, McGwire's cards have "died out," he noted. "That happens, if you're not in the limelight."

Developments in the real world of sports, either on the playing field or in a team's front office, usually are reflected in the card collectors' realm.

That's why, Neuroh said, "I try to have an idea of what's going on. I watch ESPN quite a bit."

He observed, "The hockey card market went really downhill, thanks to the lockout," which cancelled the most recent NHL season.

When it comes to individual cards, Neuroh said, "A lot of it has to do with how well the player is doing." The soaring popularity of the Steelers' rookie quarterback Ben Roethlisberger is just one example.

Neuroh noted he purchased Roethlisberger's rookie cards relatively cheaply when they were issued at the beginning of the past NFL season, at $2 or $3 apiece.

"Then, as the year went on, they doubled and tripled in value."

Scandal can have the opposite effect. For a high-profile player like Barry Bonds, Neuroh noted, recent allegations of past steroid use have cut into the demand and price for his cards.

According to Rieg, prices for Bonds' old Pirates cards dropped by about 40 percent after the scandal hit.

Fans of Pete Rose, who collected his cards during his heyday with the Cincinnati Reds, have more to lament than the charges of gambling leveled against him.

Said Neuroh, "The fact that he isn't in the Baseball Hall of Fame has hurt (his cards) a little bit."

Dave Parker, a prominent 1970s player for the Pirates, Dave Parker, plummeted in status when he was caught up in a drug scandal.

But Rieg indicated his reputation, and the demand for his cards, have undergone a rehabilitation since he recently returned to the Pirates fold as a special hitting instructor during spring training.

"He's having a resurgence, and his cards are starting to pick up a little bit," Rieg said.

Like Rose, Parker's main disadvantage for collectors who have his cards, is his lack of Hall Of Fame recognition.

Conversely, "When Bill Mazeroski went into the Hall of Fame, his cards surged in price," Rieg said. "There was maybe a 10 or 20 percent increase in value."

Mazeroski, whose homer won the 1960 world series for the underdog Pirates, finally got his due from the Hall of Fame in 2001.

Other random factors can affect the value of individual sports cards. All other things being equal, Neuroh explained, among a particular set of cards there is added collectible interest in either "number one, or the last one in the series."

Modern card issues contain roughly 500 in a set, he said.

On the occasion where the number on the depicted player's jersey matches the number of the card within the series, collectors also will take notice.

Neuroh cited some other numbering oddities which are of interest to collectors.

In 1996, the year after Mickey Mantle's death, Topps began omitting the number seven from its sets of cards--in effect, retiring the number which matched that on Mantle's jersey.

Some collectors who haven't yet caught on to that fact have accused Neuroh of cheating them when he sold them a recent set, billed as complete, but missing number seven.

In 1986, he added, a set of cards was issued which mistakenly assigned the same number to two different players' cards.

Neuroh pointed out, if such mistakes were never corrected, they have little effect on the card's relative value. But, if the card was pulled from circulation and replaced with a corrected version, then it gains in status as a rare and more prized item.

Among the different editions of Clemente cards, Neuroh indicated the 1971 version tends to be more prized. He explained, the card issued that year had a black border instead of the usual white border, which made any surface damage more easily noticed.

"They nick real easy," Neuroh said.

So, since fewer cards from that year have survived in good shape, their relative value is heightened.

Neuroh noted there are companies which, for a fee, will grade the condition of a collector's cards--with Beckett and PSA (Professional Sports Authenticator) considered among the most reliable.

But he prefers using his own judgment.

In the end, he observed, "With any collectible, it's only worth what people are willing to give for it.

"Until somebody hands you $50, it's worth nothing. It's a false economy."

Neuroh used to devote many hours to hand-collating a complete set of one season's sports cards, sorting them from the individual packs issued by companies such as Topps.

Now that he can simply purchase what he wants on eBay, he leaves the collating approach to those, like Bonarrigo, with more time and patience.

Retired as a social studies instructor at Penns Manor School District, Neuroh juggles his card dealings with such other interests as assisting with the Penns Manor High School Band, playing piano at The Grapevine restaurant, golfing and helping out at the local VFW.

He also plays an E flat alto horn as a member of the local Wildcat Civil War reenactment band.

Sports card collecting is a phenomenon which grew out of a marketing concept.

Neuroh noted, "The original intent of the card was as a cardboard background for selling bubblegum."

In addition to makers of gum and other candy, including Cracker Jack popcorn, some early baseball cards were issued by sporting goods stores.

Though it came to dominate the field, the Topps company didn't begin wrapping sports cards with its gum until 1950. Football cards were tried initially, with baseball cards first issued the following year.

Eventually, the cards became the primary focus for consumers, with the gum becoming a little-regarded extra.

Finally, in 1991, Topps removed the gum, citing complaints from collectors that the chewable sticks were leaving stains or impressions on the cards.

For some time, Topps had a virtual monopoly on baseball cards, thanks to the practice it introduced of signing exclusive contracts with players.

Though Topps remains the most popular manufacturer of sports cards, Neuroh noted there are now several other contenders--including Fleer, Donruss and Upper Deck.

Those athletes which have tried to buck the card manufacturing establishment have found themselves left out of the game.

Neuroh pointed out cards were issued during only three years for Steelers 1970s dynasty member Lynn Swann because he got into a dispute with Topps over the payment he would receive for use of his likeness.

More recently, Neuroh noted, Barry Bonds "tried to go on his own and issue his own cards. He was trying to eliminate the middle man.

But, apparently, "It wasn't as easy as he thought it was going to be," Neuroh commented. The cards disappeared from the market almost as soon as they were issued.

A new variant which has seized much of the attention among collectors of newly issued cards are what is known as "insert" cards.

Set apart by some unique feature or subject matter, the cards are printed in limited quantities and are randomly inserted only in selected packs of a set.

Because some avid collectors purchase large numbers of card packs in an attempt to find one of the elusive inserts, they also have been referred to as "chase" cards.

Though he hasn't added them to his private collection, Neuroh has purchased examples of the trendy cards to sell to others.

One unusual variety is the "Piece of the Game," card series.

Attached to the cards are fragments of such additional sports memorabilia as swatches of the game jersey worn by the featured player, or chips carved from his bat.

That trend has extended even to non-sports cards, he said, pointing out a commemorative Elvis trading card which supposedly includes a piece of one of the iconic singer's leather jackets.

In some cases, Neuroh noted, the practice has sparked debates between eager collectors and historical purists.

According to Neuroh, that debate came to a head when: "Donruss bought a Babe Ruth game-worn jersey and cut it up," placing each of the thousands of pieces on a different collectible card.

While some were aghast at the destruction of the historic garment, Neuroh can see the other side of the argument: "This way, you can spread it around among a lot of collectors."

With inserts, signature cards and a growing profusion of different special editions, modern sports card manufacturers may have gone a bit overboard, Neuroh suggested.

Topps alone "issues 15 to 20 different baseball sets during a season," Neuroh noted. The first cards come out in December. But later versions will show various players in the jerseys of different teams, as trading takes place among the major league franchises.

He explained Topps puts out a Bowman series, recognizing the previous rival company it bought in 1956. Also, Topps has moved on from that popular series of "rookie" cards--for players in their first full season in the pros--to "pre-rookie" cards.

Rieg noted he sticks to collecting the basic "common" cards issued by Topps, ignoring the more recent innovations.

While not approaching the collectible value of older cards, Rieg argued many of the sets being issued today have their own merits.

With advances in printing technology, he observed, "The pictures on the new cards are a lot sharper than the older ones were." And, "They're including more action shots."

In more recent years, Topps has begun reprinting some of its older baseball card sets, Rieg noted.

He cautioned other collectors to be sure what they're getting before buying a seller's pitch--and his cards.

One of the telltale differences, he noted, is that the reissued versions of cards have a noticeably lighter color than the originals.

Neuroh and Rieg each grew into their penchant for card collecting, beginning with baseball cards when they were kids.

At that early stage, like most youngsters, they weren't yet conscious of the need for maintaining their treasures in mint condition.

When each returned to collecting as an adult, it was with a more careful approach.

"When you were a kid, people would write things on the backs," Rieg noted of his older baseball cards.

Growing up on Pittsburgh's North Side, within a few minutes of Three Rivers Stadium, he recalled how he would join a gang of buddies from the neighborhood for frequent outings to Pirates games.

That was at a time, in the early 1970s, when ticket prices were affordable for fans of all ages, and spectators could bring a cooler or picnic basket to the stadium.

"I've always been a big Pirates fan," Rieg said.

"There were five or six kids in the neighborhood who went," he noted. "We would pack our lunches and sit in the outfield seats.

"General admission was $1.90--first come, first served." A good sprinter, who now is an assistant coach with Indiana High School's track program, Rieg would "run up and save the seats, and they'd bring the lunches."

Rieg has found a way to combine his hobby with his job--teaching 10th grade history at Indiana Area High School.

Recently creating a miniature 1970s-era museum with his students, Rieg contributed some of his old Pirates cards for the display.

Rieg still attends between 20 and 30 Pirates games per year, now accompanied by his wife and fellow Buccos rooter, Sue, and members of her family.

But, there are some changes in the game he wishes could be reversed.

"With free agency, players come and go," he noted. "You don't have players you can follow and feel strongly and root for."

In Meadville, where Neuroh grew up, he noted, "You were either a Cleveland Indians or a Pittsburgh Pirates fan, depending on the way your antenna was pointed."

For Neuroh, initially, the Indians were his "home" team.

He started to collect cards in 1957, when he was 11 years old, and his grandmother handed him a dollar to go to the store and buy some Topps gum and cards.

The first Indian player to grace Neuroh's collection was Vic Wertz, who gained fame in Game 1 of the 1954 World Series for hitting a 460-foot smash--which Willie Mays, nonetheless, grabbed in an equally spectacular, spinning, over-the-shoulder catch.

When Neuroh came to Indiana County to get his teaching degree at what was then known as Indiana State College, he soon switched his allegiance from Cleveland's pro teams to their counterparts in Pittsburgh.

But, he never gave up his love for card collecting, or for that initial series he began with in 1957.

One of his goals for his own collection, for many years, was to obtain all 407 of the Topps ball cards issued in his initial set from 1957.

He noted, "I didn't complete that set until just three years ago," when he tracked down a card for Steve Ridzik, a pitcher for the Detroit Tigers.

"I lucked onto it at a card show in Cleveland," he said.

Unfortunately, his 1957 collection is "not all in mint condition," he said, noting some of the player pictures on the cards are off-center.

Neuroh has since expanded beyond baseball to collect cards issued for other pro sports--primarily basketball and football.

Save for such high-profile stars as Shaquille O'Neal or Kobe Bryant, Bonarrigo noted pro basketball cards run well behind baseball and football counterparts in popularity locally, due to the lack of an NBA franchise in western Pennsylvania.

Neuroh indicated he is one of the few dealers in the area who also trades in collectible golf cards.

As might be expected, he said the cards of such top players as Tiger Woods and Annika Sorenstam are most in demand.

Cards are just one very prominent type of sports collectible. Rieg and Neuroh both own examples of other sports mementos.

While they aren't traditional baseball cards, Rieg treasures several larger photo cards of classic Pirates players Clemente, Stargell and Manny Sanguillen.

Rieg also has saved a series of small 8 x 10 player posters which were issued as premiums when one filled up at the gas pump of the old ARCO service stations in the 1970s.

Among Rieg's other non-card collectibles are tickets to a 1971 world series contest and to the last Pirates game played in Three Rivers, on Oct. 1, 2000.

The latter tickets are among the many item Rieg has received from his father-in-law, Harold Corbin of Lewistown.

Corbin also found for him a baseball autographed by the 1971 Pirates world series team, including Clemente.

Last season, which was the 25th anniversary of the Pirates' 1979 world championship, saw a veritable cornucopia of collectible merchandise and give-aways unleashed--including Clemente nesting dolls.

To obtain collectible figurines of several of the prominent 1979 team members, Neuroh purchased a six-pack of tickets to home games where the statuettes were to be released.

As the figurines were issued to each ticket-holder, he noted one enterprising dealer "kept sending a little boy through admissions, buying tickets for the cheap seats."

He offered some advice for collectors of such stadium premiums: "It's always good to keep the ticket with it."

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