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139-year-old baseball card reopens wounds of unfulfilled fortune

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redstockings.gifA couple of weeks ago, when I was home for the holidays, I spent the better part of a snowy afternoon combing through my old baseball card collection. It was an exercise in nostalgia as memories of simpler times when getting that Craig Biggio Donruss card was all that mattered in life.

There's a certain connectivity that males of my generation feel with those little cardboard cut outs. We were led to believe that hoarding as many cards as we could would inevitably lead to amassing great wealth, thereby eliminating the need to get a real job. All of us had it planned out. We were going to beat the system.

Well, a funny thing happens when every kid has the same idea.

It becomes less viable.

Our mid-90's Juan Gonzales Fleer cards never matured the way a 1952 Mickey Mantle did and our collections got stuffed into the back of our closets -- to be perused 15 years later on a snowy afternoon or to become the subject of a Rilo Kiley lyric.
All of these unfulfilled dreams of wealth make this story from Fresno, Calif. even harder to stomach.

A 72-year-old woman listed a card from 1869 on EBay for $10 before some good samairatans alerted her to the real value of such a relic.

And thus, Bernice Gallego becomes what scores of kids wanted to become. What we worked so hard to become:

A baseball card tycoon.

"I didn't even know baseball existed that far back," Gallego says, between puffs on her cigarette. "I don't think that I've ever been to a baseball game."

Spooked with all the questions she was getting on eBay, she picked up the phone at 9:30 p.m. that night and called her good friend, George Huddleston, and asked his opinion.

"I never make phone calls after 8 o'clock at night," Gallego says. "My mother taught me never to do things like that."

Huddleston's answer was simple: End the auction now. Figure out what you have and what it's worth before selling it. Her husband Al agreed: "Get this thing off the Internet."
The jealousy-inducing details continue with the unwitting Gallego pontificating on the perils facing the rare card as it tried to survive in her dangerous home.

"She put it in a sandwich bag and push-pinned it to her laundry room wall.

"If it fell off the wall, the cat would have ate it," Gallego says. "Well, or the dog."
It conjures up memories of carefully slipping the more valuable player's likenesses into that hard plastic protective coating and gently placing it aside.

I think of my 1989 Ken Griffey, Jr. rookie card and how it sat on my nightstand for 12 years. How it was going to be my meal ticket.

And how it wasn't.

I bought it at a baseball card show, which was held on a bi-monthly basis at a local mall.

Remember what a joy those bazaars were.

Cards as far as the eye could see. Dealers of varying repute hawking their merchandise. Unwilling parents forking over exorbitant amounts of cash so little Johnny could have his precious Nolan Ryan print.

It was all about the hunt, about finding the diamond in the rough. Armed with all the knowledge we gleaned from the latest edition of Beckett Baseball Card Monthly, we took to the shows looking for that one big score. We thought we knew what we were doing. And we tried so hard.

For Gallego, it fell in her lap.

"We really don't know where we got it," Gallego says. "We don't even know how long we owned this thing."

Makes sense when you consider the Gallegos are a couple of pack-rats who have been married 45 years and whose antique store overflows into their house.

The theory is that the card came out of a storage space they bought a few years back. It's not uncommon in their line of work to buy the entire contents of storage units, usually from a relative of a recently deceased person, for around $200.

That's what the Gallegos think happened here.
The card in question features the 1869 Cincinnati Red Stockings, the first professional team in baseball history. This, of course, means nothing to the couple about to profit from their likeness.

"To Bernice -- who, let's remember, has never been to a baseball game -- it was the history, not the sport that meant something.

"Because I love history, the thing that really got to me was that it's a photo, a real photo of real people, basically taken right after the Civil War," Gallego says. "That's what got to me. I don't know much about them. Who are they? What are they thinking? Those kind of question go through my mind."
Exactly how much money will this hard bring in?

Experts suggest around $100,000.

I can't help but feel it should have been me. But it wasn't. It was her.

So I guess what myself and others who had big dreams of baseball-card wealth and fame can take away from all of this is that life isn't exactly fair. No matter how hard we wanted to profit from our childhood hobby, we didn't.

That's life. Things aren't always going to work out. We've moved on and are punching the clock on a daily basis, grinding out honest livings without our Becketts.

The mall that used to host the shows got tore down. So did our dreams.

But maybe what's important is that we had them. That for brief, fleeting moments we believed we were sitting on a gold mind, making our own luck and that the world was ours for the taking.

Maybe that was more fulfilling than the six-figure payday coming the Gallegos' way.

And maybe the idea that life's next big break could be just around the corner, ready to blindside us with good fortune is the most valuable card of them all.

Surprise Find: A 139-Year-Old Baseball Card   (Hartford Courant)

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This page contains a single entry by Kyle Koster published on January 7, 2009 9:51 AM.

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