When former Major League Outfielder Andy Pafko passed away a few years ago at age 92, the wire service story cited many highlights of his career. He was a four-time All-Star, played on the last Chicago Cubs team to reach the World Series before 2016 (in 1945) and also played in three additional Fall Classics with the Dodgers and the Braves. Also, for trivia fans, he was Brooklyn’s left-fielder in the 1951 playoff game when Bobby Thomson’s “shot heard round the world” home run sailed over his head.
What the casual fan or younger-than-50 sportswriter doesn’t know is the impact Andy Pafko has had on card collectors for over two generations. Not every baseball card of significant value belongs to a Hall-of-Famer or star player. Sometimes circumstance and timing create a legendary story about an everyday ballplayer. This is the joy and wonderment of card collecting and why it continues to be a passion for Baby Boomers everywhere.
In 1952, the Topps Company issued their first full set of baseball cards. Even though Bowman produced cards in the late 40’s and early 50’s, this was the first “modern set” with 407 cards in four series sold in packs with bubble gum. To this day, the “holy grail” of modern cards is the Mickey Mantle issue from this set. It was the first card in the last series (#311), which meant that it had a scarcity value in addition to the popularity of the player. Today, if you owned this card in “Excellent” (EX 5) condition, it would be worth over $50,000! The set also includes Willie Mays, Jackie Robinson, Roy Campanella and Yogi Berra. The value of those four cards, however, pales in comparison to that of the card of Andy Pafko.
In the 1950’s, when youngsters opened their packs of baseball cards, the standard practice was to put them in order by the card number on the back, then stack them into an empty shoe box. In order to keep them neat and upright, rubber bands were used on groups of cards. Sometimes 50, sometimes 100 or even an entire group that wasn’t yet a complete set. This method seemed logical at the time because the condition of the cards wasn’t really an issue the kids cared about. After all, some duplicates ended up in the spokes of bicycle tires. Over the years, as card collecting became a real hobby, it became obvious that the top and bottom card from all these rubber-banded stacks took the most abuse. And the top card of every stack was #1 – Andy Pafko! Today, a “Near Mint” 1952 Topps Andy Pafko card is worth $10,000!
At the National Sports Collectibles Show in Anaheim about 20 years ago, one of the dealers had posters for sale. The picture was of an elderly woman in a housedress with her grey hair in a bun. She was standing next to a metal barrel that had flames coming out and she was tossing baseball cards into the fire. The title at the bottom said, “The Great American Tragedy”. For me and countless other kids of the 50’s & 60’s, this caused us to laugh and cry at almost the same moment. My Mom threw away my card collection sometime between our move from New England to California and I was well into my 30’s before the thought of card collecting crept into my brain once again.
The original goal for creating a new collection was very modest. Nostalgia was the motivation and I set out to collect all the Red Sox cards of the 50’s and all the Dodger cards of the 60’s. Of course, it was obvious that the cardboards of Ted Williams and Sandy Koufax wouldn’t come cheap, but with condition not being a priority, it seemed that the goal was achievable. In the days before the Internet, the best resource for this quest was a small publication called “Baseball Card Checklists”. It listed each year of Topps baseball cards and categorized the players by team and number. With my trusty book, I set out to Southern California cards shows and hobby shops to search through stacks of cards that included common players like Don Buddin & Jim Lefebvre while occasionally splurging on Maury Wills or Jimmy Piersall.
At some point, the realization was clear that not every card was going to be easy to find. The one that seemed most difficult was the 1963 rookie card of Dodgers 3B Ken McMullen (#537). He was modestly successful as a player, but his .248 lifetime batting average over 16 seasons wouldn’t really make anyone take notice. However, in every visit, I came up empty on the McMullen card – not even finding one in lousy condition. In retrospect, it becomes obvious that my knowledge of baseball cards was limited and the project I had created was a fool’s game. You see, in 1963, Topps decided to put four Rookie players on a card and so McMullen shared #537 with Pedro Gonzalez, Al Weis & Pete Rose. That’s right, I was looking through bargain bins for a Pete Rose rookie card! Today, a Ken McMullen Rookie Card in “Near Mint” condition will cost you over $1,500!
These two stories are not unique, as there as numerous examples of cards of ordinary players that will surprise you with their value. In the same ’63 set, fans of Tom Tresh would have to pay over $100 for card #173 because he shares it with Mickey Mantle. If you’re the world’s #1 fan of Jim Gosger, be prepared to pay $200+ for the ’63 rookie card he shares with Willie Stargell. Did you just love Jerry Koosman? His rookie card from 1968 (#177) will only set you back a little over $1,000 because the other young hurler on the cardboard is Nolan Ryan.
It is part of the charm of being a collector and keeps you from getting too carried away with yourself as an expert. As for me, I’m looking for that 1967 rookie card of Bill Denehy (#581). The last dealer wanted $900 because there’s also a guy named Seaver on the card, but I’ve never heard of him.