Collector seeks rare Scranton baseball cards

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NEW YORK – SEPTEMBER 21: A man sells vintage baseball cards prior to the start of the last game at Yankee Stadium between the Baltimore Orioles and the New York Yankees on September 21, 2008 at Yankee Stadium in the Bronx borough of New York City. Yankee Stadium held it’s inaugural game on April 18, 1923 against the Boston Red Sox and tonight’s match will be the final game to be played at the historic stadium. During it’s 85 years as ”The Home of Champions,” the stadium has also been known as ”The House that Ruth Built” and ”The Cathedral.” The stadium has been host to 33 World Series, three Papal visits and has been visited by legends such as Babe Ruth, Joe DiMaggio, Yogi Bera, Mickey Mantle and boxing great Muhummad Ali. In 2009 the Yankees will move across the street to a newly constructed stadium estimated to cost $1.3 billion. (Photo by Chris McGrath/Getty Images)

SCRANTON, Pa. (AP) — In the most fun card game a baseball fan as big as he is could play, Stephen Olson is potentially holding a miracle hand. He just needs to be dealt two more cards to complete it.

Tucked away somewhere in a drawer inside his desk in Santa Rosa, California, Olson has a dozen century-old postcards, carefully preserved. Even among cards that age, they’re considered rare. Sell them, and Olson might be able to pocket enough to purchase a new sports car, or some season tickets with a breathtaking view of the bay at San Francisco’s Oracle Park.

But he’s not getting in touch with sportswriters at the newspaper in Scranton to brag, or to try to cash in on a treasure.

“What fun would that be?” Olson asks with a laugh during a telephone interview when asked if he’d ever dream of selling what he’s got.

Fun would be getting the miracle flop, finding the dealer to lead him to those two cards — Jocko Halligan and E.J. Coleman — to complete the set of 14 known players and, in the card-collecting world, what indeed would be considered among the rarest of collections.

For the last 15 years, the 73-year-old semiretired attorney has been not only seeking the 13th and 14th cards he needs to finish it off, but finding out that doing so has always been seen as a challenge.

His dozen cards were created sometime between 1908 and 1909 by the Rose Company, a Philadelphia postcard maker at the turn of the century that produced cards of players from the 16 teams in the major leagues of the time as well as members of the 1908 New York State League champion — the Scranton Miners.

Because the team is an exception — they’re the only minor-league team included in the set — and because the cards are rare, they’re considered almost a holy grail in the bustling world of card collecting.

So, Olson is turning here for the help he has been seeking on and off for the last 15 years. Because if there are any spare Jocko Halligan and E.J. Coleman cards awaiting discovery in a shoebox or attic, it’s most likely they’ll be found where the mystery of their very existence began.

Lifelong obsessions

Baseball always infatuated Olson.

He grew up in Jamestown, New York, following the Detroit Tigers’ Class D minor league team as a teenager. His father was a high school classmate of Stan Musial; he even got to meet the great Cardinals slugger at his St. Louis restaurant on the Olson family’s cross-country vacation in 1958.

Like most young Americans gripped by the national pastime in the 1950s and ’60s, Olson collected baseball cards by the bike-basketful.

“And also like most my age, my mother threw out some that would probably be quite valuable today,” Olson laughed, still fawning over the beauty of his long-gone Sandy Koufax rookie card. “And others, I clipped to my bicycle so they would make noise in the spokes.”

As an adult, he moved to Pittsburgh, practicing law for decades in the shadow of Three Rivers Stadium and the great Pirates teams of the ’70s, and even as he aged, his love of baseball was well known among family members.

That’s why his brother thought of him when he saw that group of 12 cards at an estate sale in the first half of the 1990s.

First time Olson looked at them, he knew he had … something.

It didn’t take much research to learn they were created by the Rose Co., but learning a bit about the players, most of whom he never knew existed, took a bit more effort. He did know one player, though: A 32-year-old outfielder named Archibald “Moonlight” Graham, who played more than 250 games in Scranton. Seventy years after that final season of Graham’s professional career, the blockbuster film “Field of Dreams” immortalized his career and the only half-inning he ever played in the major leagues with the New York Giants in 1905.

Outside of Graham, the Scranton cards in Olson’s pile featured long-forgotten players like Heinie Beckendorf and Lew Groh, Charles Moran and Gus Zeime.

He stashed them away, then took them out again after he moved west, to California and wine country.

“Then,” he said, “it started.”

Only, his search for the Halligan and Coleman cards hit dead end after dead end. He never so much as got a lead on their potential whereabouts, never mind a road map to get his hands on them.

There’s a good reason for that.

“I mean, these postcards are super rare,” said Kevin Struss, a dealer and longtime collector in Laguna Beach, California, who has the only known complete set of Scranton cards from the Rose Co. “The average Rose Company postcard, there’s only three or four copies known to exist. The Scranton players, in particular, are rarer than the American League and National League players.”

Little miracles

Baseball cards are life for John Odell, who spends his days surrounded by some of the most coveted cards ever produced.

The curator of research and history at the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York, Odell got to live a dream when he worked as lead curator on the Hall’s spectacular Shoebox Treasures exhibit, which details the history of baseball cards. Its collection offers museumgoers a chance to see some of the most valuable cards in existence, including the T206 Honus Wagner tobacco card, one of which sold for $3.75 million at auction in May.

But when he hears about Olson’s collection of Scranton cards from the Rose Co. — card collectors know it as the PC716 series — even Odell fawns just a little.

“To my mind, they are more attractive and interesting than the more famous T206s,” he raved.

“The set itself is so interesting,” he went on. “It’s so beautiful. … It’s almost like getting sort of a matted portrait.”

Rose Co. postcards commemorated holidays, historic events, famous actors and, of course, major leaguers. They made blank forms of the baseball cards, presumably so buyers could put their own photo in the circle and feel like a major leaguer, if they chose. Plus, they were larger, more substantial — and more kid friendly — than the T206 tobacco cards that were all the rage in the summer of 1908.

The major league portion of the set featured an early Ty Cobb card, two Christy Mathewson cards and what is considered Walter Johnson’s only true rookie card.

Not bad for a nickel per card, or a quarter for anyone who wanted to splurge for the whole set during the Theodore Roosevelt administration.

They’re so rare, Odell said the Hall of Fame has only four examples of the cards in its collection, most notably one of Philadelphia A’s pitcher Chief Bender. PSA, a renowned sports authentication and grading service, considers cards from the collection “very scarce.” In collecting, that means very valuable.

A Mathewson card from the set sold for more than $18,000 at auction last December. Cobb cards have gone for even more. Struss estimates a Moonlight Graham card, the existence of which he calls “a small miracle,” could top five figures at auction.

Lingering mysteries

Those 1908 Miners were quite a story locally that summer, dazzling fans and overwhelming opponents at the dusty Brooks Athletic Field, which sat where Scranton High School’s Veterans Memorial Stadium now stands.

Manager Malachi Kittridge’s Miners finished the season 84-51, a franchise record for wins that stood for 35 years, long past the point when Yankees slugger Babe Ruth’s penchant for slugging home runs changed the way teams like the Miners played the game decades earlier.

One vestige of the dead-ball era that did survive into the 1930s was card collecting, Odell said. But for 10 of the 14 Miners players whose faces were immortalized in the Rose Co.’s set, this mysterious series remained their only one.

They were first printed in the summer of 1908, weeks before the Miners sealed the league title by outlasting the likes of the Binghamton Bingoes and the Utica Pent-Ups. So, winning the championship doesn’t seem to have been a factor. Perhaps proximity to the Rose Co. and Philadelphia had something to do with it, but the Wilkes-Barre Barons were in the league, too, and even nearer to company headquarters.

So today, the reason these cards were produced can be little more than theory.

“And I think it will be forever, at this point, unless we find correspondence from the Rose Company from 110 years ago,” Odell said.

One of the few collectors in the nation who have focused intently on the PC716 set, Struss believes the Miners cards weren’t distributed nationally with the AL and NL players, but rather were part of a subset distributed in and around Scranton. The fact that he just doesn’t see that many of them is one clue. Another is that the few he has seen actually used as postcards are postmarked from Scranton.

The best clue may be in one of the cards Olson needs.

Eddie “E.J.” Coleman was one of the most popular men in Scranton at the turn of the century, a politician, county sheriff, restaurateur and friend of the stars — heavyweight boxing champion Jack Dempsey was often a guest at the Coleman home on the 700 block of North Webster Avenue in the city. Philadelphia A’s manager Connie Mack also was a close friend.

In 1908, Coleman was also sole owner of the Miners, and he’s the only nonplayer with a card in the Rose Co. set. It’s conceivable his ability to promote his businesses and the city led to a deal with the Rose Co. to build excitement around his championship team.

Whatever the reason, two of those cards remain outside Olson’s grasp, and he knows it’s most likely that, if there are any unknown stragglers, they’re here.

If you have them, he’d sure like to talk.

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