Baseball card buffs browse Harford Mall 3-day show continues today

January 31, 1993|By Frank Lynch | Frank Lynch,Staff Writer

Outside the wind blew hard and cold. But inside Harford Mall, thoughts turned to boys of summer and dealing in the childhood currency of baseball cards.

Yesterday, hundreds of baseball card buffs from as far away as Pittsburgh descended on the Bel Air mall selling or seeking cards depicting players from Mickey Mantle and Babe Ruth to the rookie Cal Ripken Jr.

The three-day show, which continues noon to 5 p.m. today, drew more than 30 dealers, some of whom hit up to 45 shows a year.

For Mike Mahaney and Jim Black, the show represents one of the three their company, B & M Productions, will produce this year in the mall.

"I get excited at these shows," said Mr. Mahaney. "It's not because of the financial reward, which is less than $1,000, but rather the opportunity fans have to see the wide range of cards on display. Some of the dealers have collections valued in the hundreds of thousands of dollars."

Like Jim Manacher, an attorney from Lancaster, Pa., who has amassed some 2 million cards with a total value exceeding $500,000.

"I only bring a portion of the cards I own to these shows," he said, arranging his display. This time, he brought all his Oriole cards, along with 3,000 cards of Harold Baines, the Maryland native who just joined the Orioles as a free agent.

But, Mr. Manacher said, "I have cards from the 1930s and 1940s that never leave the security of my home."

That security is a 15- by 20-foot fireproof, walk-in vault equipped with a steel door and double drywall paneling. "No one," he said, "gains access to that room unless I'm with them."

He brings to the shows cards from the 1950s to 1985. Why 1985? "Because the business went wacky after that," said Mr. Manacher, who has been collecting cards since 1968.

"Too many manufacturers producing too many products flooded the market just to make a buck. There are so many cards on the market today that they will never attain the value of the old cards."

He pointed to the rookie card of Cal Ripken Jr. with a book value of $75. His Ripkens were priced at $65. At a recent show, he said, a speculator bought 50 Ripken rookies, sold them for a profit and returned the next day to buy another 50.

As long as the Oriole shortstop stays in the lineup, Mr. Manacher said, the value of his card will increase. If Ripken surpasses Lou Gehrig's record of 2,130 consecutive games played, the value of the card will double, Mr. Manacher predicted.

But then if Ripken sits one out before breaking the record, the price could drop as much as $25.

That prospect didn't seem to bother Thomas Prosser, 8, and his brother Sean, 5.

Accompanied by their mother, Kathy, the Fallston youngsters had a purpose -- to buy as many Cal Ripken Jr. cards as possible. Sean took it a step further, saying he wanted any Oriole card.

Tom McFadden and his son, Tommy, had a different agenda. "We're strictly looking for bargains," the Abingdon resident said, flipping through cards in the box labeled " 1/2 off."

Bruce Antiposovich, a 40-year-old auditor with the U.S. Department of Transportation, traveled from Bowie with hopes of "filling out" some recent Leaf and Fleer Ultra sets, while William Hombey and his wife Margaret, a retired couple from Anne Arundel County, bought a box of Fleer Excel Minor League cards.

Andy George, 14, of Fallston, said he has been collecting baseball and hockey cards since 1988 and specializes in Jose Canseco, Mark McGwire, Mickey Tettleton and Eric Lindros cards. Another Fallston resident, 13-year-old Lee Litteral, searched for Cecil Fielder cards.

For Phil Szajnuk, the mall show provides a nice change of pace from the high-pressure major shows that attract thousands of "serious collectors." The Pittsburgh dealer, a retired sales manager, is on the road about 45 weeks a year. He and his wife drive all over the country, mixing business with the pleasure of dealing in baseball cards.

Most of his 500,000 cards date to before 1960 -- the end of the "real" baseball cards, in his view. Players now enshrined in the Hall of Fame -- a rookie Yogi Berra, a near-mint Early Wynn, a rare Jackie Robinson and a nifty Bob Feller -- filled Mr. Szajnuk's display cases.

He says he shares many dealers' view that the major manufacturers have gotten greedy and are glutting the market.

And so the search for the elusive cards, the real cards, however they may be defined, goes on.

Charles Little of Bel Air is still searching. He failed to find the 1959 Topps card #336 of Billy Loes he wanted yesterday.

Just like in the real world of baseball, you can't always get the player you want.

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