A fortune was in the cards Luck: Richard W. Davis didn't know his old baseball cards were valuable. Now he's wondering what to do with them.

July 25, 1998|By Robert Little | Robert Little,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Down amid the clutter in the memorabilia storage room of the Babe Ruth Museum is a story. A story of two families with old baseball cards: one of which had its carefully mounted in protective glass, and another that chose the fabled shoebox-in-the-basement method of storage.

Today, one family is in possession of worthless cardboard, the other a collection of $115,000 in baseball rarities. Which one struck it rich?

The one with the shoe box, of course.

Some of the contents of that shoe box -- Baltimore native Richard W. Davis' collection of 90-year-old T-206 tobacco cards -- went on display at the Babe Ruth Museum yesterday. Among them are cards of baseball legends Ty Cobb and "Home Run" Baker. There are also 15 cards featuring 1914 International League Baltimore Orioles -- including a Babe Ruth rookie card -- cards that museum officials didn't even know existed.

Not on display is a card from the T-206 series that an anonymous New York couple had offered to lend the museum, a card they believed was the Hope Diamond of baseball memorabilia: a 1909 Honus Wagner. The couple had sought a public display in hopes of boosting its value at auction this fall toward the $500,000 range.

L Until the museum's appraiser determined the card was a fake.

"We were about to have a press conference," said Michael Gibbons, executive director of the Babe Ruth Museum. "They were devastated. I really believe they had no idea it wasn't real."

Richard Davis was luckier. His 394 cards -- all in what collectors call "good to very good" condition -- have been authenticated by the private appraiser who works with the museum and valued at $40,000. His Baltimore Orioles cards, issued in 1914 with the team's schedule on the backs, are even more rare. Their value was estimated at $75,000, "and that's very conservative," said Bill Kulick, a Baltimore banker and collector who conducted the appraisal.

Different portions of the collection will be on exhibit at the museum through the summer, rotated in and out of the bright display case so they don't fade in the light.

"It's a once-in-a-lifetime thing," said museum curator Greg Schwalenberg. "They're gorgeous. The artwork on them is beautiful. It's really terrific that he would let us display them."

Davis' first inkling that he might have something valuable in his shoe box came two years ago, when he saw a newspaper story about a 1914 Babe Ruth rookie card on display at the Babe Ruth Museum. Sure that he'd seen it before, the 73-year-old Lutherville resident rushed down to his basement and pulled out one just like it.

"I quickly ran that up and put it in a safe deposit box," he said. The one at the museum fetched $32,000 at auction several months later.

Then just recently, on a visit to the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y., Davis spotted some other rare T-206 cards on display. Issued as part of a promotion by 16 tobacco companies from 1909-1911, they are among the most sought-after cards ever circulated.

"I looked at them and said, 'Well, I've got all those, too,' " Davis said.

An employee at Cooperstown advised him to take the rubber bands off them and get them appraised.

"We went through the whole doggone shootin' kebang and put them all inside those plastic [sleeves] you use to protect them," Davis said. "It took all day. And now we have to have two shoe boxes because they take up so much more room."

Davis said that, as a child, he used to play with the cards. His

father gave them to him when he was 9 or 10 years old. His two sons, he said, used to pitch the old Orioles cards at the wall. He was always aware that he owned some old cards and that old cards can be valuable, "but I didn't know what I was sitting on," he said.

The New York couple with the bogus Honus Wagner had precisely the opposite experience. They thought they were sitting on half a million dollars, and that their card had been passed down through the family since the early part of the century. Not likely, said Kulick. It resembles a batch of fraudulent cards made in the 1970s.

Authentic Wagner cards are the Holy Grail of baseball collectors, because the Pittsburgh Pirates slugging shortstop almost immediately halted their production and distribution because of his anti-tobacco sentiments. They are among baseball's most rare -- and thus most valuable -- collectibles.

Museum officials are hoping they can keep the "Davis Collection" indefinitely, possibly displaying it in a new gallery at the future Camden Station location. Davis said he isn't sure what he'll do with the cards.

A lifelong Baltimorean, a retired commercial printer and an Orioles fan, he's considered just giving the cards to the museum.

"But my kids said, 'Oh, Pop. You can't do that!' "

Memorabilia

What: "Miniature Portraits: Rare Pieces From the World of Baseball Cards"

Where: Babe Ruth Birthplace and Museum, 216 Emory St.

Admission: $6 for adults, $4 for seniors, $3 for children 5-16; children under 5 get in free

` Call: 410-727-1539

Pub Date: 7/25/98

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