Shoe Column: Buried Baseball Cards in Stevens Point?
By Tim “Shoe” Sullivan
Disclaimer: The story you are about to read is true. The central part of the story is a guy we’ll call Todd. His brothers are Fred and Jim. Those are also fake names. The reason for using fake names for these three people will become obvious. So grab a chair and sit back because you will now hear one of the zaniest sports stories ever. And it happened right here in good old Stevens Point, Wisconsin.
This saga started perhaps 20 years ago. A girl named Cindy invited me to an after-bar party at a dumpy house.
I was sitting on a beer-stained sofa next to a dude named Todd. I didn’t actually know Todd, but I had heard things about him. He seemed to be in and out of jail a lot and tended to use “alternative facts” frequently. I quickly finished drinking my beer and was planning to leave. But then, right out of the blue, Todd turned to me and said, “So, Cindy tells me you have a nice baseball card collection. How many cards do you have?”
Oddly enough, I used to have over 1,000 baseball cards, but they were mostly from the 1980s and they weren’t a big deal. In fact, I sold most of them months before our little chat. I told Todd that my card collection was a thing of the past. Todd said that was too bad.
Then he dropped the bombshell. “I got a ton of baseball cards,” he said. I didn’t believe him but decided to play along. I asked him to tell me what he supposedly had.
“Well,” Todd replied, “I’d say I got about 4,000 baseball cards, mostly in mint condition. Most of them are from the 1960s but a lot are also from the 1950s. Bowmans and Topps. That ain’t counting all of them unopened wax packs from the ’60s.”
Hoo boy! Couldn’t see how he could keep a straight face. What he just described would make a person very wealthy, and Todd wasn’t rolling in dough. But he certainly peaked my interest. I asked him to name some of the players he had. He started rattling off players’ names — big names! Names like Ted Williams, Pete Rose, Hank Aaron, Willie Mays, and Roger Maris. From reading price guides, I knew that you could get $500 for a 1963 Topps Pete Rose. A 1954 Topps Ted Williams booked for $600. A 1967 Topps Roger Maris might get you $1500.
“Okay,” I said to Todd, “let’s get serious here. Where are all of these cards?”
He answered: “At my house.” I said: “Great! Let’s hop right in my car and drive over there. I’d love to see your baseball cards.”
“We can’t,” he said.
“Why not?” I asked.
He explained, “Because my house burned down about 30 years ago.”
Something wasn’t adding up here.
“So let’s see if I got this straight,” I said. “You had thousands of baseball cards from the ’50s and ’60s and lost all of them when your house burned down. Is that what you’re saying?”
“No — they’re not lost. Those cards are still over there,” he said.
He continued: “My two older brothers (Fred and Jim) and I collected all those cards back in the day when we were kids. We kept them all in a big strong cedar chest down in the basement. Our house burned down in the ’70s. My brothers had moved out by then. I was about 11 at the time of the fire. Nobody got hurt.”
This was getting good.
“But here’s the best part,” Todd said. “I sat out there on the sidewalk and watched the bulldozers clear out all of the debris. They missed the basement. The roof of our basement was made out of real strong railroad ties. That bulldozer went right over the basement roof. Then they planted a backyard right over our basement roof and built us a new house a few yards away.”
Then Todd said, “So what I’m saying is that the cedar chest and all of those cards are still down there. No doubt about it.”
The next day, just for giggles, Cindy and I drove over to the site of his old house. She pointed to a backyard with a perfect lawn. “That’s where the house that burned down was,” she said.
The new house was right where he said it should be, and the sidewalk was in plain view. My mind wandered as I stared at that backyard. A 1962 Topps Bob Uecker could bring $50. A 1968 Topps Nolan Ryan was worth $300. A 1955 Topps Roberto Clemente could fetch $1300. And this guy who had a history of lying was saying that there were thousands of those cards still down there in a comfy strong cedar chest?
A year passed. Then I ran into Todd’s older brother Jim at a softball game. He was a real straight shooter. Jim was a great guy and a softball teammate of mine for a few years. We had a little chat. I asked Jim, “How many brothers do you have?”
He answered: “Two. Freddie’s two years behind me and Todd’s seven years behind Freddie.”
I asked him what his opinion of Todd was. Jim replied, “Todd? He goes his way and I go mine. Not trying to be mean, but he tends to tell some strange stories.”
I told Jim everything that Todd had told me. Bombshell No. 2: Jim backed it all up.
Jim said, “Well, I wasn’t around when they bulldozed the old house. Freddie and I had already moved out. I was married and kinda forgot about those cards. Todd was the only one around to keep the cedar chest full.”
“I loved the Milwaukee Braves when I was a kid. Hell, everyone did. Freddie and I started collecting cards in 1957 or so,” he said. “Every time we had any extra money, it always went for baseball cards from the neighborhood grocery stores. There had to be 20 kids in our neighborhood who collected cards. Everybody did it. We all had our favorite teams. At least half of the kids in the neighborhood rooted for Milwaukee. Mathews, Spahn, Aaron, Burdette, Adcock….Some of the kids also liked the Cubs and Dodgers. Ernie Banks. Sandy Koufax. We were pretty much a National League neighborhood.”
“Was there much card trading going on?” I asked Jim.
“Oh geez,” he grinned. “Every day! A kid down the block loved the Pirates. I think his goal was to get every baseball card of every Pittsburgh Pirate ever made. If you gave him someone from Pittsburgh, he’d give you the moon, and I don’t mean Wally Moon. I’m not kidding. He’d trade you his Ernie Banks and Willie Mays if you gave him a nice spiffy Smoky Burgess and toss in a Mazeroski. The only Pirate I wouldn’t give him was Clemente cuz I liked Roberto’s name. Man, that kid couldn’t wait to get into our daily poker games!”
“Oh yeah — a bunch of us played poker every day. Instead of money, we used baseball cards,” he said. “Me and Freddie would go to the cedar chest in the basement and pick out a few handfuls of cards. The thing was almost full when we really got going. I had so many Hank Aarons and Eddie Mathews that I couldn’t count all of them.”
A 1954 Topps Hank Aaron equaled about $750. A 1952 Eddie Mathews went for $6500.
“Nobody liked the Yankees; the big shot Yankees from big New York,” he added. “We were from little Wisconsin. Some older guys in the neighborhood were rooking us all the time. They wanted our Braves’ cards and maybe the Cubs. They’d give us all their Yankee cards. Nobody wanted the Yankees.”
Not even Mickey Mantle?
“Mantle?” Jim laughed. “Especially Mickey Mantle. We used to call him ‘Mickey Shelf’, like the shelf on top of the fireplace. It was our little joke. If you had three Mickey Mantles of the Yankees and three Johnny Logans of the Braves, everyone would try to get your Logans.”
In 1963, Jim had a paper route and his card collection really took off. Jim explained:
“Freddie and I started buying boxes of cards. You got about 20 packs in a box. We didn’t even open most of them. An unopened wax pack was like gold in those poker games. We’d buy a box of wax packs and put most of the packs in the cedar chest. We knew one goofy guy named Al. For some reason, all he cared about was the Detroit Tigers, and they were in the American League. He’d give you a whole team for Al Kaline, Norm Cash, and Rocky Colavito.” But then the Braves broke my heart in 1963 or so. The word got out that they were moving to Atlanta. I felt like they were traitors so I needed a new team to cheer for. I picked the Yankees cuz everyone else hated them. I bet that by 1965, half of that cedar chest was filled with Yankee baseball cards.”
1953 Topps Mickey Mantle: $2000. 1951 Bowman Mickey Mantle: $5500. 1952 Topps Mickey Mantle: $11,000.
And they all got wiped out because of the fire in the ’70s?
Jim said, “Todd’s right about that basement ceiling being made from the railroad ties. I was out of town for about two weeks right after the fire. Nobody got hurt. The cedar chest was down in the basement and so were a lot of other things. When I got back to town, the foundation of the new house was already up. The backyard was sitting where our old house used to be.”
It was time for the big question. I asked Jim, “So, do you think that cedar chest is still down there?”
“Well, I pretty much forgot about those cards and the cedar chest when I got out of high school,” he said. “We sold the house many years ago. I live about 15 minutes from our old house, and I drove back there some years ago to just look around. There’s a back porch on the new house. I saw a sidewalk leading up to some cement steps next to the back porch. Those steps seemed to be sinking. In fact, part of the backyard also seemed to be sinking.”
Sinking? Backyard lawns and cement steps don’t sink as you just wake up one morning. But old wooden railroad ties might start rotting after decades of rain, sleet, snow, storms, and bugs.
Ever see $1 million worth of old baseball cards buried in a cedar chest under a lawn?
Anyone got a shovel?