Well, here's another person for us to all envy and hate...
Fresno collectors uncover rare 1869 baseball card
By Mike Osegueda / The Fresno Bee
Bernice Gallego sat down one day this summer, as she does pretty much every day, and began listing items on eBay.
She dug into a box and pulled out a baseball card. She stopped for a moment and admired the picture. "Red Stocking B.B. Club of Cincinnati," the card read, under a sepia tone photo of 10 men with their socks pulled up to their knees. The card itself was dirty and wrinkled in a few places.
It was definitely old, Gallego thought. As a collector and seller, it's her job to spot old items that might have value today, to find the gems among the junk.
It's what Bernice, 72, and her husband, Al Gallego, 80, have been doing since 1974 at Collectique, their Tower District antique store full of old jukeboxes, slot machines and records.
This card, she figured, was worth selling on eBay.
She did what she does with most items: Took a picture, wrote a description and put it up for auction. She put a $10 price tag on it, deciding against $15 because it would have cost her an extra 20 cents. Later that night she got a few odd inquiries -- someone wanting to know whether the card was authentic, someone wanting her to end the auction and sell him the card immediately.
Hmm, she thought, this could be something special. It could be worth $50, or even $100.
Or, as Bernice Gallego came to find out in the following weeks, it could be worth a lot more.
The card is actually 139 years old. It, and a handful of others like it, are considered the first baseball cards.
Sports card collectors call the find "extremely rare" and estimate the card could fetch five, or perhaps, six figures at auction. And Bernice was worried about 20 cents. Instead, just like that, she is the least likely protagonist ever for a rare-baseball card story.
"I didn't even know baseball existed that far back," Gallego says, between puffs on her cigarette. "I don't think that I've ever been to a baseball game."
Spooked with all the questions she was getting on eBay, she picked up the phone at 9:30 that night and called her good friend George Huddleston and asked his opinion.
"I never make phone calls after 8 o'clock at night," Gallego says. "My mother taught me never to do things like that."
Huddleston's answer was simple: End the auction now. Figure out what you have and what it's worth before selling it. Her husband, Al, agreed: "Get this thing off the Internet."
So the next morning -- with no bids yet on the card -- she canceled the auction. She wanted to find out more about the card.
Huddleston directed Gallego to a friend who would know what to do: Rick Mirigian, a local concert promoter and card trader who sold a rare basketball card in 2004 for $62,100.
In the meantime, Gallego didn't want the card to get lost, so she put it in a sandwich bag and push-pinned it to her laundry room wall. "If it fell off the wall, the cat would have ate it," Gallego says. "Well, or the dog."
When she met with Mirigian, she found out what the card was -- an 1869 advertisement with a picture of the first professional baseball team, the Cincinnati Red Stockings.
"When I came to meet her and she took it out of a sandwich Baggie and she was smoking a cigarette, I almost fainted," Mirigian says.
"They've uncovered a piece of history that few people will ever be able to imagine or comprehend. And it comes out of Fresno," he says.
"That card is history. It's like unearthing a Mona Lisa or a Picasso." Mirigian's first question to Bernice was what you might expect: Where did you get this?
To this day, the details are sketchy. "We really don't know where we got it," Gallego says. "We don't even know how long we owned this thing."
Makes sense when you consider the Gallegos are a couple of pack-rats who have been married 45 years and whose antique store overflows into their house.
The theory is that the card came out of a storage space they bought a few years back. It's not uncommon in their line of work to buy the entire contents of storage units, usually from a relative of a recently deceased person, for about $200.
That's what the Gallegos think happened here.
Before this, the Gallegos' biggest eBay sale was a John F. Kennedy autograph from 1939 that brought in $1,000.
Since baseball cards were new to them, Mirigian laid out a plan for the Gallegos. They had to get the card authenticated, store it in something better than a plastic bag and put it in a safe place.
So the Gallegos headed south to Los Angeles, bound for the headquarters of PSA, the leading sports card grading and authenticating company, which has graded 12 million items since 1991.
Most people mail their cards off to PSA. The Gallegos decided that for their almost 140-year-old card, they'd rather drive it down. They picked the one day a month that PSA opens its doors to the public, dropped the card off at 9 a.m. and picked it up at 3 p.m., encapsulated and authenticated.
It was all a little much for a dumbstruck Bernice who still says, "It's a little card I found in a bunch of stuff."
They chose not to have the card graded, the process of judging the mintness on a 1-10 scale. It's PSA's most popular service, but in the case of this card, being real and in one piece is the most important thing.
"It does have some pretty significant discoloration and creasing," says Joe Orlando, the president of PSA. "The good news is that the sepia tone photo that is mounted on the front is, relatively speaking, unscathed. The clarity of the photo is still there. If this were graded, it would be near the bottom. But even for a card that low on the grading scale, it does have some eye appeal to it. It still presents fairly well, and that's the more important thing."
And perhaps even more important is the story it tells.
Before the Cincinnati Red Stockings, there were no professional baseball teams. Formed in 1868, the team set the foundation for what we know today as Major League Baseball.
"To borrow a term from rock 'n' roll, they were a kind of supergroup," says Tim Wiles, the director of research at the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, NY.
"They brought in some of the best baseball players from around the country. They went around and challenged all comers. They barnstormed around the country and were undefeated."
The Red Stockings won games by as many as 30, 40 and 50 runs, Wiles says.
"They were kind of an all-star team before that concept really existed," he says. "In 1871, what the Red Stockings started would evolve into the first baseball league and the first sports league."
In 1869, the team's picture ended up on the front of a card advertising Peck & Snyder, a company that sold baseball equipment. Unlike modern baseball cards, the Peck & Snyder card was larger and focused on the whole team, not individual players.
"It really provides a time capsule for the game," says Orlando of PSA. "You look at the picture and the guys are wearing boots. They don't use gloves at that point. The classic uniforms. It was a completely different game at that time."
To Bernice -- who, let's remember, has never been to a baseball game -- it was the history, not the sport that meant something.
"Because I love history, the thing that really got to me was that it's a photo, a real photo of real people, basically taken right after the Civil War," Gallego says. "That's what got to me. I don't know much about them. Who are they? What are they thinking? Those kind of questions go through my mind."
Next is the big question: How much is this card worth? Mirigian says he expects six figures.
The Gallegos are content to put it on eBay and "let it fly."Orlando offers: "The last one that I'm aware, it sold about a year to a year and a half ago, and it sold for well into five figures. You have to let the market decide what it's worth when you're dealing with something this scarce, because there's just not the market history to determine it."
But who would pay that kind of money for a baseball card? "A lot of people use sports memorabilia and sports cards as conversation pieces," Orlando says. "And what a conversation piece this is."
That could mean anybody from a businessman who is a baseball fan to a baseball executive. That's the kind of stuff that Mirigian and Gallego sit around talking about.
"You might have George Steinbrenner wanting to buy this," Mirigian told her one day, referring to the longtime New York Yankees owner."Who's George Steinberg?" she asked.
Plans are to put the card back on eBay, though the auction is expected to draw a little more attention this time, thanks to Mirigian, who is already plotting marketing schemes and sales tactics. He'll get a percentage of the sale for his part.
"I find it so hard to believe that this little card is worth so much," Bernice says. "Neither one of us count chickens before they hatch. We don't want to expect the world out of this find. It's good enough that we've found it, and have been able to enjoy it and share it with a few of our friends. That for us is more of where it's at."
It's not the first time Bernice has unexpectedly walked into a windfall. She hit a $250,000 jackpot playing quarter slots at Harrah's in Lake Tahoe. "She's a very lucky lady," Al Gallego says.
That was 10 years ago. Now this. Next? Who knows. "We gotta live at least another 10 years for the next one," Bernice says.