Joe Keane has pulled out some of his best cards, and now Max Valencia, owner and manager of the San Francisco Card Exchange, is flipping through them, ticking off the years and keeping the values in his head.
"Sixty-three McCovey, '58 Spahn, '56 Williams, '66 Mays, '64 Koufax, '63 Mantle...." Valencia comes across a procession of cards with matted beige borders. "Nice '68s," he says as he shuffles through the lineup: Rose, Seaver, Stargell, Yastrzemski and Clemente ("Bob" Clemente, the card says).
The cleanup hits of '68 are a pair of rookie cards, Johnny Bench and Nolan Ryan. "This," says Valencia, pointing to Ryan, "is the card everybody's looking for. It's a hot card." Dealers are charging up to $800 for the Ryan, which means Keane could get $400 for it today. But—and here's the twist—he really did not want to sell it. These cards he's showing Valencia are worth $2,000. He's got another 70 or so that might fetch $10 apiece, and 500 more from the '60s, 80 of them bearing players' autographs. In fact, he had another 40 cards a boyhood friend had given him, including a Bowman '54 Mantle, worth $500 in good condition, and he gave them back.
In an era when dealer Alan Rosen (Mr. Mint) brags about spending $4 million a year on cards, and when kids go to The People's Court over the Billy Ripken error card, Keane is a Bowman in a world gone Toppsy-turvy.
Like many of his contemporaries, the 36-year-old Keane collected baseball cards throughout his childhood, but he thought they had been lost long ago. Then in 1988, when his parents moved from their San Francisco home, the cards resurfaced. The discovery sent Keane down memory lane.
Keane, who works as an electrical technician on the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge, grew up in the Bay Area. He and his father, Richard, often went to games at Candlestick Park. The elder Keane also helped his son collect major leaguers' autographs.
Richard, an accountant, had a weekend job at the Jack Tar Hotel, which happened to be the hotel of choice for many visiting National League teams in the '60s. While Richard worked, Joe and his buddies would hang out in the lobby, their cards and autograph books at the ready, waiting for players.
Keane also sent cards to players, hoping to get them back with autographs. Mays ignored his request; McCovey didn't. Whitey Ford, Yogi Berra and Roger Maris also returned signed cards.
Nowadays, in most cases, the signatures are seen as defacements. Keane shrugs and says, "The last thing you were thinking about as a kid was the value of a card."
Needless to say, "mint" wasn't in Keane's vocabulary then. "I taped all my autographed cards on the wall. My bed was surrounded by baseball and football cards," he recalls.
So he felt especially bad when, in 1976, he thought he had lost his collection. John Duggan, a family friend 12 years Keane's senior, had also collected cards and autographs. In Keane, says Duggan, "I saw someone who would have tremendous joy for the cards." So he gave Keane his collection.
Soon after Keane rediscovered his cards, he returned Duggan's cards to him. As for his own, he now has them tucked away neatly in plastic pockets.
"I can remember how much fun it was to send them away and have them come back," he says. "I used to eat baseball for breakfast. It was the first thing I really, really liked. These cards are my memories, and I don't want to sell them."
Nowadays, he says, baseball card collecting "is like the stock market. Everybody's trying to turn a profit."
Keane is hesitant to criticize others. After all, he did end up selling the '68 Ryan, but only, he says, because he really needed the cash. "I don't plan to sell any more," he says. "But you never know. If those 'payment due' slips start piling up...."
A fellow sentimentalist can only nod in agreement. You hope you never hit a slump, but if it comes, it's nice to have Mantle, Yaz, Mays and Musial coming off your bench.
Ben Fong-Torres is a free-lance writer based in San Francisco.