I came across a familiar object at the recent National Sports Collectors Convention in Chicago: one of the world’s rarest and most valuable baseball card posters. In June 2016, I reported on a Wisconsin policeman who overheard a conversation at his station. The topic was a TV story about the discovery of the Lucky 7 Ty Cobb tobacco cards in the South.
The policeman announced to his colleagues that he owned a poster advertising Cracker Jack baseball cards in 1915. It had been hanging for 90 years in a barn on the property he bought 10 years before. Candy and drug stores displayed such posters to push sales of the classic caramel and peanut treat. Only a few posters have survived.
Seven of the eleven players pictured have plaques in Cooperstown: Ty Cobb, Frank “Home Run” Baker, Tris Speaker, Honus Wagner, Joe Tinker, Johnny Evers, and Rabbit Maranville. The top card in the Cracker Jack set, the banished “Shoeless Joe” Jackson, appears, as well.
Mile High Card Company bought the poster, one of the hobby’s “white whales,” from the cop for big money and sold it in May 2016 for $60,979.20.
Photo by Mile High Card Company
The policeman's Cracker Jack poster before restoration. Note the missing pieces that have since been filled in.
The Denver-based auction house was upfront about the surface being soiled and stained. Several small pieces were missing, too. “As a firm we have waffled on whether to have the item cleaned, or to have the item cleaned and then fully restored,” Mile High said in its catalog description. “After much deliberation, we have chosen to offer the treasure just as it was unearthed, and let the future custodian of this keepsake make their own choice in its preservation and presentation.”
That custodian took Mile High’s words to heart and paid an art conservator to remove much, if not all, of the soil, and fill in the paper loses. He then framed the holy relic between two panes of glass for full visibility on the front and back.
Now he’s trying to flip it in Heritage’s Platinum Sports Night Auction, which closes on August 19. In Chicago there appeared to be a bit of a disagreement between the two auction houses about whether the unidentified consignor is a collector or a speculator.
In my book, he’s a speculator. Big time. He’s gambling that the restoration and frame, combined with Heritage’s marketing muscle, will give him a handsome return on his investment in just 15 months.
Photo by Heritage Auctions.
The back of the poster since restoration. It notes that a collector could purchase the entire set with one quarter and a coupon.
While on the sports card and memorabilia beat, I’ve met plenty of collectors and speculators who support their habit by buying, say, vintage game-used bats in one auction and flipping them in another. In Chicago, another speculator-collector I know told me that he’s betting his farm on vintage unopened baseball card packs, like those found recently, and complete unused tickets.
The Cracker Jack consignor is hedging his bets. Heritage has set a reserve, or floor, of $75,000 that has yet to be met. The auction house has also placed a robust estimate of $100,000.
The kind folks at Heritage took the poster out of its glass case to let me photograph Michael Osacky holding it. He’s a diehard Crack Jacker collector and the dean of the candy company’s baseball card historians.
Photo by David Seideman
Cracker Jacker collector, Michael Osacky, in at the recent Chicago at the National Sports Collectors Convention in Chicago.
“The poster is something I am of course familiar with, but NEVER touched or seen in person,” he emailed me afterwards. “If I could thank the ‘stewards’ who found it, I would do so. All it takes is one second or one thought for somebody over the past 100 years to say, ‘Let's toss this poster in the garbage can.’
Whether you approve of the restoration or not, this is a six-figure piece of history. There may never be another one found. I hope one day it ends up in a museum for the masses to view and learn from.”