The boys of summer moved slowly to the dessert line, where two cakes — one with white frosting and the other covered in chocolate — were decorated to celebrate their 40th year.
Lee Temanson was back, talking of his role in founding the Twin Cities Sports Collectors Club in the 1970s. “At one time, I had 185,000 different [sports] cards,” said Temanson, now 77 and wearing a heavy sweater on a warm evening. As he mingled with his gray-haired friends, his wife, Ardelle, explained that “it was hard for him to sell his collection.”
Time and the Internet have erased many of the sports collectors clubs that once dotted the landscape, both nationally and locally. Smartphones and Snapchat occupy a new generation, and the richest collectors — those who pay $20,000 for a game-used Stan Musial jersey — operate on a much higher level.
Dave Bonde, who is himself nearing retirement, holds together what remains of one of the oldest clubs left in the country. Once a month, the 252-member club sets up at the Valley West Mall in Bloomington, an enclosed strip shopping mall that itself evokes the 1960s. There, in a hallway outside a Dollar Tree, a Cabana Tan and a pet hospital, the buying and selling begins again at a pace all its own.
Warren Lightbody has a full set of baseball cards for the 1958 Milwaukee Braves. “This is my club,” he said, opening a binder lined with the aging cards of his favorite team. Mike Krieger offered a Don Mincher-style baseball glove from 1965 and a lapel button from the Minnesota Gophers homecoming football game in 1979.
“This hobby as a whole has aged — is aging — quite a bit,” said Tom Bartsch, who edits the Wisconsin-based Sports Collectors Digest, which has shrunk from 300-page issues to ones that now cover barely 60 pages. “To get excited [by] trading cards — two-dimensional, front-and-back things — just isn’t” enjoyed by most people today.
But Bonde, addressing the group at its annual dinner in April, reported that the club had actually added 14 members in the past year, although still down considerably from the more than 300 members as late as the 1980s. “We’re not sliding, we’re improving,” he said. During dinner, one aging member continued his conversation on boxing with a member half his age, telling him that “you don’t remember Rocky Marciano, but I do.”
Big money in the 1980s
George Vrechek, a writer for the Sports Collectors Digest, said the old sports collector clubs were pushed aside in the 1980s by promoters who took over the business along with get-rich-quick dreamers who thought, “Gee, I’m going to make a lot of money doing this.” The market, said Vrechek, was at the same time flooded by affluent baby boomers who “have to have the best of everything.”
Sports collectors shows, he said, also kept pushing the limit, giving big-time athletes large paychecks to make autograph appearances or offering one-of-a-kind baseball cards “with [a swatch of] Babe Ruth’s jersey” included with it. “I’m expecting them to bring in Lou Gehrig one of these days to sign balls,” Vrechek said, laughing.
Richard Tyson got tired of that frenetic world and came back to Minnesota and Bonde’s club for its slower pace. “It got to be too dirty for me,” said Tyson. He said he remembered one national convention in San Francisco in the late 1980s where people “were standing four deep at every table and they were throwing money at the dealers, and [they] were elbowing each other and pushing each other.
“They couldn’t spend their money fast enough,” Tyson said. “We all did really, really well.”
On the first weekend of the month at the mall, Bonde offers something quite different. The cards go from the noteworthy — Tyson had a top-condition card of Ernie Banks, the recently deceased Chicago Cubs favorite — to the obscure. Anyone with a dollar could buy a card for Lefty O’Doul, the 1920s-era pitcher who once ignominiously gave up 16 runs in three innings of relief pitching.
One customer, strolling by the portable tables, told a friend: “Some good stuff — lot of junk.”
As the small crowd filtered by, Lightbody fussed with the rabbit-eared antenna atop an old TV set so he could watch a golf tournament. “I picked it up for $25 at a garage sale,” he said, almost proudly. A retired minister, he also acts as the club’s security chief, patrolling the mall after hours to make sure the sports collections remain intact.
More than buying and selling
Steve Forsberg, a 20-year club member, said the camaraderie extends beyond sports collecting. When a tree fell in his yard, Forsberg said as he motioned to another collector, “I had Ed there, sitting in the stool, come and cut it up for me. [I’ve] had some people here do a little legal work for me.”
Despite collections that often fill entire basements, the most prized possessions sometimes have little value beyond a memory.
For Bonde, it was a foul ball he grabbed when he went to his first Major League Baseball game in 1962, at the age of 8. “It’s not worth much,” he said. But “my mom had dated it.” Jim Bastyr, sitting with Bonde, said his wife once asked him what he would grab if their house caught fire. “I told her I’d grab the foul ball that I got with my dad in 1971,” he said.
Twins pitcher Jim Kaat threw the pitch, said Bastyr, and Washington Senators slugger Frank Howard fouled it off. “May 8, 1971 — but who remembers?” Bastyr said with a laugh. “It’s maybe worth five bucks to somebody.”
It does not take much prodding to get Bastyr and the others to talk of the obvious: Where does the club go from here?
Bastyr said the real test will come when Bonde, who arrives at the strip mall on Fridays to set up the monthly show, calls it quits. He gives the club no better than a 50-50 chance of surviving once Bonde leaves. Brandon Rodgers, one of the youngest members at age 22, added that “I think Dave is thinking about finding the next person to take over.”
Mendal Mearkle of Apple Valley, a 30-year club member and now 78, said the group has gone through “some apathy” and at one point had probably fewer than 50 members, with only 10 active. “Some of my old friends,” he added, “are long gone.”
For now, Bonde and the others move forward. Two tables away at a show in April, Trent Pilger watched as his 11-year-old son, Ben, carefully sifted through racks of sports cards armed with $170, most of which he got for his birthday. “He’s really into collecting,” said his father. “I gave him a lot of my stuff.”