When I was about 12 years old, my dad gave me his old baseball cards. Actually he didn’t give them to me so much as I absorbed them into my collection after the cards emerged from our basement, wet from a heavy Chicago rainstorm. Many were still glued – glued! – to dad’s yellowing childhood scrapbooks, which we held above a steaming teapot and tried to peel away from the backing. Some came out relatively unscathed.
At that age, I was an avid collector, buying packs of cards from the pharmacy whenever I could, sorting them into sets and putting the best into a special plastic binder, which I’d cart around to friends’ houses. When my dad’s cards surfaced, my collection went from standard 80s bubblegum fare to an impressive cache including the likes of Satchel Paige, Ted Williams, Jackie Robinson, Mickey Mantle, Willie Mays, and more.
My dad would sometimes come to my room and help me sort through them. We arranged the cards in numerical order, in the long cardboard boxes made for this purpose. During one of these sessions he quietly mentioned that he used to have a rookie Mantle, an absolutely legendary rare card that he “lent” to a friend and never got back. “What do you mean you lent it?!” I asked. But my dad wouldn’t discuss it further.
Months would pass before I’d broach the subject again and eventually I got a bit more information. I learned that when my dad was in college, an unnamed friend, a collector, asked to borrow the Mantle to complete his set for an upcoming card convention. “So he should give it back to you,” I demanded. But my dad just sighed. I never learned who this friend was. And it was not something my dad was eager to discuss, like something unspeakably shameful.
Flash forward 35 years. I’m standing at my dad’s shiva, greeting a stream of well-wishers, among them a handful of my dad’s old-time friends, most of whom I’d never met. While chatting, one of them said, “Your dad had some incredible baseball cards.” And I said, “Yeah, he really did. He gave them all to me, even told me he once had a rookie Mantle.” And this guy was like, yeah, I don’t doubt it, and then he said, “Look, if you ever want to sell them let me know.” And I said, ok, I’ll seriously consider it because I have been meaning to sell them. (Which was true, I’d been raising funds for my upcoming first-home purchase and recently got a disappointing $2500 offer from a dealer in Cincinnati, which I’d just refused. They said the condition of the cards was “a bit rough.”) So this guy gave me his business card and I moved on to chatting with the next person at the shiva.
Later that week, I asked my mom who that guy was and she said, oh, that was Dave Silvers, old friend of your dad’s. And then it hit me, the motherfucker. A random old friend and the only thing he mentions after my dad dies is his baseball cards? I wanted to confront him but also really wanted to sell the cards. I figured his conscience might drive him to make me a solid offer.
The next week I emailed him.
Dave, Great to meet you earlier this week.
I would love to take you up on your offer of taking a look at my baseball cards.
Attached is my complete list of valuable cards (the rest are commons).
My understanding is that the cards are in good or very good condition, but not mint or near mint.
Best, Elliott (Leonard’s son)
He replied within an hour:
Dear Elliott: I just took a quick look at your list of cards and see that you have a number of very valuable issues but without seeing them it is hard to be precise on value. The reason is that there are great differences in the value of a card based upon condition and grading. When I collected I did so as a hobby which meant that if I needed a card it didn’t bother me if the corners were rounded rather than sharp or if the back had a gum stain after all they came wrapped around gum and you would expect stains on the backs. Today’s collectors however are in to make money and consider the purchase of cards an investment and not simply a hobby. For that reason top quality cards of Hall of Fame players are worth considerable amounts of money while top quality common cards of obscure players continue to increase in value provided they are from desirable issues, top quality and graded. The sports cards you list are: (1) not graded; (2) very popular issues and (3) of various quality which I do not know since I’ve not seen your cards.
An hour later, before I even had a chance to reply, he replied again with a lengthy, technical overview of card grading, which concluded:
Since I’ve tried to give you a good deal of background information about determining card value please confirm your receipt of my emails so I can be sure that you received my information. I’m not sure how much you already knew so I assumed since you were not a collector having gotten the cards from your father that you had limited information about card value. If you already knew all of this I’m sorry for telling you what you already knew. I’ll get back to you as soon as I can. Dave
Two days later he emailed me again. I hadn’t yet replied:
Did you get my earlier emails about your cards? Dave
What I didn’t appreciate at the time was just how eager he was. And while he had the leverage of being my only potential buyer — I wasn’t about to sell the collection card-by-card on eBay — I had his eagerness as a potential advantage. Also, there was the near certainty that he’d stolen my father’s Mantle, another advantage in my favor, that is, if he had a conscience. Did he even know that I knew it was him?
Later that evening:
Dave, I just had a chance to go through your emails. Yes, I am familiar with grading and I think it’s wise to assume that most of my cards fall somewhere around the “very good” level. Thank you for all of that background. Thanks, Elliott
What were you offered for your cards and which dealer made the offer? Are you looking to sell them or do you want to hold on to them? Dave Silvers
And rather than state an inflated figure, I gave the actual amount:
I was offered about $2500 for the whole lot, which is not nearly enough money for me to be willing to part with them. This was the dealer who made the offer: http://www.deanscards.com/
I know the dealer. One of the largest inventory of cards in the business. I need a lot of what you have. Are you looking to sell and if so do you have a figure in mind. Let me know. Maybe we can work something out that both of us would be happy with. I’m not looking to make money by reselling them. I’m not a dealer. I would just like to fill in some holes in my collection. Dave
A week passed. Dave again:
Have you thought about a price? Dave
I was under the impression the collection was worth around $20k. After getting the low offer from Dean’s, I’d be willing to part with it for around half that. I could always send them to my mom in Chicago if you want to take a look.
That would be great. Not only do I know your mother, we went out a few times before she started dating your father. Let me know when your mom has them and tell her I’ll call and arrange a convenient time to drop by and look at them. Give me her telephone number and I’ll call her after she has them. After I look at them I’ll contact you. Dave
I tell you what. I’m coming back to Chicago some time in the next 6 weeks or so. I’ll bring the cards with me in person. I’ll let you know when I’m coming and we can meet up then.
Great. Where do you live
I didn’t realize you were living out of state. I agree. Don’t mail them. Keep me posted.
A week passed.
Are you still interested in selling your cards? Dave
Hey Dave, Yes. I’ll be in Chicago around Thanksgiving. I’ll be in touch with specific dates before I arrive.
And we did eventually meet at my mom’s. She happened to be out when he arrived. So Dave and I sat down at the kitchen table and chatted for a few minutes before I took out the cards. Dave said he was my dad’s roommate in law school, and that my dad set him up with my mom when my dad was dating my mom’s friend. Then he asked if my mom was dating yet. This was about four months after dad died. I said no, I don’t think so. And this is when I should have confronted him about dad’s Mantle.
Instead, I took out the cards and Dave began to inspect them. He pointed out some of the general defects, and within a few minutes offered me $5000 for the whole lot. I accepted. My mom then walked through the front door and we all chatted a bit more. Dave said he was living in a building downtown and alluded to the fact that he was a widower. He then wrote me a check, took the cards, and we said goodbye. The whole encounter lasted about 40 minutes. I was satisfied.
After Dave left, mom said he was definitely the one who took dad’s card. I asked her if she dated him. She said yes, we went out a few times but it quickly “fizzled.” And when mom and dad got together, and later married, they remained friendly with Dave. I even found a photo of mom pouring tea for Dave and his wife Mary at the tail end of the 60's.
After this, Dave disappears from the record. I like to imagine dad soured on him after lending him the Mantle. Dave certainly didn’t factor into dad’s life at all beyond this period. I would have heard his name. (I very specifically didn’t hear his name in reference to any Mantle.) And then he just reappears at dad’s shiva some 45 years later.
It’s now January 2021 and I’ve learned that a rookie Mantle sold for $5 million. At today’s prices, I reckon dad’s Mantle would run somewhere between $25k and $50k, given the condition of his other cards. Which is actually reassuring, knowing that dad wasn’t cheated — or rather, didn’t let himself get cheated — out of a life-changing amount of money.
Don’t get me wrong, $25k is nothing to scoff at. I should have asked Dave about the Mantle when we first started emailing, or even better, when I met him at the kitchen table. I’d have said, “Listen. Before we proceed, I need to ask if you still have my dad’s Mantle.” There’s a heavy pause, then I ask Dave to factor his debt into the price of our transaction. He gets up without a word and I never hear from him again. I’m left with no recourse, and no evidence.
In another version of the story Dave pretends not to know what I’m talking about. “How terrible,” he says. “It definitely wasn’t me.” And I sell him the cards for 2–3x times as much as I hoped, because he feels exposed, with the debt operating more forcefully on his conscience.
And then of course there’s another scenario. It goes much further back in time. We pull dad’s old scrapbook out of the basement, half-soaked from the flood water. And we start peeling the wet cards off the backing. Here’s the Mantle, dad says. Quite a card. And we set it out to dry.
Note: This story is true but some names are changed.