Don Spence, Engineering Sportcard Excellence

Engineers apply their knowledge of various sciences to create, build, find solutions to problems, and to make improvements to the status quo. While we normally associate the art and science of engineering to the building of structures, roads, bridges, vehicles and machines, if you think about it, many of the same principles also apply to card collecting and set building.

Before a project begins, collectors, like engineers, look at the constraints, weigh the different choices available, and determine what solutions will produce the most successful result within the available budget. Engineers and collectors are also both obsessed with high-grade materials, conditions, and integrity.

  Spence
  "I'm a set builder, which I think
comes from my engineering
background," says sportscard
collector Don Spence.

"I'm a set builder, which I think comes from my engineering background," says sportscard collector and PSA Set Registry Hall of Famer Don Spence. "For me, when I begin a project, I work on it till it is complete and then continue to strive to make it better. That is what I did as an engineer, and that is why I believe I have such as strong drive to build high-grade complete sets. I approach and build each of my card sets just as if it was an engineering project."

Among the card projects Spence has engineered is his PSA Set Registry "Lone Star Collection" that features all 21 major Mickey Mantle cards graded by PSA in Mint 9 or Gem-Mint 10 condition. As a result of years of work and constant upgrading, eleven of those cards have earned a grade of PSA 10, and the collection grades out at 9.53, making it the top set of Mantle cards on the PSA Set Registry, and Spence a PSA Set Registry Hall of Famer.

Along with his world-class Mantle collection, Spence also owns one of the greatest amassments of PSA graded cards in existence. Among his treasures is the full-complement of some of the most sought-after sets in the hobby including a complete T206 set with an overall weighted grade of 7.1 that he will place on display this summer in conjunction with the release of Tom Zappala's new book on the men featured in the revered and monstrous T206 set (The T206 Collection: The Players & Their Stories, Peter E. Randall Publishing.).

A devout family man who is passionate about the game of baseball and card collecting, Don Spence says he is eagerly looking forward to meeting card collectors from all over the world as he shares his treasures throughout the coming summer. As he prepares for that "tour," Spence recently sat down with "Sports Market Report" to share the story of how he went from being a military brat to a renowned engineer, successful businessman, and one of the hobby's most important collectors. He began his story at the best place for a story to begin – the beginning:

Spence  
Married in 1976, Don and
Marilyn Spence have three
children, two grandchildren,
and another grandchild on
the way.
 

Don Spence: I was born in Germany due to the fact that my dad, who is my hero, was in the military. My father grew up in New York, in a small town about an hour north of Manhattan. He joined the service when he was very young and was serving as a 2nd Lieutenant by the time he was 19-years old. During World War II, he was on the first wave to land on Omaha Beach. He was a tank platoon commander who had to go behind enemy lines to secure the area. He was blown out of a tank and lost his entire platoon. They found him just barely alive two days after the attack, put him on a stretcher, loaded the stretcher on a jeep, and enroute to the hospital the jeep was attacked and everyone was killed. Miraculously, he again survived. He went through recovery back in England where he met my mother, and they married in 1944. So, I was what was known as an army brat and, like most people who grow up in a military family, we moved quite frequently. I once figured out that I had gone to 14 different schools throughout the 12 grades.

Sports Market Report: That had to have made it difficult, if not impossible, to follow any specific team or player?

DS: That's right. Traveling all over the world and all over the nation was just a normal way of life for me growing up. You had to be open to change because it was just a part of life to have to reach out and make new friends all the time. Being as that we lived in Germany, we didn't get to see many baseball games. Occasionally, we would hear a game on the radio but we were never located near a Major League team, so I never got to see many games as a kid. When my father was a young man in New York, he had been a fan of the New York Giants and had even been invited to play with their farm club. So, as a kid, I followed my father's team. When we visited San Francisco, we went to a Giants game at the old Candlestick Park. After that, I followed Juan Marichal, Willie McCovey and Willie Mays, who became my boyhood idol.

  Spence
  Don and his son, Brian, with
his T206 set that he will be
displaying this summer
at book signings throughout
the country.

SMR: What about card collecting? Were cards available to you in Europe?

DS: Yes. On the military bases you were able to buy a pack of cards for four-cents at the Post Exchange. I remember buying a whole box of Topps cards for 96-cents at the PX and played all kinds of games with them. I started collecting when I was five-years old but I never really had much of a collection as a kid because, every time we moved, I would have to throw a lot away because we were very limited on space. Today, some people tease me for being a bit of a pack rat because I don't throw things away. Perhaps I'm accused of never throwing anything away because, when I was a kid, I had to throw so much away.

SMR: You mentioned that you attended 14 different schools growing up. Where were you when you finally graduated?

DS: My father retired from the military when I was a senior in high school. He had made the rank of Colonel, and we were in line to move again. I think both he, and our family, had just gotten tired of moving – of not having any real roots in a community or at a church. So, we moved to Texas and I graduated from a high school in Killeen, Texas outside of Ft. Hood.

Spence  
"My family is the most important
thing to me," says Don, pictured
with his beautiful daughter, Angie,
and wife, Marilyn.
 

SMR: What path did you take after graduation from high school?

DS: That was 1969, and the Vietnam War was at its peak. So, being as that I had grown up with a strong military influence, I applied for a four-year ROTC scholarship. I was selected for the scholarship and attended Texas A&M where I pursued my dream of becoming an engineer. During my junior year, I suffered a knee injury while playing intramural football and ended up having the following summer. I had a torn ACL (anterior cruciate ligament) and the medical technology then wasn't what it is today. So between that, and the fact that the United States had started to pull back on troops, they wrote me off and I never had the opportunity to serve my country. After I graduated, I stayed on at A&M another year to get my masters degree and then went to work for Exxon as a petroleum engineer. That was the beginning of a career in the oil and gas production industry that lasted till I retired in 2006.

SMR: During that time, you also got married and had a family.

DS: Yes. I married my wife, Marilyn in 1976, and by the time we celebrated our fourth wedding anniversary, we were already living in our fourth house. In the petroleum industry, they moved me around fairly frequently, so I found myself in a position in which I was repeating what I had gone through as a child. I did not want that kind of a life for my family so, in 1980, I elected to leave Exxon and go to work for an independent oil company in Dallas. We established permanent residency there and that give my kids a real hometown, which I never had.

  Spence
  Don says that along with
card collecting he also loves
traveling with Marilyn.

SMR: How many children do you have?

DS: We have three children who are all adults now. My son, Brian, and his wife, Julie, have two children – Avery-Kate and Olivia. My other son, Adam, and his wife, Taryn, will be having their first child later this year. And our daughter, Angie, is still single.

SMR: So, when did the hobby of sportscard collecting re-enter your life?

DS: I think I was like most people who collected cards as a kid. You get to a place in your life when school, your career and your family take you away from thinking about collecting cards. That changed around late-1987 and early-1988. The interest in baseball cards just exploded around that time and my kids and their friends were really into collecting cards. During that time, my sons also wanted me to take them to card shows. Well, we went to shows and I became overwhelmed at the size of these shows and the interest people had in them. We started going to these shows as a family event. Our whole family would go. Even my daughter would come along. We were picking up some rookie cards but most of the stuff we were seeing was from the early-80s. Back then, you didn't really see too much vintage stuff.

SMR: It sounds like collecting really became a Spence family affair.

Spence  
"Opening day for the Rangers is
a Spence family holiday," says Don,
left, with sons, Adam, center,
and Brian.
 

DS: That's correct, and that was what my wife really enjoyed about it. Baseball has always been a big part of our family. In 1988, I bought season tickets for the Texas Rangers. Since then, we have made going to games a family event. Over the years, we have gotten autographs and the kids have gotten to meet many of the players. We have had a great time at those games and have so many great memories. We were there the night Nolan Ryan got his 5,000th strikeout! So, baseball has always been a family event for us. It's the same with the cards. As a family, we started to put together a collection of cards. When we first started, we weren't knowledgeable of the grading of cards, but we built such a large collection that a guy working at a local card store here in Dallas asked if I would be interested in going into business with him. He said that for a portion of my collection, he would give me part ownership in the business. So, in 1991, we opened a store in a suburb of Dallas called "Bunt, Punt and Dunk Sportscards." I would work at the store on weekends and it all went remarkably well until the mid-1990s. Then, for a lot of reasons, things began to taper off a bit. We kept the store going for about another five years and it was near the end of our run with the store that I started getting into graded cards.

SMR: Was that when you started to collect more seriously?

DS: Yes. My kids went off to college and I started up again. This time, however, it was much different than it had been in the past. I credit the collection I have been able to put together to two things – the grading of cards, of which PSA is the best, and the Internet. Had it not been for those things there is no way a person in Dallas, or anywhere else in the country, could put together vintage sets like I have. With the advent of the Internet, I could find a 1915 Ty Cobb Cracker Jack card in PSA NM-MT 8 online – know the value of the card – and know I was buying with confidence although I had never actually seen the card or knew who I was buying from.

SMR: You have put together some of the most desired sets in the hobby. Is there one that is the most special to you?

DS: I love the earlier sets – the 1951 Bowman, the '52 Topps, the 1934- 36 Diamond Stars, the 1941 Play Ball. Those were the early sets I started with. Then I decided I was going to try to put together a T206 set. Well, I had put together about 125 cards or so and began to feel that it was a bit insurmountable. The set is known as "The Monster," and, with 524 cards, it truly deserves its name and reputation.

  Spence
  Don shares a laugh with his
first grandchild, Avery-Kate.

SMR: What is your attraction to the vintage cards?

DS: I love all vintage cards. And, I think you have a greater appreciation for pre-war cards when you learn more about them and understand more about them – about the lesser quality of the paper stock, the printing process they used back then and the lack of quality control in production and in cutting the sheets. When you understand that, you begin to realize that if you had been standing right there when they were producing those cards and cutting them, the chances would not be good that you could get a high grade card right off the press much less find one 100 years later. I mean, look at cards from the 1914 and the 1915 Cracker Jack set. It amazes me when I look at those cards with their bright red backgrounds and the white borders. When you see that red background in a high grade, it just radiates at you. I'm also amazed at some of the Allen and Ginter cards – the N28s and N29s. You see those cards graded in a PSA 8 or a PSA MINT 9, and it is just unbelievable. I have a great appreciation for the artwork on those cards, but the thing that amazes me the most is that they were preserved, and that they exist at all. I think it's almost mind-boggling that 100 years later you can find a card that came in a cigarette pack and grades at a 9. That astounds me – I'm intrigued with all of it.

SMR: You touched a bit on the challenge of facing the monstrous T206 set. Can you tell us more about how you were able to take on "The Monster?"

DS: Well, after I retired, I was fortunate to still have ownership in the Merit Energy Company that I helped build in 1989. We started from scratch and built Merit into one of the largest independent companies in the United States. That was a great sense of accomplishment and achievement. That also enabled me to have the financial wherewithal to feed my passion for collecting high-grade vintage cards. So, after having been at first a bit intimidated by the T206 set, I took it back up again and decided I was just going to take it one step at a time – one card at a time. It ended up taking me seven or eight years to complete the set, and through the process there were times when I thought there would just be some cards I would never be able to get. The thing that helped me the most in finishing the set was the PSA Registry. Through the registry, people see what you are collecting, and they contact you with an offer to help. I think the PSA Registry has made collecting like a team effort. I have met a lot of people thorough the registry who really took a personal interest in helping me compile my T206 set. I am very appreciative of that and I think it's one of the best things PSA has done. It gives collectors a built-in network to other people in the hobby. The people in this hobby are fantastic and I have established so many great relationships with some fantastic people, like Marshall Fogel. He invited me to his home and when I saw his collection I was in awe. Marshall is not just passionate about collecting, he loves to share his collection and give back to the hobby. He inspired me to do the same thing with my collection – to share it with people who love and appreciate these cards, but who may never be able to compile a significant collection.

Spence  
Don, who will be a grandfather
for the third time this year, with
his second granddaughter, Olivia.
 

SMR: You said that Marshall Fogel inspired you to share your collection with others and that is it just what you will be doing throughout the summer of 2010. Can you tell us about that?

DS: Whenever I can help to promote the hobby, I love it. If I wasn't displaying my cards, they would just be in safety deposit boxes, so I wish there were more opportunities for me to share my collection because I think it generates interest in the hobby. I think Tom Zappala's book will really draw people to the hobby. It is books such as that, and the ones Joe Orlando has written, that help people really understand the hobby, which in turn has a positive impact on people to have the desire to collect the cards from the game that represents the values we grew up with. I will be displaying my collection in conjunction with some of Tom's book signings. We will be doing a lot of that during the summer and then Joe Orlando has asked that I display my Babe Ruth collection at the National this year.

SMR: Don, do you have interests beyond card collecting?

DS: From a collecting standpoint, no. Cards are the only things I collect. As far as my other interests – I love family! My family is the most important thing to me. I also love to give back to our community, our church, and charitable organizations. The concept of giving back has been instilled in my kids and I'm so proud that they also have a passion for doing something that can make a difference. I also love traveling – especially as a family. When we travel as a family, we always go to a baseball game. We love seeing the different stadiums. My wife loves that our trips are such family events. My sons and I went to a card show in Chicago and then to a game at Wrigley Field. We still talk about that time. The Texas Rangers are also something special for me. Opening day for the Rangers is a Spence family holiday! We make it an all-day family event. My sons and I are in fantasy baseball leagues together, so baseball has really been a big part of our family. I love the game of baseball and I serve on the Texas Rangers Advisory Board. We meet with the management and the owners to provide them with feedback as to how they can enhance the experience for fans. That's another way of serving and giving back to a game that has given so much to me as far as memories, and memorabilia and nostalgia.

SMR: Have you ever sat back and thought about why baseball means so much to you?

DS: I love the history of the game. It's a part of who we are as a nation. As a kid, attending a school on a military base, I was very naïve. I didn't know anything about racial tensions. But when I look at the history of baseball and see what the early African-American players and Jackie Robinson went through, I'm very intrigued. I think it really says something that baseball was integrated before schools. I just love the nostalgia, the stats, the history – just everything that surrounds the game.

SMR: And as one of the top set builders in the hobby, how would you summarize your feelings about your collection?

DS: I love the sense of accomplishments in having put my sets together. I hope they will always stay together and that they can be shared with and appreciated by as many people as possible.

 


For further information on where you can see Don Spence's T206 collection, visit: www.t206players.com