Pulp Non-Fiction, The Famous 1952 Topps Baseball Find by Doug Koztoski

It was spring 1986, a Saturday afternoon, and Alan Rosen lounged in his New Jersey home watching TV. The phone rang and that call would ultimately transport him from relaxing with ABC's Wide World of Sports into what one could call an episode of "The Wild World of Sports Cards."

On the line: David Espinola, a Boston-area lumber company forklift operator. Espinola said he had recently talked with a truck driver, making a delivery at work, who had several top condition 1952 Topps baseball cards, for possible sale. Was Rosen interested?

Skepticism anchored Rosen's thoughts of the claim. He had heard similar stories before from others; they were usually more mirage than oasis. Even so, he jotted down the Massachusetts man's info.

Ashburn Reese Wynn
Rutherford Wilhelm

Soon after that conversation Rosen spoke with Ted Lodge, "the guy" who said he had a few of each of the 1952 Topps high series cards. With virtually each additional call that took place between the two men over the next handful of days, the number of cards kept increasing. Rosen finally asked the key question: "How many Mantles?" The reply, a surprising: "about 30."

Wheeling and dealing cards for a few years at this point, Rosen (a.k.a. Mr. Mint) still possessed a certain level of disbelief about the supposed accumulation, but his instincts said "check it out."

Gathering money for the trip to Quincy, MA, included borrowing several thousand dollars from another dealer friend. With six figures of cash in hand, Rosen decided to take along an armed policeman for security.

About ten miles south of Boston, Rosen, Brian Morris (another New Jersey dealer), the cop and the money pulled up to the house, a circa 1900 dwelling, that Lodge had inherited from his dad.

 

Have I Got a Deal for You

Spartan perhaps best described the house's interior. "It had very little furniture," said Rosen, "except a table, a couple of chairs and a wraparound china closet with leaded-glass doors." The floor had a sunburst-effect pattern.

Lodge bent down and opened up one of the china closet doors, reached in and pulled out a silver tray stacked with 1952 Topps baseball cards facing down; he placed the display in front of Rosen at the table.

"Number 302 was showing on one of the stacks," said Rosen, "and I went straight for the Mantles." A few handfuls later he spotted the magic card number, 311, staring right at him.

Mays Mantle Robinson

"I picked up a stack of about 30 cards and they were all Mantles, with some others still face down." Rosen picked up more cards with Mick's visage. "About 42 beautiful Mantles," Rosen recalled. The adrenaline pumped through the dealer's system with such intensity it caused his hands to shake.

After Rosen looked through the stacks, Lodge uttered, "Would you like to see the rest of the cards?"

"The rest of the cards?"

They walked into the kitchen and there sat the Topps case the cards had been housed in for 34 years. The cardboard case apparently sat in Lodge's dad's attic for decades, likely forgotten for much of that time.

Unlike the cards themselves, the details are a little fuzzy on where Lodge's deceased father had obtained the cards. Some think that he either worked for the business the address label is from (The Toys Division of the Graton & Knight Company in Worcester, MA), or the establishment the case was addressed to (Globe Sporting Goods MFG via Boston).

Rosen said there was packaging near the case with advertising verbiage that read something like: "Hey Kids, with every new GRAYCO product, get three new shiny Topps baseball cards." Apparently the cards helped promote the sale of baseballs, bats and gloves. The 1952 cards were giveaways, throw-ins.

"I stuck my hand in the case and scooped up some [cards]," said Rosen. "The cards at the bottom were a mess." Here "mess" meant off-condition Mantles, Campanellas and such. "Give me $10,000 for the rest of them," Lodge said.

At this point Rosen's adrenaline meter was exploding, like the Chicago White Sox scoreboard after a home team home run. "The Million Dollar Dealer," who had sold various items over the years, from coins to calculators and antiques to typewriters, decided to get some fresh air. He brought some cards with him to examine in the sunlight.

Box Box
Label Label

"I smelled them and looked at them again more closely," he noted. Rosen said he thought they had to be reproductions. "It was too good to be true," he said to himself of the vibrantly color-rich cards with Ginsu knife-like corners.

Rosen went back into the kitchen. "Then I looked at the case and it said 1952 Topps on it," he said. Aside from some occasional centering issues, most of the cards were in stunning condition. The dealer, known as being brash at times but never dull, was now a believer.

The New Jersey resident had hit pay dirt, but it was going to cost him. That day, for around 5,500 cards, about 75 percent of which were high numbers, Rosen said he paid upwards of $125,000, including a finder's fee and for the cop. Espinola arrived after the deal was done.

On the return trip Rosen had some buyer's remorse. He wondered if he bit off more than even he, "the buying machine," could chew.

When he arrived home after the deal, he put the cards in a safe. He went to bed but couldn't sleep.

"I stayed up all night and sorted the cards," he remembered. Completing Sortapalooza, Rosen had 18 runs of cards #251 to #407, which includes the mid-series that starts shortly before Willie Mays' first Topps card (#261), through the high numbers, beginning with Mantle, and including other Hall of Famers, as in the set-ender, Eddie Mathews' rookie.

 

Step Right Up

"Runs" started at $12,000. "I sold nine runs the first day," said Rosen. Day two the price jumped to $18,000 per run and three batches sold. On day three, a pair of "runs" left the table at a cool $20,000 apiece.

The original asking price for a sharp Mantle was $3,500. Initially, there were no takers at that level, but then word of "the find" spread throughout the hobby. "Real centered ones sold," he said. Four went at $3,500 each.

Ten off-centered Mantles were sold for $10,000 in one lot.

Rosen saved the nicest 1952 Topps Mantle card for himself. "I kept the best one and had it on my desk for about a year." He later sold it.

The thousands of duplicates of various cards in the deal also took "a couple of months" to sell, said Rosen, now 67. He grossed about $475,000 in the transaction.

Campanella Black Morgan

Marshall Fogel, however, did not pick through the leftovers from the 1952 Topps discovery – quite the opposite.

Fogel, #4 on the PSA Set Registry for the Current and All-Time Finest 1952 Topps baseball set, remembered he and another collector, Jason Nester, were two of the most aggressive in "battling to get the cards from that find."

"Those that were centered were very desirable. We weren't the only competitors, but we were the most aggressive," said Fogel. The uber-collector jumped on the find "almost immediately."

"This was one of the greatest finds in hobby history," said Fogel. "I owned two [PSA MT] 9s of Mantle from that find, and I sold those to help pay for my PSA [GEM-MT] 10 Mantle."

"I would say I have about 50 cards [in my collection] from the find, a lot of those are commons. I believe my Jackie Robinson [PSA 9] is from the find," he said.

What did Fogel pay for the cards from the Quincy, MA, deal? "About $400 to $2,000 each," he said.

"They were right out of the pack; they were pristine – the gloss, the sheen," noted dealer Bill Goodwin, some 27 years after "The Find." "To this day you can tell the difference [with those cards]."

Goodwin thought two of the three PSA 10 Mantles came from the hoard. "Probably most of the NM-MT 8s and 9s [in the hobby] came out of that find," he said. Goodwin estimated the majority of NM 7 commons that were off-center came from that purchase, as well.

 

Crunching Some Numbers

"Most cards had 30 to 40 examples, but the first three high numbers, Mantle (#311), Jackie Robinson (#312) and Bobby Thomson (#313), had about 73 to 75 each," recalled Rosen. "Forty-two of the Mantles were gorgeous."

There were even more Mays cards in the batch. "I had a million of them [about 187, actually]," said Rosen. "I believe Mays is a triple print that year." The Mays' took about six months to sell.

"[John] Rutherford (#320) is really the toughest card in the set," said Rosen. "Many of the Rutherfords have a paper wrinkle right through his forehead."

The Dodger showed up 12 times in the find, while two of his teammates, also high numbers, Roy Campanella and Pee Wee Reese, surfaced only 13 times each. "There weren't many of Reese and Campanella," said Rosen, "but the ones that existed were beautiful." The Mathews rookie also made 13 strong appearances in the hoard.

Dickey Nuxhall Mathews

The PSA Population numbers show about 300 Rutherford's, with only 13 in PSA 8 – its highest grade. Only Bob Chipman (#388), with a PSA Population of around 280, can beat that – eleven PSA 8s and one PSA 9 with a qualifier.

While discussing "The Find," Goodwin said, "It was a fascinating story; one of those stories that dealers dream about – and that came true."

For most sports card dealers and collectors alike, it would be safe to say that upon first hearing of the 1952 Topps "find" they too looked like many of the Rutherford cards from that discovery – with a wrinkle right through their forehead. The card obtained the crease from the factory; the people received theirs from the story's incredible facts.

The thrill of victory, and the agony of the crease...

 

Box

On the Case

And what ever became of the cardboard case that once housed all the cards that Rosen bought in "The Find"?

Rosen kept it for several years and then sold it to a collector. Earlier this year Adam Martin, the CEO of Dave and Adam's Card World, bought the case from the collector.

"It's a very unassuming box," said Martin, "but it's an iconic piece of sports card lore."

Martin figures three PSA 10 Mantle's may have been discovered in that cardboard cradle "and the bulk of the true GEM-MT 1952 Topps cards came from that case."

Martin plans to display the case at this year's National Convention.

View the set in the PSA Set Registry.


Doug Koztoski is a frequent contributor to SMR. Please note that the Population Report figures Set Registry rankings quoted are those as of June 2013.