In the winter of 2005, Sports Market Report readers were first introduced to Dr. Stephen Soloway in a feature titled "Dr. Stephen Soloway's Quest for Completion". A Southern New Jersey rheumatologist, Soloway is what SMR Editor-In-Chief and PSA President Joe Orlando has called "A symbol for set building."
Focused like a laser on set collecting and completion, Soloway was the first collector on the Registry to complete the 1909-11 T-206 baseball set. Along with that incredible accomplishment, he also holds the title of having been the first person to compile the Top 10 Baseball Card Classics set that features the 10 most important cards in the hobby.
A member of the PSA Set Registry Hall of Fame, Soloway's collection is vast. "When you look at the sheer size of his collection and its diversity, coupled with the fact that he is such an outstanding advocate for set collecting, we were ecstatic to add Soloway to our exclusive list of Hall of Fame collectors" Orlando wrote when Soloway was inducted.
Stephen Soloway grew up in New York's borough of Queens where, as a child, he developed what he laughingly calls: "a two pack a week habit." His parents knew he loved sports cards and, every week, his mother would take him to the store to get his two packs.
That habit blossomed into a significant collection of over five-thousand cards, including every Topps card manufactured between 1969 and 1971. When young Stephen was in his teens, he began to get a bit more serious about his card collection and started to attend card shows. Using the $20 he would receive for his birthday each year, he made major additions of cards that he still has to this day. Explaining that $20 would go a lot further back then, he laughed when he recalls that one year he bought every Hank Aaron Topps card, every Willie Mays card from 1954 to 1965, every Mickey Mantle card with the exception of his rookie card, all for just $20. "The following year, I even bought a 1934 Goudey Lou Gehrig #61 for just $15," he added.
Along with attending card shows, Soloway was also adding to his collection by perusing the offerings of local stores. Even summer camp proved to be a place where card deals took place for Soloway. "There was a counselor who we would get cards from," he said. "I still have all of the cards I got at camp and my entire childhood collection. I love all of them."
Soloway said that like many collectors, his love affair with cards did wane during his twenties when cars, girls, college, med school and the beginning of a career and family took their place. "I stopped collecting for a while when I was in college but did start again while I was in med school. After I finished med school, I really got back into cards."
As Dr. Soloway's medical practice became more and more successful, so grew his financial resources. "When I got back into collecting, my first goal was to get every Topps card ever made," said Soloway. "I have always had a special love for Topps cards and, to this day, they are still my favorites."
As Dr. Soloway became more knowledgable about all the cards available, he began to find intrigue in vintage cards. "When I began collecting vintage cards, I really loved the T-206s. I thought it was great that I could own some of these vintage cards but I had no idea it was possible to put together an entire set of them," he said. "I wasn't even aware if they all existed. I figured it would be hard enough to just find the key cards much less all of them. But when I learned they were all available, I thought it would be spectacular to put together a full set."
Beginning with online auctions, working with dealers and by attending card shows, Soloway ultimately teamed up with another collector to buy an offering of T206 commons. This amassment left him less than fifty cards short of completing the entire 524-card set.
Soloway said that it was only after he decided to complete that set that he learned just how difficult a task he had undertaken. "When it comes to the T206 set, you have the (Honus) Wagner, the (Eddie) Plank and the (Joe) Doyle cards that make it so hard to put a full set together," he said. "The cost alone will keep most people from ever completing this set. There are single cards in that set that cost more than many people make in a year. And, along with being cost prohibitive, it is also extremely time consuming to find these cards. When I completed my set and listed it on the PSA Registry, I got over 100 e-mails from people congratulating me."
Soloway's approach to set collecting is different than that of those who diligently seek only the best examples of each card. He freely admits that his sets include many lower or mid grades (his Honus Wagner is a PSA Good 2 and is Eddie Plank is a PSA EX 5). When asked about the condition of some of his cards, he is quick to respond: "I feel that having built a complete set is a more significant achievement than just having the financial wherewithal to own the highest graded cards in existence. Collecting is very personal. Everyone has their personal obsessions. Some people want every card in the same grade. For me, the biggest thing is putting together complete sets. Having a full set of T206 cards means more to me than owning any single high grade card. I'm a collector in the truest sense. So, if someone has an entire set in a lower grade, that really impresses me more than the person who has a handful of cards from the set in the highest grades available."
When SMR last visited with Dr. Soloway, he was harboring a dream – to amass a set that would name him to the PSA Set Registry Hall of Fame. "That's my dream," Soloway said back in 2005. "I want that so badly, so I can put it on my resumé. I can't really put on my resumé that I'm just a card collector. There are hundreds of thousands of card collectors. But, if I can be named to the PSA Hall of Fame, then it is something that sets me apart from everyone else. Most doctors are quick to tell everyone that they are a doctor. But for me, I want everyone to know I'm a card collector, and I want to be a Hall of Fame card collector."
Today, Dr. Soloway's dream has become a reality. He has, in fact, been named to the PSA Set Registry Hall of Fame. It is a milestone that prompted us to revisit with the Hall of Famer.
SMR: The last time we spoke with you, were still pursuing your dream to be named to the PSA Set Registry Hall of Fame. Now we are back interviewing a Hall of Famer! How does it feel?
SS: I can't believe that I am an honored member of the PSA Hall of Fame. I look at some of these other guys and their collections and I can't believe that I am there with them. I still feel like a kid when it comes to card collecting.
SMR: So, as a Hall of Famer, what do you now own that you didn't have when we last spoke?
SS: At this point in time, I have the most stuff on the entire PSA Registry. I have over 100 mainstream sets that are complete and another 10 that are only missing one card. While there are five collectors out there who have world-class collections, I have more than them as far as widespread collectability and volume. Other than the regional sets, if you look at the tobacco, caramel and gum sets, and every set from 1887 to 1970, I have every single one.
SMR: What are some of your more recent completions?
SS: I now have three of the six E102, E121 series of 80 and E121 series of 120 American Caramel sets on the PSA Registry. I have completed every basic and master set from the 1950s and '60s. I have completed every Bowman master set from 1948 to 1955; the 1932 US Caramel set; the 1914 and 1915 Cracker Jack sets; the T201 Mecca Double Folders set and the T202 Triple Folders set. I have the T205 Gold Border set and the T206 White Border set. I have many of the Hall of Famers from the American Caramel E90-1 set including the Joe Jackson rookie card, which is one of my favorites. I also have many cards from the E90-3 and the E90-5 set. I have all the tough Hall of Famers including a really tough Ed Walsh card. I am very proud to have compiled the 1920 York Caramel E210 type 1. I have that complete set in a 4.8 GPA for a set that the highest you can possibly have is a 5.8 GPA. The other set I love is a 1927 E210 Type 2 of which I have the only registered set. It's the number 1 set on the PSA Registry with a GPA of 2.06.
SMR: Wow! You're making reader heads spin.
SS: I'm just getting started. I have a near-complete T3 Turkey Red Cabinets Set. I have a complete Allen & Ginter N28 and N29 and a complete 1888 Goodwin Champions N162. I have the complete Topps Super sets from 1969, '70 and '71. Are you getting impressed?
SMR: It's incredible!
SS: Let me continue. I have a complete 1934 Diamond Star set and the Goudey 1933 and '34 and the Delong 1933 set. I have completed the Goudey 1938, a complete Play Ball '40 and '41, and I'm only two cards away from completing the 1939 Play Ball set. I have the complete 1948/49 Leaf set. I also have a few weird sets like a 1989 K-Mart set that is ranked number one. There's a 1992 Topps Kids set that I'm number one. I'm number one in the Walter Johnson master set. It just goes on and on and I have many other sets that are ranked number one on the Registry.
SMR: It is no wonder you made it to the hallowed hall.
SS: (laughs) The PSA Registry has a category for the Top 20 cards in the hobby, the Top 200 cards in the hobby, and the Top 250 cards in the hobby. I am number one on all three of those lists.
SMR: Your focus is on completing sets but do you also collect single cards?
SS: As far as single cards that I have acquired – I have a few very special ones like the 1950-51 Toleteros Josh Gibson and the American Caramel E90-1 Joe Jackson rookie card. I have a T206 Honus Wagner in PSA 2. I have a Jim Thorpe baseball card and Casey Stengel's Minor League rookie card. I also have the Dockman & Sons 1909 Christy Mathewson card. Those are cards that some serious collectors don't have.
SMR: How do you usually acquire cards? Do you go on a single card hunt or do you buy sets in various stages of completion?
SS: I buy both separate cards and sets. For the most part, I buy individual cards because I like the challenge of putting sets together. I do, however, buy full sets. One complete set I bought was the 1932 US Caramel set. Most of my sets I have put together one card at a time. But every so often, I'll get a call from a dealer who has checked the Registry and sees what I need and they will call me with one thing or another.
SMR: When we last spoke, you said that a card's grade was not the most important thing to you. To some extent, do you have to approach set collecting from that viewpoint just to finish them off?
SS: The bottom line is that I am a collector and I have never dwelled that much on grade. I have cards from the 1960s and '70s that I collected as a kid. Some I have graded with PSA and some not. Graded cards are incredible and PSA's grading has made this a much safer and, overall, a better hobby. They have made collecting competitive and opened the door for collectors to learn so much more about cards, about their values and which ones are really rare. They have given every collector a great reference as to what a card should really cost and look like. I love the competitiveness PSA has brought to the hobby. I love the people who are involved. The Registry has made the hobby so interactive and has given us all exciting challenges. But personally, I'm not grade obsessed. When I was at this year's National, I spoke to a dealer who had three Dockman & Sons Christy Mathewson cards. Each one was in a different grade and I decided to buy one. How did I make the decision? I asked that the grade be covered and I picked the one I liked the best. Guess what? The one I picked wasn't the highest grade, which saved me a bundle. If I were an investor, I would have handled that differently. But I'm not an investor. I just wanted the card. I didn't have the magnification process, and, even if I did, I am not a trained professional grader so I couldn't tell the difference. Grading is vitally important for investors, to determine prices, to weed out bad cards, but I do think some collectors are pricing themselves out of the hobby by simply getting too obsessed with high grade cards.
SMR: You say you are not an investor but you will admit that you have built a collection that does have great value. Any idea of your collection's worth?
SS: (Laughs) What did I tell you last time we spoke? That my collection was valued at well over a dollar. Well, let's say now it's worth a couple of bucks. I say that because the financial part of the hobby is not what it is about for me. As I said last time, I still have all of my childhood cards and I will never sell them. I will never sell any of my cards. I am a collector in the purest sense of the word. It is not in any way about being an investment for me. I'm not a card investor. This hobby has its share of investors. I have never sold a card. If I get doubles, I pass them off. A guy like Dmitri Young has put together a top grade investment quality collection and that strategy is right. His cards will always have incredible value that will always appreciate – much more than mine. That's a guarantee. For me, the eye-appeal between a card that has been graded a PSA NM 7 or a PSA NM-MT 8 is not something that can be determined without magnification. Based on that, if I really want a card and it was being offered at the highest grade for a million dollars while the same card, graded at a 7, was being offered for fifty-thousand dollars, I would buy the 7. It is still a very nice card but it is in a more reasonable range, albeit in a range that is still only going to be for a high-end collector. Even for high-end guys, fifty thousand dollars is one thing, a million is another. That said, if someone does have cards that have graded at the highest grade – 10s – and if there are only one or two or perhaps no other card in that grade, they will appreciate more than anything else in the hobby. Even commons in top grades are getting premiums.
SMR: Besides the concept of keeping grading in perspective, what other advice would be you offer an up-start collector?
SS: Learn everything you can. There are books like Joe Orlando's about the most significant collectibles in the hobby. But I think that, for most collectors, the most significant, from a personal level, are the cards from the year we first started collecting as kids. If right now I had nothing as far as cards, the very first thing I would want is a complete 1969 Topps baseball set in any condition because that's what I first collected as a kid. The next ones I would want were the cards from 1970 and '71 and '72. Why? Because they were the cards in the packs that I would buy and love to open as a kid. Now, after getting those cards, if I caught the bug and began to educate myself and really learned a lot about the hobby of card collecting, then I would learn what are the more popular cards of that era and let the tide take me to whatever interests me and in whatever my budget will allow. That's the great thing about cards. You can collect the very best like Dmitri Young does, or also collect players or teams or sets that you have a personal connection to and you are not that concerned about the grade. For me, my goal is to have every set that was printed from the beginning through to the 1970s – grade irrelevant. I say that because you will just not find some cards in high grades. If I were to say that I was only going to collect sets that were in a grade 8 and above, I just couldn't do it. It would not be feasible financially and also not feasible because many of those cards just don't exist in high grades.
SMR: OK, so you have convinced us that you collect out of passion rather than for investment purposes. But, pragmatically, you know they do have an incredible value. How do you protect your cards?
SS: They are all catalogued and safely sealed away in an undisclosed area. That said, it doesn't take much for me to retrieve them. I have over thirty-thousand pounds of steel protecting my cards. They are constantly monitored with video cameras in a humidity controlled environment but, when anyone is interested in seeing them, I can get them out at a moment's notice.
SMR: And can you explain the passion?
SS: To me, it is all about history and the players of yesterday, and I define that as the players who played prior to the 1970s. They were regular guys who whether they were in good shape or bad shape, whether they were rich or poor, they went out there and scrapped it up and did their best. They were natural athletes and the true idols of their age. They were also approachable, regular people. I feel the history of baseball mimics the history of the United States and for me, collecting these cards and sets is my way of filling my life with a history of the game and our country. Getting to know those players of yesteryear makes me want to further explore more and more about these old timers – their stories and their history. If you were to ask me what I know about "Three-Finger" Mordecai Brown, I know what I know about him only from the pictures and information I have gotten on his five cards that were produced 100 years ago. I have no other connection with him. To me, the cards are a throwback to a time when my father would go to Ebbets Field after the eighth inning because that is when they would let kids in for free and to a time when I was a kid and went to Shea Stadium and paid $1.50 to sit in the upper deck.
SMR: While we're on the topic of nostalgia, last time we spoke, you said you were a lifelong New York Mets fan who harbored contempt for the Yankees. How does a huge Mets fan feel about the passing of an era in the closing of Shea Stadium?
SS: It doesn't bother me. It was not that old or storied of a stadium. I already have my season tickets for the new stadium and I'm ready to move on. That said, I am not a Yankee fan, but I am upset about what they have done with the old Yankee Stadium. Taking down Yankee Stadium is disgraceful. I am so opposed to that. Progress is one thing. Destroying history is another. I have no problem with them building a new stadium. They need a new stadium. But the old one should have been left alone. To me, it would have been like tearing down the Coliseum in Rome. The Yankees have money and they have power so why are they destroying history? It was a bad move.
SMR: Last time we spoke you said that you did collect a few other sports related items other than cards. Have you added anything new to your memorabilia collection?
SS: I have gotten some signed baseballs, but that is purely for fun. I have a signed Roberto Clemente ball; a Jackie Robinson signed ball and ball signed by Satchel Paige. They are all in rather bad condition and were relatively cheap but I enjoy them. Even though they weren't expensive relatively speaking, when I told my father what I paid for them he went bonkers. But then he was OK with it when I explained that a ball signed by any of them in mint condition would cost 10 times what I paid for mine. I also have a nice Lou Gehrig signed ball from the 1936 All-Star Game. That ball is also signed by Schoolboy Rowe, but Gehrig's signature is perfect – right on the sweet spot. That's about it. To me, it is all about the cards. And, while I love the cards, for right now, I've got to get going. Even though I'm a Hall of Fame card collector, I am still better at fixing knees than collecting baseball cards.
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