At the dawn of the 1940s, Franklin D. Roosevelt was serving as the president of a country that was in the midst of World War II. Radios and turntables helped Americans get through the war with the big band sounds of Glenn Miller and Tommy Dorsey, and the crooning of Frank Sinatra and Bing Crosby. In San Bernardino, California two brothers by the name of Dick and Mac McDonald had just opened a hamburger stand. In Liverpool, England a baby by the name of John Lennon was born. Films such as Rebecca and The Maltese Falcon were garnering Best Pictures nods, and the New York Yankees were the dominating force in Major League Baseball, a league who had yet to see an African American on a roster. It was a time that also marked the birth of Manny Gordon.
Fast forward to the genesis of the 1990s. George H. W. Bush was serving as the president of a country embroiled in the Gulf War. The Silence of the Lambs and GoodFellas were the films capturing Best Picture Oscars. Nirvana's hit single, Smells Like Teen Spirit, became the anthem of the newly awakened grundge era with bands such as Alice in Chains, Pearl Jam and Soundgarden topping the charts. In the sports world, one man eclipsed everyone and everything, defining the time as the Michael Jordan era. It was also a time that marked the birth of Derek Riker.
While most of those names and events are well-known to just about anyone with a modicum of historical knowledge, heads may be scratching a bit over just who the heck are Manny Gordon and Derek Riker.
Gordon, who lives just north of New York City, is a card collector whose passion for the hobby surfaced late in life. Taking up the hobby seriously in his early sixties, he has dubbed himself the "Old Man" of card collecting. Conversely, Riker is a fourteen-year old, from Mount Pleasant, South Carolina, who unlike the majority of his contemporaries, is fascinated with vintage cards, especially with one of the most popular sets of all time – the legendary T206s. Establishing himself as a serious collector a little over two years ago, Riker, who goes by the name "The T206 Kid" is the youngest known collector to be actively building a set of T206s.
The Old Man and The T206 Kid met this past July at the 26th National Sports Collectors Convention held at the Donald E. Stephens Convention Center in Rosemont (Chicago) Illinois. It was a meeting that, along with establishing a friendship, stood as a testament to the fact that sportscard collecting is one of the few hobbies that crosses generational lines. When asked if he digs the sounds of Nirvana's Kurt Cobain or Soundgarden's Kim Thayil, Manny may stare back as blankly as Derek would when asked if he swings to a Sinatra rendition of a Don Costa arrangement or sways to Bing's crooning of Too-Ra-Loo-Ra-Loo-Ral. But, when it comes to cards, the generations that separate the Old Man from The Kid disappear as fast as a Gem Mint 1951 Bowman Mickey Mantle sporting a $50 price tag.
For the benefit of collectors who are either new to the hobby, or not into vintage cards, the T206 set, which is the current obsession for both Manny and Derek, is by all accounts one of the most historically significant sets of cards ever produced. First produced in 1909, the cards were issued as a premium with cigarettes. The 1909-11 T206 White Border cards, which featured virtually every starting player of the era, were one of the first true "sets" ever issued. Along with the inclusion of some of the most legendary players in Major League history, such as Ty Cobb, Walter Johnson, Christy Mathewson, Eddie Plank, Tris Speaker and Cy Young, the set also boasts the hobby's most desirable and expensive card – the famous Honus Wagner.
In 2002, Topps put out a set under the Topps Tribute line that paid homage to the original T206 cards. The cards included 180 regular-sized base cards of current players, 540 parallel cards in T206 size complete with three different backs, over 4,400 repurchased original T206 cards, and autograph and relic cards, which included a game-used bat chip on the Wagner card.
"It was the Topps T206 cards that got me interested in vintage cards," said Derek. "Before that I was just buying newer cards. When I started buying the Topps T206 I got an original John Hummel T206 and I really loved the artwork and the history. I didn't really know much about vintage players until I stared collecting T206 cards – but now I've learned a lot about them."
Derek, a centerfielder who plays in a city-sponsored league and claims to be a pretty good hitter, said that his favorite card in the T206 collection is one featuring Ty Cobb. "He was such a great player," said Derek. "But really, I love all the cards. I don't think other kids my age have the appreciation for old cards like I do. They like modern cards because they like the players. But for me, I have so many great stories about how I got my cards and about the great people I have met through collecting."
Perhaps, there is another reason why Derek Riker is a rarity when it comes to youngsters who collect T206 cards – it is a collection that, in lower grades costs thousands of dollars to compile, in medium grades cost hundreds of thousands of dollars to amass, and in high grades will cost millions of dollars to complete. When quarried on how a fourteen year old affords to collect T206s, Derek admits that the collection is actually a joint effort between he and his father, Kevin, who is an oral surgeon. Kevin, who has been collecting since he was eight years old, says he is amazed at how helpful older collectors and dealers have been in educating Derek on vintage cards and how well versed his son has become. "Like most kids he started collecting modern cards, but he really got into collecting seriously with the T206s," said Kevin. "Since we've been collecting vintage cards, he has developed a much more sophisticated eye. He's very responsible about the cards he buys. He's not like a kid who is just finding something he wants and turns to his father to pay for it. He has a lot of knowledge when it comes to values and what is a fair amount to pay for a card. But most importantly, he just loves it."
Derek agrees that his passion for vintage cards is the driving force of his collection. "You've got to really love what you collect," said Derek, who plans on finishing a 1952 Bowman set once he has completed the T206 collection.
On the other end of this generational tale, Manny Gordon reflected back on when he first collected cards as a kid in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn, New York in the early 1950s. "We just thought they were for flipping," he laughed. "We knew all the games – flipping them off the wall, trying to get leaners, closest to the wall – you name it."
While young Manny never gave much thought to cards as being much more than game pieces, that changed when he had children of his own. "My son Josh was a card collector and he was my influence to get involved with collecting T206s, which I started about three and a half years ago. My kids had always collected modern cards and I used to get them boxes. Josh, who is my oldest son, was really into it. My younger son Noah wasn't that much into it."
When Manny began collecting he readily admits to buying like the novice he was. "I bought a Michael Jordan rookie card and soon learned it wasn't worth what I paid for it. I was buying ungraded cards, lower grade cards, I knew nothing about what I was doing until I met an eBay seller who introduced me to SMR and explained what PSA was all about."
Once he began gaining knowledge, Manny became a man on a mission. "I started collecting late in life so I'm the old man of the hobby," he said laughing. "In the first six months I wanted everything! I got a Mickey Mantle, a Willie Mays, a Monte Irvin, a Wilt Chamberlain, because he was my hero. I just went crazy. I got a Lew Alcindor, a Bill Russell – I wasn't into sets at all. I just bought the cards of the players I liked."
After Manny's initial buying frenzy, he became intrigued by the collectors who amass sets and work to get listed on the PSA Registry. "I decided to put together a 1951 Bowman set," said Manny. "From there I went on to the Goudeys, the T3 Turkey Red Cabinets, then the T206s."
Manny said his attraction to the T206 cards is that each is its own work of art. "These cards are beautiful," he said. "Not just because of the portraits but because they have survived for 100 years – that people cared so much about them that they kept them. I love the T206 cards, but I do have to say, my favorite is my Turkey Red Cobb. It's in a PSA 8. That card cost a great deal of money. But I wanted it and I love it! The Honus Wagner T206 may be the father of all cards but the Turkey Red Cobb is the mother," he said proudly.
A New York Yankee fan who also collects vintage watches, Manny said that he approaches card collecting from the perspective of pure enjoyment. "To me it's a hobby," he said. "I know with the big collectors it is also viewed as a business or an investment. I understand that, these are people who for financial reasons have to be involved in investments, so why not invest in what they love."
Manny, who works in a high-end commodity business and refuses to be photographed for security reasons, is currently working on about ten sets including his '51 Bowman, which is almost complete. "I'm also working on a '33 Goudey, a '34 Goudey and a 1912 T227 set. I also collect Hall of Famers."
And so, what happens when the oldest known T206 collector meets the youngest known T206 collector?
Manny's affection for Derek is clearly apparent as he speaks of his new friend. "It was a thrill for me to meet Derek at the National," said Manny. "The T206 Kid first sought me out because he thought I might be selling some of my cards," he continued with a laugh. "He's an unusual situation. He's a very shrewd kid when it comes to cards and of course his father has the financial wherewithal to back him. I love to see a young guy like him getting interested in old cards. I'd love to see more kids getting into vintage cards. But the fact of the matter is we've pushed kids aside when it comes to collecting vintage cards."
Derek, who has relied on older collectors to learn about vintage cards, said he was also very happy to have had the chance to meet Manny this past July. "We had a great time talking," said Derek. "It was really cool to meet him and we've formed a great friendship."
Still, despite the beginning of this beautiful friendship, the Old Man and The T206 Kid are rivals – especially when it comes to locating that Holy Grail which neither of them yet owns.
"Ah yes," laughed Manny. "The Honus Wagner. I was just waiting for you to ask me about that. Yes, I do hope to someday own one. I would settle for a Wagner in a 4 or 5 if it had great eye appeal. I've seen a few that I liked but the price is certainly a factor with that card. I'm not the Sultan of Brunei ya know! So at least up until now I've let someone else enjoy them."
As for Derek, who still needs about 30 cards to complete his T206 set, he said he has looked at a few of the extremely limited supply of Wagner cards known to exist. "I don't think we will be able to get a Wagner in a 5 or better," he said pragmatically. "I have seen some that have been graded as a 1 or 2, but... "
At that point his voice lowered and trailed off as he changed the subject to the '52 Bowman set he recently started.
Ah that elusive Honus Wagner – that prized piece of printed cardboard that will forever be the stuff of what dreams are made of – the dreams of young boys and old men alike.