A LOST ART
By BRANDON HURLEY
Bill Kendall is not a baseball fan.
A quick stroll through his Jefferson basement would suggest otherwise.
The shelves are filled with plastic binders of more than 100,000 baseball cards valuing nearly half a million dollars, but Kendall says he has no use for the sport. No, really.
He has bronzed and gold-plated cards, a rare specialized Desert Storm set, rookie cards, garbage pale kids and probably every single player that suited during a 20 year span. But, ask him if he has a favorite team or player and he’ll quickly say no.
The hobby is second nature to Kendall. He’s also extremely competitive. Which may be one of the primary reasons he dedicated so much time to completing sets of cards.
He’s also collected books, wood carvings, paintings, all of his military papers, coins, money and even a few more secretive items. He’s won several bowling trophies as well.
“I’ve had a lot of hobbies. I’ve been a collector since I was a kid,” he said. “I’ve got stuff down here (in my basement) that I’ve forgot about.”
Kendall first began stockpiling cards in the early 50s as a young teenager. A childhood house fire did little to deter the young hobbyist, it just put the project on hold for a few decades. Life as an adult got in the way.
After serving in the Vietnam War, Kendall retired and returned to Jefferson and his old hobby became new again.
A sibling bond ignited the card collecting obsession in 1976. Kendall’s brother, Bob, opened a card shop in Manhattan, Kansas and with his well established connections, the treasure hunt was on.
The duo ventured into baseball cards specifically because that’s where the action was. They sunk their teeth into collecting, dumping vigorous amounts of time and money into the hobby. Card collecting throughout the years can be laid out into three phases, sets, teams and individual players. Kendall was big on completing sets during the 70s, 80s and 90s.
“Baseball cards were really hot then, they took off. You could spend $6-8,000 a year on them,” Kendall said. “The name of the game was baseball.”
His collection grew as the years ticked away, and the road trips became increasingly expansive. They’d travel to a new store nearly every weekend, spending their hard earned cash for a quick rush of excitement and surprise.
They’d drop a large sum of money on a few cards and sweat out the return trip, worried if they had enough gas money or not. They were often disappointed on their road trips, coming up nearly empty handed or turned away.
“My brother and I had a lot of conversations in the car,” Kendall said. “The name of the game was if we could find it. You could go 1,000 miles and we didn’t know if we had enough gas to get back home. But that’s just how it worked.”
Kendall was driven to complete every set from 1976-1998, out of passion. A full set of cards consists of every player that specific card company (usually Topps) printed in a given year. In order to complete said set, you’d have to purchase packs of cards by the hundreds – while duplicates became more and more frequent over the years – to try and complete the set of roughly 800 cards. The sets, because they were often rare to complete, sky rocketed in value in the 70s.
The best way complete a set was to purchase a box – each box is filled with 20 or so packs of cards. It’s a tedious process. Kendall not combed through hundreds and hundreds of packs each year, he’d have to go to great lengths to locate the missing cards as well.
Bob had the connections, he knew where to look for the elusive cards. Remember, these brothers traveled the Midwest in search of cards pre-internet, mostly by word of mouth. Today, there are chat rooms, Facebook, eBay, Craigslist and Amazon to help a collector find their treasure. If you want a particular card, you can get it by a click of the mouse. They traveled to every card store in Iowa – at least that’s what they say – and it took them two years to complete that process.
The range in prices during Kendall’s hey day fluctuated drastically in the 80s and 90s. A card could cost anywhere from 10 cents to $200 in any given set. The price jumped quickly, too. Kendall could buy a box of card packs for $4.50 in 1974, today, it could potentially cost $100.
The longest road trip took Kendall and his brother to Georgia to meet a staff sergeant.
They needed a few more cards to complete a special edition Desert Storm set in the early 90s, but were having trouble locating the final rare pieces. These cards were printed in 1992 and were supposed to ship to Iraq for the veterans. Only eight cases were ever made. Kendall’s only heard of four sets being completed in the 25 years since. Recently, one particular set sold for $72,000 at a convention.
Kendall and his brother set off again, determined to complete one of the rarer sets they’ve ever attacked. They arrived down south and made a trade, $1,000 for the remaining cards.
Though his collection could most certainly stack up with anyone in the entire country – the former Green Beret has amassed more than 100,000 cards along with every card from a two decade span, he’s not in it for the money. His cards could sell for well over $400,000, but there’s no desire to pursue further dead Presidents.
His instincts led him to the hobby for purely pleasure’s sake. He fell in love with the intricacies of the chase. The treasure hunt, so to speak.
“There are so many things and you can get so involved,” Kendall said. “Most people buy the cards for future value, I just did it to have it.”
He’s even got packs of cards he’s never opened – 183 to be exact. That’s how saturated the market really got. He no longer needed to open all the packs he bought to complete a set.
Tom Powers, a former Jefferson-Scranton high school coach for more than 40 years, shares the same passion for card collecting as Kendall. He owned a card shop in Jefferson called Homeplate for 10 years. He still tours the state today, chasing the dream.
He started as a youth collecting cards for the gum that came with them. He remembers using the cards as noise makers in the spokes of his bike tires. They thought it sounded like a motorcycle. Who was on the card couldn’t have mattered less.
“I wasn’t a Yankee fan, so i’m trying to think of how many Mickey Mantles that I destroyed putting cards in bike spokes,” he said.
The card collecting exploded for him in the 80s and 90s. He likes to collect the vintage cards, guys who played in the 70s and 60s. He’s a New York Mets fans that cherishes Tom Seaver and Nolan Ryan. His collection is massive as well.
“The 60s was a great era,” he said. “It was great baseball then and the Mets were World Series champs.”
His collection focuses mainly around that era now, but he’s added quite a few pieces of memorabilia as well.
“I keep telling my wife I need to thin the herd,” Powers said of his hobby. “When we moved a few years ago, a whole moving truck was filled with memorabilia. Before I go, I told my kids to not give it away.”
Powers will buy and sell cards to this day at shows in Ames and throughout the Midwest. For him, just like Kendall, it’s the thrill of the chase.
“I just enjoy meeting people, keeping the hobby alive,” Powers said. “It’s tough at times. I am 64 now, but I feel like a kid doing it.”
Kendall, on the other hand, got out when the baseball card scene was becoming over saturated in the late 90s. He’s now 82 and has endured three heart surgeries within the past 10 months.
“It kept growing in price,” he said. “(The card companies) flooded the market so bad it was hard to complete. Some would corner the market while there were also a lot of duplicates.”
So is that really what happened? Why did the card collecting market crash so hard yet, so quietly? What determines the value of a card and why are baseball cards generally more valuable? Are there still cards out there worth something?
Come back next week to read how and why card collecting nearly collapsed on itself.