Why Do We Collect?

by JEREMY WATTERSON

Collections are as varied as collectors themselves. I recently met a collector of milk bottle caps. The gentleman showed me a seemingly endless folder of remnants from an industry that hasn’t existed in my lifetime—and those were just his caps from Montana dairies.

A friend of mine collects fire extinguishers. Another has a wide assortment of sheet music devoted to the state of Idaho. It seems that people will collect just about anything.

As a young boy, I had a sports card shop with a buddy. We even had a catchy name, The Sports Card Fan Attic. We cleaned out my parents’ tool shed, hung some posters of Michael Jordan and Bo Jackson on the walls, emptied my aquarium of fish and water, and placed our best cards in our re-purposed display case. Customers were our teammates in little league, fellas from our Cub Scout troop, and kids we met while social networking at the city pool.

My folks might have thought they recognized a budding entrepreneur in their son, so they got me a subscription to a sports card price guide. Each month I got a new guide and would adjust my pricing of Ken Griffey Jr., Barry Sanders, and Chipper Jones rookie cards.

My most vivid recollection from that summer is opening one of the price guides with a cover story on a Mickey Mantle rookie card that had just sold for the equivalent of four-years’ tuition at a Montana university.

I showed the article to my old man while he sat in his recliner, listening to Harry Caray call a Cubs game. He turned ghost-white and relayed the story of how as a kid he had placed the gum-smelling piece of cardboard, now worth a small fortune, in the spokes of his bicycle. “In my day, all the best cards went in your spokes.”

Hailed as the post-war Holy Grail of baseball cards, the last near-mint 1952 Topps Mantle rookie card brought to auction sold for $1,135,250 in 2016. A 1951 Bowman Mantle card, depicting the young Yankee slugger against a blue sky, was just purchased out of the state of Montana by collector Michael Osacky.

Based out of Chicago, Osacky has been collecting since his grandfather gave the budding youngster a shoebox full of mid-century gems. Osacky’s Montana find, the first baseball card to depict the future hall-of-famer and perhaps the best switch hitter the game ever saw, came from a shoebox in Great Falls. The family tracked down Osacky through his website, Baseball in the Attic, and after a few weeks of negotiations, the professionally authenticated and graded card exchanged hands—saved from the bike spokes of history.

For my partner in our childhood card shop, one of the joys of collecting was opening a foil pack of cards and inhaling the fresh smell of the glossy ink as he thumbed through his finds. This is what my friend wanted to know about Osacky’s Mantle card: What’d it smell like? Osacky couldn’t quite describe the musty odor, just that when you smelled it, you knew it was old—like your grandfather’s sitting room, or a library—a sensory connection to the past.

Maybe that’s why we collect, to late in life thumb through our memories, recollecting moments in an effort to hold on to a piece history forever.

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