Dale Ball's first baseball cards literally fell in his lap.
He was 2 years old, living in Port Byron, when his grandmother Virginia Marks emptied a trunk full of the collector's items, which she bought at a yard sale, right before Ball's very young eyes.
To say Ball's baseball card collection has grown since that day would be an understatement. Now 49 and living in Visalia, California, Ball owns what may be one of the rarest cards in the world, a 1921 Babe Ruth made by Shotwell Manufacturing Co., a Chicago confectionary company. Like the "Mona Lisa," Ball said, it's priceless, worth as many millions as someone is willing to pay for it.
He also owns several more Ruths, as well as Ty Cobbs, "Shoeless" Joe Jacksons, Mickey Mantles — some of which he'll sell at Heritage Auctions in New York City next week. Ball stands to leave the auction house with anywhere from $1 million to $40 million, he said, and that's only 10% of the pricier cards in his collection that he's putting on the block. All told, he owns about 200 million cards, many complete sets in their original cardboard packaging. Others get plaques, binders, plastic sleeves. And the rarest he carries with him in an important-looking black safe.
Ball takes those precautions because baseball cards are investments, he said, and the worth of those investments is compounded by history.
"They never lose money unless you hurt your product," he said. "They'll always climb because of history."
For awhile, though, Ball wasn't concerned with how much his baseball cards were worth. The son of Lorna and Dennis Ball, he lived in the Port Byron area until he was 12. The family moved away due to the Navy career of Dennis, who also played keyboard and sang in area band The Worlocks. They lived in Maryland, Florida and St. Louis before settling in the San Diego area.
It was in Missouri that Ball's grandmother led off the next phase of his card collecting. She had brought him, then about 12, another trunk of cards that she bought at an estate sale. But one card she handed to her grandson personally: A rookie card for Rickey Henderson, who the year prior broke a Major League Baseball record by stealing 130 bases in a season with the Oakland A's.
"She walks up and hands me this card, and tells me, 'You know he just stole the most bases?'" Ball said. "'Put this one away, boy.'"
Baseball cards had been toys to Ball when he was an infant, but he became interested in the sport well before scoring that Ricky Henderson.
Ball began playing baseball on a field by Duck Lake when he was 5, continued with travel leagues, and pitched and played third base while attending the University of Nevada, Reno, and the College of the Sequoias in California. But his athletic career ended when he tore his rotator cuff in his third game with the latter, he said.
Though he pored over the statistics as much as any baseball fan, it was the players themselves who most fascinated Ball, he said. His two favorites are Roberto Clemente — the Pittsburgh Pirate who died in a plane crash en route to helping victims of an earthquake in Nicaragua in 1972 — and Ruth. Ball idolizes them because they put children above all else, he said.
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"It's not about me, or the money," he said of card collecting. "It's about the history and what it can do for a kid."
Recently, Ball began working with high school classmate and former NFL player Lorenzo Neal on a project to help children take collectibles to auction. Proceeds go to autism services, Ball said, as two of his children have the condition. He has nine altogether. And it was for one of them, 6-year-old Dennis Lee Ball Jr., that he purchased the 1921 Babe Ruth rather randomly earlier this year.
While driving to Reno through a blizzard in the Sierra Nevada mountains, Ball was paid in Sacagawea dollars for helping an elderly motorist wrap chains around her tires, he said. He took the coins to Action Sports Cards & Coins in Sparks, Nevada, where he saw a 1991 Brett Favre rookie card for $10. Though football cards aren't his main focus, Ball scooped it up.
Below the Favre, however, was the Babe Ruth card. It was listed for "800." Ball was astonished to learn that meant not $800, but $8. The card was priced so low, he learned, because the store owner thought it was fake. So Ball scooped that up, too. The card actually came to $2 because the store was having a sale.
After a lengthy authentication process that ended in a fiber dating procedure at California State University, Fresno, Ball concluded that his Babe Ruth was the real deal.
(Given the recency of Ball's discovery, as well as the fact the card has yet to be professionally graded, some in the collector community remain skeptical of its authenticity.)
Ball has since fielded several offers for the card, he said, including $3 million from a professional athlete Ball declined to name. But he has only one destination for the card in mind: Yankee Stadium. Though Ball wants to maintain ownership of the card on behalf of his son, he also wants to bring the Great Bambino home. Discussions with the Yankees have already begun, Ball said.
"The world needs to see it," Ball said. "I'm not about collectibles being hidden away. I am a true historian when it comes to this."
Acquiring the Ruth card also made Ball more familiar with the value of the cards he's been collecting all these years, he said. While on the East Coast for the auction, he plans to stop in Port Byron to locate the collection his dad kept. But there are two cards Ball will never part with: The Ricky Henderson card that made him a collector, and the Babe Ruth card that could make his son set for life.
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