Penkava: Confessions of an American Picker

I’ve always loved old stuff. Even as a kid, I had a penchant for things from the past. We didn’t have antiques stores or flea markets in my town back then, but we did have garbage pickup day. I would hop on my bright red Schwinn Spitfire bicycle as I cruised the neighborhood in search of foolishly discarded treasures.

Of course, my mom wasn’t too keen on the stuff I brought home …

“Michael, what are you doing with a statue of a three-legged horse?”

“Mom, isn’t it cool? It even has a clock in its stomach!”

“Does the clock work?”

“I don’t think so … it’s missing the hands.”

“So what will you do with a horse that can’t stand that has a clock that doesn’t work?”

“I don’t know … do you think Dad would want it?”

I gave it to my father, and that was the last time I saw it. Later, when I asked him what he did with it, he said, “I felt guilty accepting such a nice gift, so I left it in the trash for some other kid to pick up who had a dad who really wanted a statue of a lame horse that didn’t know what time it was.”

It sounded reasonable to me, but I sure wasn’t about to give him the Philco record player I found in perfect condition … except for missing the round part that spins. I put that right next to the pink mohair bathroom scale I nabbed. I actually thought that I weighed 230 pounds until I discovered that its dial went backward.

So, from that modest but zealous beginning, my quest for old, cheap stuff began. By the time I grew up and discovered garage sales and flea markets and antiques stores, I was well on my way to becoming a full-fledged American Picker.

Speaking of “American Pickers,” I received my higher education in Antique Archaeology watching that TV series. Mike Wolf and Frank Fritz star as two guys who see dollar signs in anything old, tarnished and preferably oxidized. As we hear in each program’s introduction, they “travel the back roads of America looking for rusty gold.” These two likable pickers have become my mentors in the fine art of discovery, banter and negotiation.

Although Mike specializes in antique motorcycles and old bicycles, and Frank’s forte is old toys and oil cans, I, on the other hand, focus on vintage sports memorabilia. I travel the back roads of McHenry County searching for baseball cards and hockey sticks and even pieces of old stadiums. I drool at the sight of a section of a Wrigley Field bleacher seats and become light-headed while holding a Mickey Mantle autographed baseball.

Fortunately, I married a woman who loves antiques. This gives me a bit of leverage when I find something I really can’t live without. Here’s how the banter goes …

“Honey, I saw you looking at that vase … would you like it?”

“Well, Mike, it’s classic Roseville, and it is beautiful.”

“Indeed it is … I especially love the glazing … why don’t you get it?”

“Are you sure?”

“Absolutely. And while we’re at it, I found a little card I kinda like. You can get that stunning azure ceramic piece and I’ll settle for a small, slightly faded image of a dead baseball player. What’d you say we get both?”

Of course, my wife knows what I’m up to, but I don’t care. What’s important is that she gets some kind of bluish clay thing, while I get a vintage Series T-206 1909 Chicago Cubs Hall of Fame second baseman Johnny Evers baseball card. Win, win baby!

So what began with a timeless three-legged horse and a 230-pound 9-year-old has led me to live the American Picker’s dream, digging through the coal to find the diamonds. And if anyone has an old Honus Wagner card you don’t want, I think we can work something out.

• Michael Penkava is a retired teacher who taught for 35 years at West Elementary School in Crystal Lake. A Honus Wagner card is the Holy Grail of sports card collecting. One recently sold at auction for $2.1 million, prompting Michael to mutter, “Geesh, outbid again!” He can be reached at

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