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Baseball cards ‘a piece of history’ to hobbyists

Former St. Louis Cardinals catcher Tom Pagnozzi shakes hands with Hunter Hildebrand, 13, after signing an autograph for him Jan. 27 at the Quincy Mall Baseball Card Show.
Former St. Louis Cardinals catcher Tom Pagnozzi shakes hands with Hunter Hildebrand, 13, after signing an autograph for him Jan. 27 at the Quincy Mall Baseball Card Show.

QUINCY – Colby Rainbolt has no trouble explaining his attraction to baseball cards.

“I started collecting when I was a kid, when I was 7,” the Quincy resident said.

Rainbolt is now 47 and just as fixated on baseball cards as he was all of those years ago.

“It’s a lifelong hobby,” he said.

Many of those with a similar passion – dare we say “love”? – of baseball cards gathered at the Quincy Mall over a recent weekend to buy, sell and barter.

For 33 years, the mall has hosted its annual pre-rite of spring. While the baseball card show itself was once a much larger production, the heartbeat of the hobby – those who collect and those who deal – were evident once again.

“The appeal for me of this hobby are the memories,” said Jim Russell, 59, a dealer from Mendon who concentrates much of his effort on older cards. “Over my life, everything has changed, but sports – and especially baseball – has stayed consistent. I’ve always been drawn to that.”

Whatever the era of baseball cards Russell may be buying and selling, they all are special to him.

“They’re a piece of history,” he said.

Rainbolt agrees.

“You have to be a baseball fan to be a collector,” he said.

And there is no doubt Rainbolt is a fan, especially of Reggie Jackson. He even has Jackson’s No. 44 tattooed on one of his arms.

These days, Rainbolt is concentrating on pre-1980 cards. He said patience is a key – that and the realization “you can’t have it all.”

Rainbolt’s favorite year and make of cards is 1978 Topps.

“That was the year the Yankees won the World Series, and Reggie hit three home runs off three different Dodger pitchers on just three pitches,” he said.

The weekend show also featured two former Cardinals players signing autographs – pitcher Ken Dayley on Saturday and catcher Tom Pagnozzi on Sunday.

The show also hosted a dealer, Roger Till of Lewistown, who travels the country buying and selling vintage cards.

“I love the prospect of someone bringing in something fantastic [to sell],” Till said.

Russell echoed Till’s sentiments.

“I will be involved with this hobby until I can’t,” he said. “I enjoy it.”

Till said he has cut back his travel schedule to “about 25 or 26 weekends a year.” He once traveled 40 to 45 weekends a year, many of them involving major shows across the nation.

Till’s weekend in Quincy served primarily as a buying expedition. Normally, he said, he makes no major sales at a relatively small show such as Quincy’s.

Till’s collecting days date to the mid-1960s. He became a dealer in the early 1980s.

“I’m more of just a businessman now, rather than a collector,” he said.

Till said Mickey Mantle material remains the most popular items for virtually all ages of collectors, and is of particular interest to investors. Sandy Koufax, Lou Gehrig, Joe DiMaggio and other popular Hall of Famers also cross generational barriers of collectors.

Till said dealers have to carefully monitor public perception and opinion of players. Mark McGwire, Barry Bonds, Sammy Sosa and Roger Clemens once ruled the hobby, but their affiliation to the drug scandals and rumors tied to the 1990s and early 2000s have made their cards virtually impossible to sell.

Regional interests also are a key. Till said although Cardinals players are in great demand in this area, a few hundred miles in any direction is another story.

Till demonstrated it is necessary to learn, understand and accept all of the nuances, frustrations and travel connected with the life of being a baseball card dealer – but he was not complaining.

“I will do this until the day I die,” he said.

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