Bob is a longtime member of the Florida sports media, having served as a reporter and copy editor for more than 30 years. His true sports passion, however, is the history of the various games, exhibited by his in-depth book reviews and hobby of collecting cards and other sports memorabilia. He blogs for TBO.com on both subjects, transferring his work for the Tampa Tribune to the realm of cyberspace.
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‘Well-loved’ cards contain priceless memories
Posted Mar 25, 2013 by Bob D'Angelo
Updated Apr 6, 2013 at 03:03 PM
It may seem hard to believe, but collecting cards did not always involve price guides, grading services, autograph cards, parallels or relics.
Kids would buy a pack at the local candy shop or grocery store, and the cards would not stay pack fresh. Checklists were marked, teams were crossed out when players were traded, and sharp corners usually faded within a week of purchasing the cards.
It was a time when the term “well-loved cards” was not about condition, but about the joy of collecting.
“We interacted with the cards, we didn’t just buy them,” Connecticut collector Jake Elwell said.
Now 48, Elwell bought his first pack of hockey cards — 1971-72 Topps, which included a hockey booklet in every pack — for a dime when he was a 7-year-old in New Hampshire.
“It was a perfect time to first drink the poison,” he said. “It kind of opened a whole new universe.”
So even though Elwell is now an adult with a large collection of cards — he builds sets from 1969-70 through 1973-74 (hockey) and 1967 through 1974 (baseball) — he still owns a stack of about 50 cards from that first hockey set he collected as a child. His parents divorced when he was young and he lost much of his collection as cards were either lost or thrown away. Still, he cherishes that stack from 42 years ago.
“One of my boys asked me ‘if our house was on fire what would you save?’ ” he said, “and I told him ‘these cards.’ ”
The cards are worn and written upon, a result of Elwell’s collecting habits as a child. He and his friends would mark up their cards and write their names on the fronts to claim ownership. One friend even used colored tape to mark changes.
“It must be this funny impulse that little boys had, they wanted to get the information right so they got out the markers,” Elwell said. “We didn’t have the information overload like my kids do now (he has three sons). Books and cards could be a whole gateway.”
While hockey cards were “a Rosetta Stone for growing up,” Elwell’s professional life involved a familiar gateway — books. Every workday, he makes the hourlong commute by train to New York, where he works as a literary agent with Harold Ober Associates on Madison Avenue.
The company was founded in 1929 by Harold Ober, and his client list included F. Scott Fitzgerald and Agatha Christie. In fact, the company still handles the estates of both writers.
A literary agent is to an author what a sports agent is to an athlete. He represents a writer, helps manage his or her career, handles film rights and oversees audio books. Elwell has been in the business for 23 years and in his current job for the last six. His area of expertise is adult non-fiction and he specializes in what he calls “boy books” — subject matter that includes history, military, sports, business, self-help and narrative non-fiction.
Elwell’s most memorable episode as a literary agent came several years ago when he was working with professional wrestler/manager Captain Lou Albano on a book.
“We did a lot of those ‘Idiot’s Guide To …’ books,” said Elwell, who currently counts former WWF (now WWE) heavyweight champion Bob Backlund as a client. “Then (the bosses) wanted to do one on pro wrestling.
“Captain Lou would be the author, have his name on the cover, but someone else would write it. My job was to put those pieces together.”
So Elwell and an editor met Albano — “a total New York guy, massive, outgoing” — for lunch in Manhattan.
“Picture this,” he said. “You’ve got an editor, a real buttoned-down, geeky kind of guy. And Lou, having plenty of drinks, talking at the top of his lungs, wising off to the waiters, but not in an obnoxious way.”
It was a memorable day. “I had the extreme pleasure of walking through Times Square with Captain Lou,” Elwell said. “He stopped traffic. And he loved every minute of it.”
Those kinds of memories make the job fun. But Elwell cherishes his hobby — the simple pleasures of collecting cards. His three sons “collect very casually,” and while today’s generation of collectors may be more condition sensitive, still considers himself a “condition agnostic.” That’s why that stack of beaten up, marked up cards remains special.
“They’re priceless, even though on the collector’s circuit it’s worthless,” he said.