A transcribed interview with renowned Negro Leagues collector and author Steven Greenes.
Conducted by Dan Silvershein, Collectable’s Head of Acquisitions & Strategy.
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Dan: Steven, thanks for joining us as our second guest on CollectableU! For those who don’t know, you are one of the premier Negro League card collectors in the hobby and author of “Negro Leaguers and the Hall of Fame”. Let’s start from the top. How did you get started? Tell us a little about yourself and how you originally got into collecting.
Steven: The first baseball game my father took me to when I was seven years old was Don Larsen’s perfect game. I was hooked. I spent much of my youth flipping, trading, and collecting baseball cards. I am also one of the lucky few who prevented my mother from throwing out my complete Topps set runs from 1959-1962. I still have them.
Dan: Wow, that’s one heck of an introduction to the game. Can you tell us a bit more about what you remember from that day?
Steven: I remember the catcher (Yogi Berra) jumping into the pitcher’s arms at the end of the game. I figured all games ended that way.
Dan: Let’s talk Negro Leagues. From my and Collectable’s own research, the Negro Leagues are deeply underappreciated and contain a wealth of incredible athletes, stories, and collectibles most casual baseball fans do not know about. What initially drew you to studying and collecting the Negro Leagues?
Steven: As a student of the game, I became fascinated by the game’s outliers, players like Joe Jackson or Pete Reiser who never fulfilled their true potential either by circumstance or injury. In the early 1980s, I discovered an entire league of outliers in the Negro Leagues, players who were comparable to and often better than their counterparts in the Major Leagues. Imagine the NFL or the NBA today without African Americans and you will have a snapshot of the talent in the Negro Leagues. In post season barnstorming contests between 1920 and 1948, the Negro Leagues actually won the majority of games played against white Major League All Star units. After the National League integrated in the late 1940s, nine of the 11 MVP honors between 1949 and 1959 were awarded to former Negro Leaguers. Young Negro Leaguers, men such as Willie Mays, Hank Aaron, and Ernie Banks, would come to dominate the sport. The objective evidence was there. You could easily make the argument that the Negro Leagues were truly the better league.
Dan: You took your interest to the next level and wrote a terrific book called Negro Leaguers and the Hall of Fame: The Case for Inducting 24 Overlooked Ballplayers. What compelled you to do this?
Steven: I think it is important that we give Negro League players the recognition now that was unfairly kept from them during their careers. The Hall of Fame is how we as a society recognize our most exceptional baseball players. If we keep players out who deserve to be inducted, I consider that a double injustice. Numerous Hall of Fame qualified Negro Leaguers died in poverty and lie in nameless graves. They deserve nothing less than to be recognized on the merits.
Dan: Tell us about some of the Negro League players you feel strongly deserve enshrinement in the HOF who are not currently recognized?
Steven: Bill “Money” Monroe, a second baseman in the early twentieth century, was called by John McGraw “ the greatest player, white or black” he had ever seen. From 1907-1914, he may have been the most renowned and popular player in Negro League ball. Unfortunately, his known statistics are scanty because of the early era in which he played.
Catcher Quincy Trouppe spent the bulk of his career playing in the Caribbean and Mexico where he was better paid and more well respected. He was named to 17 seasonal All-Star games in different countries over a 23-year career and established a .311 batting average in Negro League play. His WAR (Wins Above Replacement) per 162 games is exceeded only by Josh Gibson among Negro League catchers.
Sam Bankhead was the Negro League’s ultimate multi-position utility player, a hugely respected baller who Ted “Double Duty” Radcliffe cited as the player most emblematic of the Negro Leagues. He compiled a .311 batting average over 20+ years of Negro League play. Bankhead was elected to play in 9 East-West All Star games at five different positions, in which he hit .387. Stung by racism, he never attended another game after he retired, saying “ I cannot be a fan.” Bankhead became a garbageman in Pittsburgh and was used as the model for Troy Maxson in August Wilson’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play Fences. Sam Bankhead was shot to death in a bar fight in 1976.
Dan: What bit of Negro Leagues insight or knowledge surprised you the most whie you were writing the book?
Steven: I was unaware how hard it was to push the Hall of Fame into recognizing the Negro League players over the past fifty years. As I am sure you have heard, Major League Baseball has recently announced that the Negro Leagues will now be considered part of the Major Leagues and their statistics will now be official Major League statistics. With the Negro Leagues accepted as full Major Leagues, perhaps more modern leadership of the Hall of Fame will rectify this injustice.
Dan: You’re considered to be one of the pre-eminent collectors when it comes to the Negro Leagues, and the Negro Leagues seem to be gaining momentum within the hobby. Tell us what’s happening in the space from your perspective.
Steven: Yes, the stars of the Negro Leagues have been gaining in notoriety and popularity for years now and that trend is really only accelerating. Once Negro League statistics are combined with those of the white Major Leagues, I anticipate that the Hall of Fame will pick up the mantle and begin reviewing Negro Leaguers on a more aggressive basis. When you mix it all together, this segment of the hobby really has a chance to boom.
Dan: What effect do you think the recent recognition by MLB of Negro League statistics and the upcoming integration with MLB records will have on prices for Negro League collectibles? Could it potentially dilute the value of more established vintage GOATS like Ruth, Cobb, Wagner etc.?
Steven: It can’t be anything but positive. Personally, I think it only enhances the hobby. In terms of the vintage GOATS, there are only a few Negro League players that compete at that top echelon alongside Babe Ruth, Ty Cobb, and Honus Wagner. The value of Ty Cobb or Honus Wagner collectibles was never based on which of them was better. They were both dominant for so long in their leagues. That there will now be a couple of Negro League players who similarly dominated their league is not going affect much. It isn’t a fixed pie. Magic Johnson’s allure doesn’t hurt Larry Bird’s value. A new conversation as to whether Babe Ruth or Josh Gibson was the greater slugger is an interesting and valuable addition to the hobby. If anything, bringing fresh conversation to the established lists will do nothing but stir up more interest.
Dan: Who would you say is the “most underrated/underappreciated” Negro Leaguer, in terms of cards and memorabilia?
Steven: The entire Negro Leagues are under appreciated, underrated, and undervalued by our society, both then and now. I believe that Negro League cards and memorabilia, in terms of both rarity and quality of player, are the best value in the entire trading cards and memorabilia industry. I am confident that many of the players listed in my book will one day be in the Hall of Fame. There are good values to be had.
With that said, a few players really stand out to me as undervalued and underappreciated: Oscar Charleston (arguably the best Negro League player of all time), Spotswood Poles (maybe the fastest player in history), Chino Smith (maybe the all time AVG leader) and pitcher Dick “Cannonball” Redding. These guys, and plenty of others, definitely deserve to be in the Hall of Fame. Again, listing underrated and underappreciated Negro Leaguers is a very long conversation.
Dan: You’re primarily a Negro League card collector. What are some of the most coveted Negro League collectibles in circulation?
Steven: Satchel Paige and Josh Gibson are obviously the two major household names from the Negro Leagues. Paige crossed over into the Major Leagues in 1948 and his early Leaf, Topps and Bowman cards are highly sought.
Many of the greatest Negro Leaguers, men such as Oscar Charleston and Pop Lloyd, played winter ball in Cuba in the 1920s, and there exist rare Cuban baseball cards of these men whose values have skyrocketed in the recent past. Another player from baseball’s true pantheon, Martin Dihigo, had baseball cards issued of him in Cuba, Venezuela, the Dominican Republic, Mexico and Puerto Rico from the 1920s through the 1950s.
I am also a big fan of modern autograph and memorabilia cards of old time Negro Leaguers. The major stars have all passed but many survived until recently and were available to sign modern collector issues. Satchel Paige, Cool Papa Bell, Judy Johnson, Ray Dandridge, Buck Leonard and Leon Day are Negro League Hall of Famers whose certified autographed cards are most readily available. Obviously, there will not be any more of these cards signed.
Dan: You recently had an interview published in the PSA SMR price guide regarding Josh Gibson specifically. Can you tell us a bit about what drew you to focus on him?
Steven: While his name is well known, his accomplishments are not genuinely appreciated. Aside from a reputed 900+ home runs over the course of his career, Josh Gibson’s lifetime batting average of .361, if eventually confirmed by the Elias Sports Bureau, would place him second behind Ty Cobb (lifetime BA .366) in Major League history. Gibson’s .466 batting average in the 1943 Negro National League season will also see him replace Ted Williams as Major League’s last .400 hitter. Altogether, historians claim Josh Gibson won at least nine home run titles and four batting championships. As his statistics become integrated into Major League records, Josh Gibson will debatably be recognized as best right-handed hitter in Major League history.
Dan: From a collecting standpoint, what makes Josh Gibson so desired and valuable?
Steven: Many people do not know that Josh Gibson died of a brain hemorrhage when he was only 35 years old. He was still quite good, and obviously quite young. To put this in perspective, Hank Aaron hit 245 home runs, and Tom Brady won the majority of his Super bowls (4), after the point in their careers when Josh Gibson had died. Gibson’s early death, well before the advent of the memorabilia era, creates tremendous scarcity, which drives his collectibility.
His early death goes hand in hand with a lack of his autographs in circulation. There are only several known verified copies of his autograph in existence, compared to thousands of autographs.
In addition, there are only two game used bats of Josh Gibson that have been located to date, one of which was chopped up by Topps for use in game used cards in 2016. The “Bat Barrel Card” created by Topps from that bat was touted by Topps as the “greatest card ever produced”. The other known game used bat of Josh Gibson was sold by Christie’s Auctions in 2016 for $319,500.
Furthermore, there is also card scarcity. For example, only 14 PSA graded examples of Josh Gibson’s 1950-51 Puerto Rico Toleteros card (known to collectors as the “Black Wagner”) have emerged to date. On the other hand, there are approximately 60-7 known copies of the T206 Honus Wagner card, according to PSA, some which can sell for millions of dollars.
The combination of rarity and GOAT is especially prevalent in Josh Gibson, and this relationships can exist across the Negro Leagues.
Dan: Collectable is IPO’ing a “Negro League Basket” shortly, which contains a pretty unique Gibson card. Tell us about this card.
Steven: Yes, really unique. It’s a one-of-one 2003 SP Legendary Cuts Card containing a certified Josh Gibson autograph is regarded as the crown jewel of the finest autograph set ever produced. Upper Deck secured mainstream media coverage when it released this card of Josh Gibson. Regarded by many as the finest autograph card set ever produced, the “1 of 1” Gibson card was the crown jewel of this release. One trade journal deemed this card one of the most significant new issues in memory, calling the 2003 private resale of the card for $12,500 “a stinking good deal” for “the only Josh Gibson certified cut autograph card on this planet.” 2003 was quite a long time ago by hobby price standards.
What are a few of his most iconic cards/items that you have come across or would love to find?
Steven: I uncovered and published an article about the only American issued Negro League set during its lifespan, which was issued by Harrison Studios in Hot Springs, Arkansas, where Negro League teams often went for Spring Training. The Harrison Studios Set was a sepia-colored real photo postcard set issued over a three-year period from 1930-32. So far, eleven different cards for that set have been discovered, with others likely to exist. The set features cards of the Homestead Grays and the Pittsburgh Crawfords during their glory days, with many Hall of Famers pictured.
Dan: When it comes to vintage cards, which nearly all Negro Leagues cards are (aside from modern auto inserts), do you have a preferred grading agency?
Steven: Recently PSA has emerged as the clear favorite in the market. But I consider SGC comparable for unique or rare vintage cards of the Negro Leagues.
Dan: What is the most prized item in your collection currently? Doesn’t have to be the most valuable, but what makes it the most prized to you?
Steven: I own the true rookie card of Josh Gibson issued in 1931 as part of the Harrison Studios set. Referred to in the hobby as the “Holy Grail” card, the Gibson card is autographed by him both on the front and back of the card. The card is the only known copy of this card or of any card featuring a solo picture of Gibson issued during his playing days. This card also represents the single Josh Gibson autographed image known to exist.
Dan: What item in your collection was the most thrilling to acquire?
Steven: When Topps issued the only Bat Barrel Card of Josh Gibson in 2006, it garnered national press attention when it was pulled from a pack by a card collector in North Carolina. I tracked down that collector, negotiated with him over time, and purchased the card. That was fun.
Dan: How about something you have always wanted to get your hands on but just haven’t been able to locate or acquire?
Steven: There appears to be a card of Grant “Home Run” Johnson issued by Punch Cigars in Cuba in 1910. Its very existence is steeped in legend. Johnson was arguably the greatest American ball player at the turn of the 20th century. A perennial All Star and lifetime .316 hitter, Johnson played for 26 championship teams, often serving as captain or player-manager of those teams. Four times he was deemed MVP of his league. The card is so rare it has never been pictured, although one reputable collector has assured me that he has seen the card. I regard it as the “great white whale” of Negro League cards.
Dan: If a novice was interested in expanding their collection to include Negro League players, where would you suggest they start? What are some good resources out there that can provide a good jumping off point?
Steven: There are some really great books out there. I would suggest learning a little more about the Negro Leagues, their players, stories, and history because it is truly fascinating stuff. Robert Peterson’s Only The Ball Was White; Larry Tye’s Satchel Paige: The Life and Times of an American Legend; and Buck O’Neil’s autobiography I Was Right on Time are good launching pads. Phillip Garry’s Negro League Baseball Collectibles Guide is the leading treatise on vintage Negro League Cards and contains a ranking of the 100 greatest Negro League cards.
Dan: Keeping in mind that this is not investment advice and that everyone should always do their own research and due diligence before making any investments, where do you see the most opportunity for growth in the Negro Leagues segment of the hobby?
Steven: I feel the entire segment is primed for a big surge. The supply of cards and memorabilia is so limited that even small increases in demand could generate an outsized effect on prices. if you find cards and memorabilia of Negro League players for a fair price, buy it. Especially if you like it, because there is a good chance that only a few, if any, other copies exist and you never know when you’ll get another chance.
Dan: Thank you again so much for sitting down to chat with us. As a final question, if you could give any one piece of advice to someone collecting out there, what would it be?
Steven: Make it fun. Find something that you like and means something to you. I have always considered myself a collector and enthusiast first and an investor second. Making money is certainly a positive, but that is not why I have dedicated so much of my time over the years towards my collection. Collecting should generate meaning and joy to your life.