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Interview with Tom Zappala.
Conducted by Collectable’s Senior Editor, David Seideman.

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When Ken Kendrick, the owner of the Arizona Diamondbacks and probably the world’s finest sports card collection, wanted a book produced to highlight his treasure trove there was only one man to call. If you’re not familiar with the work of Tom Zappala, you’re in for a real treat. Tom is the author of five award-winning books on baseball cards and memorabilia such as An All-Star Star’s Cardboard Memories and Legendary Lumber: The Top 100 Player Bats In Baseball, both of which I heaped praise upon in two columns for Forbes.


In addition, he and his wife Ellen, are co-authors of Baseball & Bubble Gum: The 1952 Topps Collection, The Cracker Jack Collection:

Baseball’s Prized Players,  and The 100 Greatest Baseball Autographs.  (All are available on his website, Amazon, and the Baseball Hall of Fame’s book store.)  Meanwhile, Zappala and the super amiable Red Sox Hall of Famer Rico Petrocelli host a weekly baseball collectibles podcast featuring a rotating list of guest co-hosts and hobby experts from around the country who discuss the latest in the sports collectibles world.

You can meet the Zappalas and Petrocelli at this year’s National Sports Collectors Convention in Atlantic City where he will be launching his new book and doing a two-hour podcast onsite. 

I caught up with Zappala to explore his exciting Ken Kendrick project and seek this industry heavy hitter’s  investment advice.

David: What a collection!  Why did you select these 50 cards:

1909 T206 Honus Wagner PSA 8 

1952 Topps Mickey Mantle PSA 10 

1916 M101-5/M101-4 #151 Babe Ruth PSA 8 (Sporting News)

1916 M101-5/M101-4 #151 Babe Ruth PSA 6 (Famous & Barr)

1909 T206 Eddie Plank PSA 8 

1933 Goudey Napoleon Lajoie PSA 9 

1911 T3 Turkey Red Ty Cobb PSA 8 

1933 Goudey #144 Babe Ruth PSA 9 

1933 Goudey #181 Babe Ruth PSA 9 

1951 Bowman Mickey Mantle PSA 10 

1915 Cracker Jack Joe Jackson PSA 9 

1934 Goudey #37 Lou Gehrig PSA 9 

1934 Goudey #61 Lou Gehrig PSA 9 

1948 Leaf Satchel Paige PSA 8 

1941 Play Ball Joe DiMaggio PSA 9 

1911 T205 Ty Cobb PSA 8 

1954 Wilson Franks Ted Williams PSA 7 

1955 Topps Roberto Clemente PSA 9 

1954 Topps Henry Aaron PSA 10 

1935 National Chicle #34 Bronko Nagurski PSA 9 

1948 Bowman George Mikan PSA 8 

1951 Bowman Willie Mays PSA 9 

1986 Fleer Michael Jordan PSA10 

1909-11 T206 Portrait Cy Young PSA 9

1909-11 T206 Bare Hand Cy Young PSA 9

1909-11 T206 Portrait Walter Johnson PSA 9

1909-11 T206 Bat Off Shoulder Ty Cobb PSA 8

1909-11 T206 Bat On Shoulder Ty Cobb PSA 8

1909-11 T206 Green Portrait Ty Cobb PSA 8

1909-11 T206 Red Portrait Ty Cobb PSA 8

1909-11 T206 “Magie Error” Sherry Magee PSA 8

1915 Cracker Jack #30 Ty Cobb PSA 9

1916 Famous & Barr Co. Jim Thorpe PSA 8

1927 E126 Babe Ruth PSA 8

1934 World Wide Gum Babe Ruth PSA 9

1938 Goudey #274 Joe DiMaggio PSA 9

1938 Goudey #250 Joe DiMaggio PSA 9

1939 Play Ball #92 Ted Williams PSA 9

1941 Play Ball Ted Williams PSA 9

1948 Leaf Jackie Robinson PSA 9

1949 Bowman Roy Campanella PSA 10

1949 Bowman Satchell Paige PSA 9

1952 Topps Willie Mays PSA 10

1953 Topps Willie Mays PSA 10

1954 Bowman Ted Williams PSA 9

1954 Topps Al Kaline PSA10

1955 Topps Sandy Koufax PSA 10

1957 Topps Brooks Robinson PSA 10

1959 Topps Bob Gibson PSA 10

1968 Topps Koosman/Ryan PSA 10

1979 Topps Ozzie Smith PSA 10

Tom:  That came from Ken. We thought that 50 would be an ideal number. But it was his choice. He is a big collector. He has a lot of really special complete sets, too.

David: While we’re at it, just curious why he selected the Ozzie as the most modern as opposed to, say, Ken Griffey, Jr.

Tom: I don’t have an absolute answer. I think Ken wanted the 50 cards to include pre-war right through the  present. He wanted to share the entire history with the collector. That was his choice for the most modern. 

David:  So there are three 1952 Topps Mickey Mantle PSA 10s in existence. Marshall Fogel, the owner of one, told me that he has turned down offers of $25 million for his. Do you know if Ken has received similar offers?

Tom: I am sure has had offers for that and other cards.The card came from the great collection of Tom Candiotti, the former major league knuckleballer who works in the Diamondbacks’ radio booth and was a real big collector. He bought his Mantle around mid-2004. A portion of his cards came from Candiotti. 

David: I understand that, growing up in the 1950s, Ken wasn’t even much of a Mantle fan.

Tom:  Ken was a Brooklyn Dodgers fan. He is very passionate about the history of the game Although his cards are ionic, he enjoys the story behind the players of the game. It’s like me being a Yankees fan coming from Boston. You’ve got to respect some of the greatest players.

David: What about the 1909 T206 Honus Wagner PSA 8 (deemed the “Gretzky Wagner”)? Hobby veterans consider that the top card in hobby even though after Ken bought it was later revealed that Bill Mastro, hobby big shot and criminal, trimmed it.

Tom: It is the most iconic card in the history of the hobby. The signature of the entire hobby. Hands down. There are the stories behind this Wagner and so there are so few to begin with. (About 75.)  That particular card has added mystique to the hobby because it has been owned by so many successful people ( like Gretzky). 

I don’t like to get involved in politics, just take a step back and enjoy everything.

David: How long did Ken take to amass this collection and when did he do it?

Tom: In the late ‘90s and early 2000s. He later based it on the first 20 cards in the book by Joe Orlando (former PSA president) in 2008 called Collecting Sports Legends: The Ultimate Hobby Guide. Ken collected a bunch of different sports by choice.  

David: Does he have a favorite card?

Tom: Honestly, He looks at all 50 cards like his children.

David: Do you? 

Tom: My favorite card in the collection would surprise you. It’s not the Mantle or a Ruth. I like the George Mikan rookie card. I think it’s a cool card, one of the two basketball cards (besides the Jordan PSA 10). I am an old NBA lover. We did a lot of research on Mikan. There’s a great backstory. They rewrote the basketball regulations because he was so dominant. I also like Bronko Nagurski because I never did a lot of research on him. The guy was a phenomenal athlete for his time (primarily the 1930s). He played three positions: He was a running back, a tackle, and an end. Plus he was a pro wrestler.

David: Are these two cards good buys?

Tom: Yes, these are good buys. Absolutely Nagurksi and Mikan. I would add Jim Thorpe as three other top other sports cards in our book, not counting the ’86 Jordan. Thorpe was another great athlete. Football doesn’t have the cachet of baseball and basketball, though I really like Jim Brown’s card because it’s iconic. Thorpe was a great baseball player. He was an Olympic gold medalist (for track) and a super star in all three sports. I find that fascinating. He lost his gold medals because he played professionally on the side, but they were later reinstated.

David: Ken’s instincts for which cards to collect are uncanny, given the current boom. He is the Warren Buffet of cards. I realize, though, as a very successful businessman he didn’t do it for the money.

Tom: I agree. Ken is his own man. His real love of the hobby supersedes everything else.

David: Ken’s collection spans the entire history of twentieth century baseball cards. Is that intentional?

Tom: He is a real history buff.  He wanted to cover the entire century because of his love of pre-war such as T206s and T205s. He’s really passionate about the entire century.

David: He has shown off parts of his collection at local museums and his ball park, which is a boon to the hobby.  What pleasure does he derive from being so generous?

Tom: That’s another example. He’s really enthusiastic about sharing his love. It has been on display at the Diamonbacks’ ballpark and at Cooperstown. It’s been a boon to the hobby because of all the press. 

David: Shifting focus from Ken Kendricks, I’d like to ask you some general investment questions. First, What’s the hottest material today?

Tom: Basketball. Modern and ultra modern. It’s red hot. Personally, I don’t collect these. But right now PSA is grading more basketball than anything else. A lot of it has to do with a new group of day traders flipping these cards of Moran and players like that. 

On the other side of the coin, I am finding it encouraging that it is also helping the vintage markets. I am not saying the modern collectors don’t love the hobby. It’s very important to them. They will buy these modern cards. They are using the vintage cards like we would use a blue chip stock like AT&T and IBM to offset the risk of  taking on the modern. The vintage is slow and steady. 

A nice portfolio means buying vintage like we talk about with Ken’s collection: the 33 Goudey Ruth, T206 Cobbs, Ted Williams rookie cards. The vintage cards from the ‘50s. Topps 1950s Mantles. Al Kaline. Roberto Clemente. Jackie Robinsons from the ‘40s and ‘50s. I find it fascinating. As I said, it’s just like a stock portfolio. You take a risk and you buy the anchor stocks.

David:  What are astute people collecting?

Tom: Game used tickets are red hot. Over the last six months, they have really exploded. Game used memorabilia like bats and game-worn baseball, football, and hockey jerseys. And signed baseballs. 

I’m personally switching gears to memorabilia. I like the whole concept of the players DNA being part of the object at the time. There’s nothing like holding a Cobb, Ruth, or Williams bat. 

You know that famous photo from 1939 of the first Hall of Fame Induction Group? (Honus Wagner, Grover Cleveland Alexander, Tris Speaker, Nap Lajoie, George Sisler, and Walter Johnson. Eddie Collins, Babe Ruth, Connie Mack, and Cy Young.)

I’m working on trying to accumulate signed balls of each one of these players. Plus Mathewson and Cobb. Mathewson had died and Cobb was late. I kind of liquidated my T206 collection. There are a handful of tough ones. Lajoie is tough. So is Grover Cleveland Alexander. It’s next to impossible to find a single signed Mathewson. Ruths and Cobbs are out there. I already have four: Connie Mack, Cy Young, Eddie Collins, and Walter Johnson. 

David: Very cool, Tom. So, which players cards, pre and post war, are the biggest right now in your estimation?

Tom: The big three are really strong: Cobb, Ruth, and Gehrig.

Some of the other Wagners besides the T206 like the E-92 1909 Dockman & Sons. The Sporting Life with the blue background. It has the same pose as the T206. (A PSA 6 sold for $25,000 in January.)

The ’51 Bowman Mantle is picking up steam. That is his true rookie. Anything Tom Brady rookie.  In terms of who’s hot and who’s not, the Joe Burrow rookie is hot.

David: What other post war cards?

Tom: The Koufax, Clemente, and Jackie Robinsins rookies. Those are iconic. The Roy Campanella rookie. (1949 Bowman).

David: Really? He never comes up. (Kendrick owns a PSA 10).

Tom:  Campy has always been in the shadow of Yogi Berra and Johnny Bench. Look at the tragedy (of him being paralyzed in 1957 from a car accident). A lot it starts coming together. 

Then there’s the Rose rookie. As time goes on, Rose is becoming more accepted. There’s talk about pushing him into the Hall of Fame. His rookie card is a pretty good investment. 

Mays’ ’51 bowman is white hot. And his ’54. All of his cards from the ‘50s are. His cards from the 60s are not as much. I hate to say it, but that has a lot to do with him nearing his end.

A lot of the Generation X (Americans born between 1965 and 1980) are morphing into the ‘70s. 

David: Which cards exactly from the 60’s and 70’s are catching fire the most?

Tom: George Brett and Robin Yount. Jim Rice.  Johnny Bench from that period continues to pick up. Carl Yastrzemski’s rookie year was 1960 but he played until 1983.

David: You mentioned Campy and Jackie. I’m always surprised that Duke Snider doesn’t get a lot of love. His cards don’t do so well; the reason, probably, was that he was the third best center fielder in New York, behind Mantle and Mays.

Tom: Yeah, Duke Snider doesn’t get a lot of love. Whitey Ford doesn’t, either.

David:  I’ve heard from a prominent Brooklyn Dodger dealer that Gil Hodges is in higher demand than Snider.

Tom:  Hodges may be another short spike from being elected into the Hall of Fame.  The jury is still out. 

David:  What’s moving markets?

Tom:  Definitely, manufactured rarities. One of one rookie patches. I’m not saying it in a derogatory way. It definitely has a bearing on the young, the Millennials (ages 26 to 41). Investing in manufactured rarity develops a real appreciation of the hobby. You do a lot of digging. It’s like buying a hot stock. What about this Apple stock?

How do you spot fraud?

There are a lot of professionals. We just spoke to Kevin Lenane, president of Collectors Universe (which owns PSA) on our show. They’re a company incorporating some tools to really detect that sort of thing with new technology called Genamint.

(According to PSA, “Genamint technology analyzes each trading card in real-time and is able to provide diagnostics, measurements, and detect alterations or other changes made to a card’s surface in an effort to assist human graders. It will also provide unique card identification — or ‘card fingerprinting’—by identifying the exact card in order to track provenance, resubmissions, condition changes and other attributes over time.”)

This will be a big plus and a big help to the market. That’s what it was all about. PSA is hellbent on trying to curb fraud.

David: What are three items you recommend?

Tom: From a speculative standpoint. Right now, it’s a really limited edition PSA 10 Joe Burrow rookie card. That’s not going to break the bank. 

As I said, the ’51 Bowman Mantle is really going to rise in a year or two. It’s his true rookie card. I just bought a PSA 3.

A decent quality Jackie Robinson rookie card is a good investment.

So on the ultra modern side Burrow and Ja Morant (Memphis Grizzlies point guard.)  But this is speculative. Look at what happened to Zion Williamson (New Orleans Pelicans power forward.) He dropped like a rock. 

I prefer slow and steady. Nothing is going to happen to Ty Cobb. He is already dead. Lou Gehrig is not going to eat way out of his league like Zion Williamson has.

David: What is the hobby’s future?

Tom: I’m very bullish. I think kids are really getting into it. They’re 10, 11, 12  years old. Wheatland, the auction house, has a busy store. They tell me that 12-year-olds come in to buy packs and open them right there on the spot. That’s a good sign.

David: Just like when we were kids in the 1960s and 1970s.’

Tom:  Exactly!

There’s one thing that needs to be done. Major League Baseball needs to work harder to make the game more interesting for kids. That’s part of why basketball is so hot. How can we attract kids? Look at the time slots for TV. Kids can’t watch a World Series game that starts at 8:00 on the East Coast. It’s the late start time. And the length of the games. Three hours and three and a half hours. Kids’ attention spans are too short for that.

Baseball should take a step back and figure out how to shorten games. A pitch clock would be a good idea.