Collector Lives In House Of Cards

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The floor of Ed Rakosnik's Rim country home is a maze of cardboard boxes filled to the flaps with baseball cards about 350,000 of them, by his count. They're on the couch, in the chairs, all over the top of his stove, on his kitchen table, under his kitchen table and piled in a nearby storage shed.

But they're not in Rakosnik's closets and cupboards. That's where he keeps his massive collection of baseballs and footballs, each personally autographed by one legendary sports figure or another. In a single glance, visitors can spot the John Hancocks of such Hall of Famers as Whitey Ford, Harmon Killebrew and Don Drysdale.

Rakosnik's home is, in other words, the perfect milieu in which to celebrate what for him is the premier event of 2001: the 50th anniversary of Topps baseball cards, the great-granddaddy of sports-memorabilia collectibles.

"Topps is the elite of the baseball card field," Rakosnik says. "They're the first ones who were in it. Everybody else tries to compare to them, but they just don't seem to be able to do it."

Although Rakosnik admits to never having developed a fondness for chewing gum, the stuff not only changed his life but provided it with a backstory that begins in 1938 when the Shorin brothers of Brooklyn, N.Y., created the Topps Gum company.

Originally sold as a "change-maker" at cash registers instead of three cents change, people were encouraged to buy three pieces of Topps the product eventually evolved into Bazooka Bubble Gum, which was wrapped in miniature comic strips starring an eye-patched character named Bazooka Joe.

In 1950, the Shorins decided that they could sell even more bubble gum by inserting trading cards into the packaging. The first series featured TV and film cowboy Hopalong Cassidy, big game hunter Frank "Bring 'em Back Alive" Buck and All-American football players.

Topps created its very first baseball cards in 1951 precisely the same year Ed Rakosnik, now 77, started collecting them. Over time, the player's images were supplemented by their team logo, vital statistics, and full playing record.

It wasn't long before the idea of cards helping to sell more gum reversed itself; the cards, not the gum, were what people longed for. And Topps led the way, going on to develop football, basketball and hockey cards as well.

Today, cards by Topps and its competitors are displayed in art museums and the Baseball Hall of Fame in addition to being the hottest items featured at online auctions. Card shows around the country are social events where collectors meet to buy, sell, trade, and talk about hot cards, promising rookies and the latest technology.

"The first Topps cards were made of fairly cheap cardboard, but they've sophisticated them so much lately," Rakosnik says. "For example, they make refractor cards, where the colors stand out like a rainbow when the light hits them.

"Oh, there's so much they're doing now. I've got so damned many cards I can't even think about it. I can't keep up with everything. I just can't."

Despite his plethora of baseball cards, Rakosnik doesn't consider his collection complete.

"I don't have an autographed Mickey Mantle card," he groans. "I wish to hell I did. They're running around $2,000."

Rakosnik's inventory does, however, include cards bearing the circa-1940's image of his all-time favorite baseball player, Luke Appling, "the greatest shortstop the White Sox ever had." There are also "one or two Babe Ruth cards, but I don't know where the heck they're at."

Rakosnik started collecting cards so long ago, in fact, that the impetus for his obsession has faded from memory.

"When they first came out," he says, "we used to put them in the spokes of our bicycles to make noise. We never thought they'd ever be worth anything.

"But collecting them ... well, that's just something I started and kept going with."

And going and going and going.

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