Great Philanthropy: Baseball Card Windfall for Nuns

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January 31, 2011; Source: New York Times | The School Sisters of Notre Dame in Baltimore, average age 76, are apparently big sports fans, gathering around the big screen TV in the common room for all major football and baseball games and sometimes even wearing local colors. And so it is fitting that they just sold a 100-year-old Honus Wagner baseball card for $220,000, making the Roman Catholic order’s international teaching and ministry and its work with the poor a bit easier.

The sole brother of a deceased Sister bequeathed to the nuns his estate, worth more than $1 million, including the very rare baseball card. At 85, the anonymous donor had no immediate family, according to the New York Times. But he was a well-known figure among the nuns, having sat with his sister after she had a brain aneurysm in the 1990s. He also attended mass every Sunday in his signature green sports jacket and tie.

The nuns found the card in a safe deposit box with a typewritten note attached from the donor: “Although damaged, the value of this baseball card should increase exponentially throughout the 21st century!”

Produced from 1909 to 1911, only about 60 T206 series Honus Wagner cards are known to exist. One in near-perfect condition sold for $2.8 million in 2007, a record price for a baseball card, according to the Times.

After picking up the baseball card, Sister Virginia Muller, the order’s former treasurer, searched the Internet to determine its worth. She was surprised indeed. “I very carefully put it into the back of my files,” she told the Times, laughing. “Then quickly insured it.”

Honus Wagner was a shortstop for the Pittsburg Pirates and one of the first five players to be inducted into baseball’s Hall of Fame. Apparently his cards are rare because the cards were sponsored by a tobacco company and he disagreed with marketing tobacco to children. Derek Grady, of Sportscard Guaranty, which authenticated the card said, “I would say 8 out of 10 times someone brings us a Honus Wagner card it’s counterfeit, so we were skeptical about this one . . . It was real, but in very bad shape. If it wasn’t trimmed down, creased and shellacked, it could have been worth a million dollars.”

But even in its less than pristine condition the card brought in more than the auction house expected because when it comes to such stuff, the backstory matters. Nicholas DePace, a cardiologist/sports memorabilia collector, bought the card for $220,000 rather than the expected $150,000 and even then the auction house had second thoughts and tried to buy it back. DePace declined. “I said, ‘What’s the matter with you guys?’ It’s no longer just a baseball card; it’s become a religious relic, a St. Jude of memorabilia. I’m keeping it.” —Aaron Lester and Ruth McCambridge