By Chris Oakley
based on "Batter Up" by the same author
The funny thing is, I wasn’t even really looking for the card when I found it in my attic. It just jumped out at me when I was trying to get hold of something else. I was looking for the owner’s manual to my washing machine when I happened to trip over one of my great-grandpa’s old trunks; I figure I must have sprung the lock on it or something, because I heard this clicking sound right before I landed flat on my face. After I picked myself up off the floor, I gave the lid a little tug just see if it would open...and damn if I didn’t see a genuine J.B. Donlan trading card sitting right on top of all the rest of the stuff in the trunk.
You could’ve knocked me over with a feather when I laid eyes on it. I mean, this was the second-rarest baseball card in the world after Honus Wagner; there were only about five left of this card, which was from the year Donlan won his 300th game as a starter. Until I opened that trunk I thought Great-Grandpa had given it away to one of his pals or something...
Anyhow, I forgot about the washing machine manual, pulled the card out of the trunk, and hopped in the car to show it to a buddy of mine who works in the sports memorabilia trade to be sure it was the real deal. If my gut instincts were right, I’d been sitting on a fortune all these years without even knowing it.
Before I go on with the rest of the story, let me tell you a little something about my family history. Back in the days when the Atlantics still played in Philadelphia, my older relatives were huge fans of that team, and even though I was too young to have seen them play before they moved to Miami in ’63 my dad had schooled me about their history right down to the tiniest detail. For example, I can tell you inning by inning how they beat the Chicago Cubs in the first World Series back in 1882. I can recite from memory their starting lineup from the 1926 season, when they overtook the Baltimore Colts in the last week of September to win the American League. I have one of their old game programs from 1943, when Cross-Eye Morgan had to leave in the middle of a doubleheader against the Cleveland Browns because he’d been drafted to fight in the Marine Corps. I can even tell you the brand of beer the concession stands at Haverty Park were serving on the day of the Atlantics’ final game in Philadelphia in ’62. My nephews, who live down in Florida just a few miles west of Cape Canaveral, are becoming rabid Miami fans....
Anyway, more about the Donlan card. Like I was saying, they printed in 1908, the year he won his 300th game and retired from the majors. The front of the card has his stats from the 1907 season and a photo of him in an Atlantics road uniform getting ready to throw what looks like a sinker; on the back there’s a short biography of him done by a sportswriter from the Philadelphia Inquirer. There used to be a million of these around, but stuff happens and now there’s just five left in the whole world. An authentic 1908 J.B. Donlan card is worth at least $800,000 these days.
I got to my friend’s house around 3:30 and found him in his garage sorting through a huge stack of old issues of Sports Illustrated. "Hey there, Don!" he said when I came in. "I haven’t seen you in two days! What brings you around this hour?"
"I found this in my attic right after lunch when I was looking for the owner’s manual for my washing machine." I said, showing him the Donlan card. "It was in one of the trunks that used to belong to my great-grandpa....I thought maybe you could take a peek at it and make sure it’s the real McCoy."
He let out a whistle. "If it is, I’d say you’ve struck gold. You know how hard it is to get hold of one of these? Last month a 1908 Donlan card sold for almost a million at auction in New York City.... they practically had a SWAT team guarding that sucker from the time it was brought into the auction house till the time they closed the bidding."
We went upstairs to his workshop and he put the Donlan card under a magnifying glass. I lost track of how long we were in there, but it must have been at least a couple of hours because when he was finished looking it over the 5:30 news was on the TV and it was starting to get dark outside. Anyhow, he looks up at me and says, "No question about it, Don, you’ve got the real deal here." He pointed to the lower right corner of the card. "See this watermark? Only genuine ’08 Donlans have it. Some knucklehead in San Diego tried to pass off a forgery as the real thing at a card show back in 1995, but he got busted when the guy in the next booth noticed that the watermark wasn’t the right shape."
I remember that case pretty well-- Dateline did at least two stories about the forger right after he got arrested. The jerk’s name was Vanderhoff, and he’d already been sued once before for trying to pawn phony Hank Aaron jerseys off on a sports memorabilia collector; that case was settled out of court, but the fake Donlan card landed Vanderhoff in jail for six months.
"So what do I do next?" I asked my friend.
"If you’re smart," he told me, "you’ll take this down to your bank right now and have them put it in a safe deposit box until you decide whether you want to keep it or sell it. There are an awful lot of guys who’d just love to get their grubby meathooks on this baby-- remember what I said earlier about the Donlan card that got auctioned in New York? Well, a couple of weeks before the auction somebody broke into the original owner’s house and tried to swipe that card. Perp got killed running from the cops after he was caught in the act."
So I took his advice and went down to Tri-State Bank to sign up for a safety deposit box to keep the card in while I made up my mind about what to do with it. The teller’s eyes almost bugged out when I showed him the Donlan card...
About two days later, I went online at a sports memorabilia website my friend recommended and visited their chat room to see if anybody there could help me decide about selling the card. Turns out the chat host was an Atlantics fan too; he started following them just after they moved to Miami. So I asked him if he thought I should sell the card and he said: "Not on your life! I’ve had my Cross Eye Morgan card for almost thirty years and I wouldn’t give it up for love or money!"
In case you haven’t heard of him, Cross Eye Morgan was a left- handed reliever who came up from a minor league outfit in South Carolina to join the Atlantics back in 1938 and got twenty-two saves his rookie year. They called him "Cross Eye" because when he was watching the catcher’s signals his eyes used to swivel towards the tip of his nose and that made him look cross-eyed; he was leading the team in saves every year ‘til about 1943, when he got a telegram in between the first and second games of a doubleheader against Cleveland that said he’d been drafted for the Marines. He came back to the big leagues in ’45 after Japan gave up and pitched till about 1950, then he went into coaching and ran the Atlantics’ Double A farm team until about 1961-- or was it ’62?
Anyhow, one of the other visitors in the chat room said the host was crazy and that I should sell the card on eBay for whatever I could get for it. This started off a whole big flame war, and after about ten minutes that got on my nerves, so I logged out and decided to hold off a little longer on making any final decisions about the Donlan card. It was like an Internet version of the time my brother got in a screaming match with his ex about selling off one of his old cars...There’s only so much of that a guy can take before he goes off the deep end, you know what I mean?
So to clear my head I went down to my favorite coffee shop...
Before I tell you what I finally decided what to do with the Donlan card, let me take you back to the day of the Atlantics’ last game in Philadelphia. It was September 30th, 1962 and Philly was wrapping up a three-game set with the Chicago White Sox to end the 1962 season. Raoul Domingo, a lefty who split Cuba right after Fidel took over, was starting for the Atlantics that day; he had a curve you had to see to believe. If he hadn’t got his arm busted in that car crash in ’64 he could’ve been another Koufax, but that’s neither here nor there...
Anyhow, Domingo struck out the side to start the game. He was doing okay until about the top of the sixth, which was when Chicago touched him for a double and a couple of opposite-field homers. The Atlantics brought righty Jocko Hansen on in relief, but he didn’t do so good either-- he coughed up a bases-loaded single, and just like that Philly was trailing 6-2. They had one last chance to pull it out in the ninth when they loaded the bases and Mike "The Gorilla" McEvoy came to the plate. McEvoy was one of the most amazing hitters you ever saw; if he hadn’t got benched for six weeks with the flu back in ’61, he would’ve beaten Roger Maris for the home run record free and easy, and he could have given Hank Aaron a run for his money too.
But back to that last day at Haverty Park. After running the pitch count up to 2-2, McEvoy belted this monster line drive toward center field and it looked like the Atlantics were going to tie the game up and either win it with two outs in the ninth or set the table for an extra innings victory. But wouldn’t you know it, just as the ball’s about to wind up in the cheap seats Jim Landis grabs it at the last second and saves the game for the White Sox. 6-2, that was the final. People were so upset about the loss and the fact the Atlantics were leaving town for good that they starting throwing stuff onto the field-- paper, popcorn bags, bottles of Monongohela Beer, whatever they could get their hands on. My uncle, who was there that day, once told me he even saw a guy throw a dead fish onto the pitcher’s mound, he was so worked up.
After that, Haverty Park didn’t last long; for a while there was some talk that the Eagles would buy the place and remake it into a football stadium, but the deal fell through at the last minute. They tore the place down in April of ’65. A lot of hearts broke when the wrecking ball started to swing, and some of those hearts still haven’t mended.
While I was down at the coffee shop, somebody happened to turn on one of the local news stations to catch the 5:15 weather report. I’m not sure which one, but I think it might have been the CBS station because I can remember seeing that humongous eye logo of theirs in the upper right corner of the TV screen. Right after the weather report was over, they cut to a story about a K-6 boarding school way up in Norristown that got wrecked by a five-alarm fire. The principal of the school said he was worried that they might have to close the place for good because they didn’t have enough money to rebuild.
I looked at the principal and recognized him from one of my old junior high yearbooks. We’d lost touch right around the time I started college, but I still thought about him a lot and I realized I couldn’t let his school shut down. So I went home and logged on to my eBay account, then I posted a notice saying the Donlan card was up for sale. I didn’t have to wait long before the bids started coming in: just ten minutes after I put the card on the market there were at half a dozen people offering me insanely huge amounts of money for it.
The bidding must’ve lasted at least three days; the winning bid came from somebody out in San Francisco who said they were real big into collecting baseball memorabilia. I won’t tell you what they offered for it, but I will say it was well north of the average value of a bona fide J.B. Donlan 1908. Yeah, it was kind of a heartbreaker to give up my Donlan card, but considering what those kids had lost it seemed a pretty small price to pay to get their school rebuilt.
Once I mailed the card to San Francisco, I figured that was the last I’d see of it. But a funny thing happened about two months after I sold it: the guy I’d sold it to sent it back to me. Turns out that he was related to one of Great-Grandpa’s pals; he enclosed a letter saying that if he’d known how big a deal the Donlan ’08 was to me, he would have just written a check to my friend’s Norristown school and told me to keep the card. And that’s not even the most amazing part of the story: when I looked under the envelope he’d put the letter in, I saw two tickets to the Miami Atlantics’ home opener. Funny, isn’t it, how stuff works out sometimes?