It was his 35th birthday and Curtis Sparks was expecting a box of SP Legendary Cuts baseball cards in the mail on Tuesday.
So he decided to take a break from work and went home to see if the cards had arrived. The cards were there, and Sparks opened a pack to find a rare Roberto Clemente card that could be worth as much as $3,000 to $3,500. The card is so rare, it's not even listed in the Beckett's Guide to Baseball Cards. The card is No. 2 out of a series of four.
"It's a neat birthday present," said Sparks, who two weeks earlier had opened similar pack of cards to find a rare Satchel Paige card that may be worth between $1,500 and $1,800. "Again, I was in total shock. Maybe I should head to Vegas."
Sparks, who works in the accounting department for Klukwan Inc., is a recent convert to baseball card collecting. While he'd saved a few cards when he was a kid growing up in Sitka, he didn't become a serious collector until last year when he tried to get one of the special edition cards of Seattle Mariners outfielder Ichiro Suzuki.
"I'm just starting out," Sparks said. "I've always been a baseball fan, and a Mariners fan. It was my older brother who was the huge collector. I used to tease him about spending all his money on cards."
Until recently, the best card Sparks had been able to find was a Whitey Ford card that featured an autograph and a slice of one of his old game jerseys. Sparks said that card had a book value of $200. The other good card he'd found was an Alex Rodriguez card that featured an autograph, a slice of a game jersey and a sliver of one of A-Rod's bats. Sparks said that card might be worth $100 or $200.
Then came two weeks ago, when he bought a box of SP Legendary Cuts baseball cards from Collector's Hideaway downtown. This brand of card, which is produced by the Upper Deck company, has become one of Sparks' favorite collectables.
This particular card comes four cards to a pack and 18 packs to a box, with a retail price of $9 a pack. Sparks said he spent about $150 for his box of cards.
Collector's Hideaway owner Dave Estes said what makes this card special is one card out of every 18 has a sliver from one of the game bats used by a baseball legend (most of these are players who are deceased). Another one out of 18 cards has a bat sliver from a player whose memorabilia is just entering the marketplace, and another one out of every 18 cards has a piece of a game jersey inserted into the card.
But the really special cards are called "cuts," which have an actual autograph from the player cut into the card. These "cuts" are actual signatures lifted from old contracts, 3x5 index cards and even canceled checks which have been cut out and inserted into the baseball card as part of a sealed sandwich. The special autograph "cuts" occur with one out of every 252 packs of cards, and there may be 30-40 players whose autographs might appear.
"Some of them (the players) are better than others," Sparks said.
Two weeks ago, Sparks got his Satchel Paige card, which is No. 3 of a limited series of 36 cards. The Beckett's value for this series of card is $500 to $800, but Estes said it's considered a "hot" card by Beckett's because there's a high demand for the Satchel Paige card in the series. Last Friday, the No. 36 of the 36 cards in the series sold on E-Bay for $1,802.77.
"I fell over pretty much," Sparks said about when he got his Satchel Paige card. "I really like this brand because you can hit the lottery, kind of."
Sparks ordered another box of the cards off E-Bay, and they arrived in Tuesday's mail. That's when he got his Roberto Clemente card. Estes and one of his employees, Darrin Chapman, both estimated the card's value at $3,000 to $3,500.
"There are so few of them, so there's a potential it could be worth more," said Estes, who added that the last big card one of his customers found was a Michael Jordan card they later sold on E-Bay for $4,500. "They're pretty rare. One thing that's getting popular is these short-run Legendary Cuts cards they're doing across all the sports."
Sparks said he's still pretty much in shock after his finds, but he would have been happy even if he hadn't found such rare cards. He's not sure if he'll put the cards up for sale, but for now he plans to hold onto them for awhile. His main concern now is how much the Roberto Clemente card might be worth.
"I really don't know how much it's worth," Sparks said. "It's fun, anyway. It's a really neat product, my favorite. Baseball cards are not like they used to be."
Charles Bingham can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.