While sitting there, a very tall man came out of a nearby swinging door marked "Staff." He looked Irish. For lack of a better name, I'm going to call him Kelly.
Kelly went on to tell about how he had come by a rare Honus Wagner baseball card, like the one that Bruce McNall, after he had won the Arc de Triomphe with Saumarez and before he went to stir, and Wayne Gretzky had once bought for $450,000. Kelly said he had called an auction house and was told that he had something worth putting on the block.
"I've got it in a safe-deposit box," he said. "I'll leave it for my son. I don't need the money."
Kelly might have been a room-service waiter. He was dressed like one. I wondered how a room-service waiter could say that he didn't need the money, but I guess that's another story.
The history of the Honus Wagner card is that it was put out by a tobacco company a century ago, without the permission of the great Pittsburgh Pirates' shortstop, who didn't smoke. Wagner made a fuss, and all but 60 of the 2-by-2 1/2-inch, multi-colored cards were recalled.
Kelly didn't know that story, nor did he know that an order of Catholic nuns in Baltimore was auctioning another Wagner card, which had been left to them after one of the sisters had inherited it from her brother. The day after my conversation with Kelly, that card was sold for $262,000.
I felt obligated to finally tell Kelly that I was a journalist. It works every time. He didn't say another word. In an instant, he disappeared through the swinging door marked "Staff." He was in the wrong place, and had found the wrong guy. I'm not using his real name, nor naming the hotel where he works, but otherwise all bets are off. You tell your stories to strangers and you take your chances.
Every time baseball cards come up, I think of racing cards and how little they're worth by comparison. You might say the same for the entire racing memorabilia market. Want an Eddie Arcaro card, autographed? Contact John Ostlund, a collector in Massachusetts, and he'll sell you one for $20 or $30. Want Arcaro and Bill Shoemaker together? $135. Steve Cauthen? A steal at $8. You can get two Bob Bafferts for what it would cost you for one Cauthen. Ron Turcotte, $4 to $10.
Thoroughbred racing's list in the Ostlund collection doesn't even take up one page. His baseball collection runs 30 pages. One of the cheapest baseball autographs, Lou Boudreau's, is $20, which is more than most of the racing offerings. Some representative prices from the baseball side: Satchel Paige, $595; Mickey Mantle, $450; Joe DiMaggio, $395; Ted Williams, $415. I saw once in a collectors' magazine that an Eddie Gaedel autograph was going for $20,000, and they'd throw in the signature of Ray Anthony, the old bandleader, which was on the other side. Gaedel only batted once in the big leagues (he walked), but he was a 3-foot-7 midget, one of Bill Veeck's promotional stunts with the ragamuffin St. Louis Browns, and he was quickly banned from baseball. The scorecard from the game has been listed at $1,200 on eBay. I attended that game, in 1951, and didn't save my scorecard. You're about to see a grown man cry.
For $1,200, you could buy Ostlund's entire horse racing collection and have some money left over. The most expensive racing lot that Ostlund has is a signed glossy photo of Arcaro, which can be had for $150.
Racing tried to get into the trading card business full bore in 1991, in conjunction with the 50th anniversary of the Jockeys' Guild. John Ball and the late Jim Bolus worked tirelessly in producing several outstanding collections of jockeys, horses, Kentucky Derby memories and Breeders' Cup cards, but eventually the project was abandoned. This year, the Jockeys' Guild is back in the trading card business, on a very limited basis, with the Daily Racing Form. The full 2010 set, 61 cards, is being marketed in 11-card packages--10 active riders and one Hall of Fame jockey per package. In anticipation of the aborted Zenyatta-Rachel Alexandra showdown this year at Oaklawn Park, the Hot Springs Chamber of Commerce put out cards of both horses. I got a couple, and got the jockeys, Mike Smith and Calvin Borel, to sign them. Some day, somebody may come up to me and offer me a Mickey Mantle and a Satchel Paige for the pair of horses, but I will say no. But if Kelly from Las Vegas calls with his Honus Wagner card, I'll say, Let's talk.