Inside the Met's surprising card collection

May, 22, 2013
5/22/13
11:32
AM ET
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Quick quiz: Where can you find the largest publicly available collection of baseball cards? If you said the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, give yourself a pat on the back. You're right!

But here's a trickier one: Where can you find the second-largest collection of baseball cards?

The answer, surprisingly enough, is the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. Yes, really!

Here's the back story: Long before the existence of baseball card conventions, memorabilia shops, eBay or chalky pink bubblegum, there was a guy named Jefferson Burdick. Burdick, who was born in 1900, was an electrician by trade. On the side, he was the most obsessive collector geek of his day, assembling history's greatest collection of early American printed ephemera, including more than 30,000 baseball cards, some of them dating back to the 1880s. In those days, of course, baseball cards were mostly giveaways with tobacco products, and they didn't yet have stats and other data on the back.

Anyway, as Burdick was moving into middle age, he began thinking about where he wanted his collection to end up. Baseball cards weren't yet hot collectibles, so the idea that his cards might have commercial value never occurred to him. Instead, he proposed giving his collection to the Metropolitan Museum, which basically told him, "Sure, we'll take it -- as long as you catalog it and organize it first." So Burdick spent years making daily trips to the Met, where he painstakingly put all his cards into albums. He gave each series of cards its own alpha-numeric code -- sort of his own Dewey Decimal System -- that's still used by baseball card collectors today. That includes the code that has become the most famous shorthand in the card-collecting world: T206.

As you may know, T206 is the designation for the rarest and most valuable baseball card of all: the Honus Wagner T206 from 1909, only about three dozen of which are known to exist. What you might not know, however -- and what I didn't know myself until very recently -- is that the T206 designation refers to a series of similar cards, called the "White Border" series, which the Honus Wagner card was part of. (For further info, look here.)

I learned all this from Freyda Spira, the Metropolitan Museum curator currently in charge of the Burdick Collection. As you might imagine, the museum doesn't devote as much display space to baseball cards as it does to, say, all those Picassos and Rembrandts, but the museum's American Wing has a small area that's permanently devoted to Burdick's cards, and Spira has created a rotating series of theme-driven exhibits. The current one, which is being exhibited through July 7, is about women in sports. That will be replaced by a new exhibit of cards from the dead ball era. Last year she did one about breaking the color barrier.

As you can see in the video embedded on this page, it was fun to get a guided tour of the current exhibit from Spira, but the best part was when she took us to the museum's "Study Room," where most museum visitors don't get to go. This is where the Burdick Collection is kept, still in those same albums he created decades ago. (Interestingly, I thought we'd have to wear white gloves while handling the albums, but Spira said people tend to be clumsier while wearing gloves, which can lead them to damage the cards, plus the gloves sometimes snag on the cards' corners. So we just stayed bare-handed.)

Spira had laid out a bunch of notable cards from the collection for me to see, including some gorgeous Cracker Jack cards from 1915. But the real treat was getting a close-up look at the most prized card in the Burdick Collection and the holy grail of the baseball card world: a genuine Honus Wagner T206. There it was just inches away from me, a baseball card worth millions of dollars. Granted, there are paintings and sculptures at the Met that are older, rarer and worth far more, but I don't get a buzz from paintings and sculptures. I get a buzz from baseball cards, and it was seriously exciting to be in such proximity to the most famous one of them all.

The Wagner card isn't put on display very often, but it's about to make one of its infrequent public appearances. If you want to see it for yourself, it will be featured in Spira's next exhibit of cards from the Burdick Collection, which will focus on the dead ball era. That exhibition will run from July 8 through Dec. 15.

As for Burdick, he died in 1963. According to Spira, he never attended a baseball game. So he was an unlikely figure to amass such an important baseball card collection, and his cards ended up in an unlikely place. But if you've ever collected cards, you're basically part of his legacy.

Paul Lukas usually spends more time thinking about the Mets than the Met. If you liked this column, you'll probably like his daily Uni Watch web site, plus you can follow him on Twitter and Facebook. Want to learn about his Uni Watch Membership Program, be added to his mailing list so you'll always know when a new column has been posted, or just ask him a question? Contact him here.

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