Ross Greene remembers discovering baseball, one pitch, one out, one inning at a time.
Mutual Broadcasting System delivered descriptions of afternoon action to the family radio on Cherry Street, a game of the day, sometimes from Boston. Ross liked the Red Sox.
This was 1951. Ross was 10. He and little brother David played. Their ball was the leftovers of a real baseball, a tattered cover stuffed with two socks and three rags and sort of sewed back together.
The backyard was Fenway Park with all the nooks and crannies he had heard about on radio. There were imaginary fielders. A batted sockball on the roof was a home run. Retrieval was difficult.
Ross Greene remembers 1951 as a really good year. He got to play Little League at Chilhowee Park. His team just happened to be the Red Sox.
Almost as good was what happened at Wray’s market, very near Cherry Street. The store started selling bad chewing gum packaged with great baseball cards, colorful photos on one side, career statistics on the back, one penny each. Ross invested some lawn-mowing money.
There was drama – no way to tell which baseball hero you had purchased until you removed the wrapper.
Ross remembers when he “lucked into” a Johnny Pesky card and then Dom DiMaggio. He got a Mickey Mantle rookie card and maybe 2,500 others. He threw away most of the chewing gum.
As what almost always happens to boys, the Greenes grew up. David played baseball at the University of Tennessee. Ross became an engineer, got married and moved to Atlanta.
Sometime in the 1970s, Ross thought of his card collection and asked his mother about it.
As almost always happened to baseball card collections stored in shoe boxes, either gathering dust or taking up space in closets, it was gone. Discarded. Just plain dumped into the trash, along with the special rocks and battle caps and other priceless souvenirs. There was a short tug at the heartstrings.
Eventually, he again became a baseball card collector.
“A younger friend of mine, Bill Watkins, offered me his childhood collection of about 3,000 cards. He needed $500 to pay tuition for ministerial studies. I thought the cards were worth $300 but I agreed to the $500 purchase.
“After enjoying a few hours of thumbing through, I put the cards in my closet and didn’t touch ’em again until the early 1990s.”
One summer, when a daughter was home from college, Ross asked her to obtain a price guide and determine the approximate value of his second-hand card collection. He was stunned. It was worth at least 20 times what he had paid.
Through the years, Ross Greene evolved from an engineering career to wealth management. He was very good at addition and subtraction. He now saw card collecting from a different perspective. He had spare change. He started purchasing sets of cards. He bought large collections from people who didn’t want to bother with selling one or two cards at a time.
He never counted but estimates he had 250,000 cards – including rookie cards of Hall of Famers such as Hank Aaron, Sandy Koufax and Roberto Clemente. He even acquired a Babe Ruth autograph.
In the March 8, 1996, issue of Sports Collectors Digest, he saw an ad by a card shop in Illinois for the telephone auction of a T206 set, including the iconic Honus Wagner, the original from 1909. Only 50 or so are in the world.
Greene knew this was the big leagues. He phoned his wife to talk about the probable cost. Lynne said, “If you want it, go for it.”
He called in a bid of $37,500. Near midnight, he called again to see how the sale was going. He raised his bid. Another interested buyer was in the auction office. He bid higher.
“I came back at $48,500. The other guy evidently shook his head no. I got it.”
The card was delivered by FedEx. Ross studied it carefully, wrapped it in blue felt, put it inside a brown sock and tucked it into the bottom of a dressing room drawer. He brought it out from time to time, just to look at it. He showed it to family and a very few close friends.
Three years ago, Greene learned the history of his Wagner. Ownership had been traced back to the start, 1909. He was the fourth owner. To his amazement, the second had been Wirt Gammon, Chattanooga sports writer.
“Mr. Gammon sold the card to Bill Haber for $500.”
Haber worked for the Topps company. He wrote the text for the backs of baseball cards.
Ross Greene felt his treasured Honus Wagner T206 had gone from being a baseball card to being a slice of Americana. It was no longer just a card. Credibility was verified.
“It was the only one that anybody knew how to trace all the way back to 1909. That makes it significantly more important.”
The prize and the Greene collection are finally for sale, in an auction similar to how it was bought. Closing is Saturday.
Greene, 76, father of three and grandfather of eight, said he tried to be pragmatic about letting go.
“I don’t think they collect baseball cards in heaven,” said Greene. “So you’ve got to part with things at some point in time. I thought this was a good time.
“It’s been fun owning it, and I’ve enjoyed it. No matter what happens, you can’t take away from me the fact that I owned something that was very rare. Hopefully, I will put the proceeds to decent use.”
Bidding opened at $100,000 and quickly zoomed to $313,842. Pros say the entire collection may sell for $1.5 million, possibly more. Greene says most of the proceeds will go into an educational fund for the grandchildren. Some will go to Christian ministries.
Yes, says Ross Greene, this adventure has gone far from Cherry Street and backyard sockball and Wray’s market and Chilhowee Park.
In the beginning, Ross was just a baseball fanatic. Now, he is a small segment of baseball history.
Marvin West invites reader reaction. His address is email@example.com