IRV LERNER, HOBBY VETERAN FROM
Irv and Eleanor
Irv and Eleanor Lerner
Longtime collector remembers finding the hobby and the early shows
When you dwell in the hobby past like I do, you run across names that keep popping up for years in publications and correspondence. The lesson is that once you are a collector, you are probably always a collector. One such name I kept running across was Irv Lerner’s. In my search to find information on Jefferson Burdick, the “Father of Card Collecting,” I found a 1970 publication Who’s Who in Card Collecting published by Irving W. Lerner, Managing Editor, and Bob Jasperson and Richard Reuss, Associate Editors. This first edition had, what I later found to be, a very concise, accurate bio of Jefferson Burdick. The first person listed in the “Card Collectors Hall of Fame” as described in the publication was Burdick in 1969 followed in 1970 by Walt Corson, Charles Bray, Preston Orem, E.C. Wharton-Tigar, and Robert Payne. In 1971 the second edition of the publication added Lionel Carter, John Wagner, and Buck Barker.
National and Philly Shows
I was pleased to find Irv Lerner very much active in the
hobby when I first talked to him in 2002. He put me in touch with two other
veteran collectors: John Rumierz of
Irv’s livelihood has been as an accountant serving for thirty-five years as a vice president of a life insurance company. As a C.P.A. he has also handled individual accounting and tax matters in his independent practice. His organization and attention to detail are evident in how he organizes his booth at shows. Being in the exciting world of accounting myself, I could relate to Irv’s approach. His cards for sale are all in albums with stars on the top followed by commons, everything priced and in numeric order. Each book is placed on the tables in chronological order and the cards are in great shape. All cards are ungraded and they range from the early tobacco cards to 1980. He has baseball, football, basketball, hockey, other sports, and non-sport. He is very aware of variations and test issues and notes them accordingly in his albums.
The Cigar Store Start
How did Irv get such great cards in a seemingly endless
supply? It helped to start collecting in 1948 and have a father who owned a
cigar store. Like many American celebrities, Irv was born in
Reentering the Hobby in 1959
Irv’s collecting took a hiatus beginning in mid-1952. But the cards were still around and Irv got bit by the collecting bug a second time in 1959. Irv noticed some kids were throwing out baseball cards and volunteered to take them off their hands. Irv wanted to find other collectors but collectors weren’t out in the open in those years. Irv persisted and later found an ad in a Cub Scout booklet advertising cards for sale through Woody Gelman’s Card Collectors’ Company of Franklin Square, New York. Irv quickly went from adding just a few youngster discards to his collection to going after everything in earnest. What a great time to get the old cards – when they weren’t really very old!
Bill White and Others
With additional initiative Irv contacted Bill White, a
long-time collector from
In the early 1960s Irv found Bruce Yeko, Goodie Goldfaden, and Larry Fritsch as early dealers who could help fill in his set needs. He also found other collectors such as condition-conscious Lionel Carter and started swapping quantities of mint, well-centered cards. To give you an idea of the prices, here is an excerpt from Card Collectors’ Company, March 1963 pricelist preamble: “Many cards of recent years are now selling actively at over 50 cents a card….There’s money in collecting and selling sports cards. One of the rarest of all cards is a card of Honus Wagner….Today one of the cards bearing his picture, which was issued around 1910, is worth $250.” (The ’52 Topps high numbers were up to $1 each in Gelman’s pricelist. What highway robbery for an 11year-old card of old players!)
didn’t hurt Irv that Topps cards were printed in
Irv was able to meet Bill Haber who did the comics and quizzes on the backs of the Topps cards. Irv recalled that Haber viewed it as one on the greatest jobs in the world “getting paid to play all day” working on creating baseball cards. Haber traded Irv uncut proof sheets and test issues from Topps. Topps would send proof sheets to: the Library of Congress for copyright purposes, Topps proofreaders, district salesmen for cut samples, and occasionally the sheets found there way into the hands of people like Irv Lerner. Haber was six years younger than Lerner and died several years ago.
Errors and Variations
With his attention to detail and knowledge of the printing process, Irv got interested in errors and variations. An outlet for Irv’s error and variation enthusiasm was Ball Card Collector magazine. Irv began his long-time career as a mostly unpaid contributor to the hobby publications. He wrote columns on errors and variations and reported on current issues. In addition to the 1962 Topps story, Irv told me about the 1942 Playballs. I thought, wait a minute, Irv, there was no such thing unless you are talking about some collector issues. I was wrong again, according to Irv. Irv said that the higher numbers of the “1941” set were actually printed in 1942 and the rest of the set was reprinted at the same time. If you look at the back bottom left corner of the Playballs some low numbered cards will have the copyright shown as © 1941 and others will be just ©. The © only versions are from the 1942 printing and include all the higher numbers. The highest number I found in my collection with the © 1941 version was number 42 of the 72 cards issued. Irv’s cards for sale depicted a number of other “unlisted” color variations from the 1948-9 Leaf set and the 1949 Bowman issue.
The Who’s Who Idea
Trading cards with other collectors in the 1960s was done almost entirely by mail. Irv remembered you would deal with people with no knowledge of their age or background. There were no shows at the time where collectors could get together. Irv thought it would be a good idea to put together some type of directory, hence the Who’s Who in Card Collecting idea. Irv organized the process with the assistance of Bob Jasperson and Richard Reuss. Jasperson had authored a Sport Fan Who’s Who directory in the 1950s. Subscription lists from the The Ball Card Collector and The Trader Speaks were used to do a mailing asking people to provide their addresses, age and collecting interests as a vehicle to encourage activity among collectors. An added feature to the 100 plus page publication was the Collectors Hall of Fame idea. Irv sent some 300+ people a nomination form to elect Hall of Fame members. The votes were tabulated and winners determined. The next step was getting information from the nominees and other collectors to put together bios. While the information about a collector may have come from others, it was Irv and his other editors who wrote the bios. The directory is still a useful source of information on most of the early collectors. In true Irv Lerner fashion, the publication is well organized with a Burdick-like foreword extolling the virtues of card collecting. Next is a thorough list of acknowledgments with thanks to Carter, Bray, Yeko, Nagy, Barker, Nowell, and Wirt Gammon. Collectors throughout the country could have their names, addresses, birth dates, professions, collecting interests, and bios included without charge. You could find bios on Bill Mastro and Keith Olbermann, ages 17 and 11, respectively, at the time, or go the other way and find John B. Wagner age 71 or Burdick collaborator, Fred Baum, age 65. Advertising space was sold to dealers and collectors to help defray the cost of the publication. Irv described at length the Hall of Fame selection process including a selection committee, voting by collectors, and rules and regulations for being involved in the process. “Who's Who was extremely well done and represented a major step forward in the hobby” according to veteran collector and writer Jim McConnell.
Irv at the First Shows
wasn’t too long though before collectors started to meet at shows which lessened
the need for publications like Irv’s Who’s Who. When the shows started Irv
was soon there attending the second such event in 1970 at the Brea, California,
home of Jim Nowell According to Jim McConnell, who attended the three Nowell
shows, “the first gathering in 1969 was attended by 13 collectors. The only out
of state collectors for that one were Dennis Graye from Detroit and John England
from Fort Smith, Arkansas.
Shortly thereafter shows started to pop up in
Wagner, Wilt and Rings
In addition to the sets from his youth, Irv completed most sport sets through the 1980s. He also went backward picking up tobacco cards by the bushel as a result of advertising in local papers in the 1960s. He accumulated many Old Judge’s and T206s including THE Wagner. He completed the T201, T202, T205, T206 and T207 sets including known variations at the time. He would also buy popular non-sports sets such as Dick Tracy, Hopalong Cassidy, Superman, Wings, the Beatles, and Caspar the Friendly Ghost.
Irv has also been involved in collecting championship rings,
uniforms, and autographs. Just his collection of championship sports rings has
been described as “legendary.” A fellow collector bestowed on Irv the name “The
Ring Man,” although he could have also been described as the original “Gem Mint
Man” as well. Irv has mixed emotions with autographs, at one time owning an
Irv has been the subject of considerable publicity over the years particularly when the hobby was emerging and it was news that there were collectors, dealers, and money involved. At the suggestion of the people at Topps, Irv once did a show with Joe Garagiola, who had a regular Monday night TV program, “The Crazy World of Joe Garagiola.” One of the shows was filmed at Irv’s home and featured many valuable cards including the T206 Wagner. Irv also met Sy Berger of Topps in connection with this show.
Eleanor Lerner has been with her husband at most of the many
shows he has attended. She knows the cards, prices, and people; she keeps track.
Irv excels at engaging customers in stories about the products and collecting.
It is hard to find any vintage card subject that is news to Irv. If you get to a
Irv Lerner at the 2008 National
George Vrechek is a freelance contributor to SCD and can be contacted at email@example.com
A big OBC thank you to Sports Collectors Digest (SCD) for allowing us to reprint George's article here on the OBC site!