When the first Cranston Sports Collectors Show opened, you could buy a Honus Wagner tobacco card for $1,500 or so.
Now, that image of old Honus would cost you at least $250,000 and, if you wanted the best known example of the baseball card now recognized as the hobbyâ€™s â€śHoly Grail,â€ť youâ€™d have to come up with at least $1.62-million which is what the current owner paid for it.
The Cranston show is about to celebrate its 35th-anniversary year and just the inflation surrounding one of those tiny Wagner baseball cards is enough to tell you that lots has happened in the hobby, and in the world, since the initial show opened in 1976.
One thing thatâ€™s happened is that the local show â€“ now scheduled for Saturday, Feb. 5, at West Warwickâ€™s West Valley Inn â€“ has become the oldest continuing annual sports collectors event in the nation. Even the much-hyped National Sports Collectors Convention is only 32 years old, the fabled Philly Show has been operating for 31 years, and the revived Chicago Sun-Times event counts just 34 years on its schedules of the past.
The first Cranston show opened for business during the same year that R.I. sent John Chafee (father of the stateâ€™s new governor) to the U.S. Senate, elected a house-painter named Ed Beard to Congress, and favored Joe Garrahy as governor.
Woonsocketâ€™s Mayor in 1976 was Gerard Bouley, and Dennis Lynch was his counterpart in Pawtucket. Future municipal leaders in those two municipalities â€“ including James Doyle, Henry Kinch, Brian Sarault, Raymond Houle and William F. Harty in Pawtucket, and Francis Lanctot and Gaston Ayotte Jr. in Woonsocket â€“ were still serving as members of their respective city councils, or at least headed in that direction.
The stateâ€™s sales tax rose from 5% to 6% in 1976, the jobless rate ballooned to 14.2%, House Speaker Joseph Bevilaqua was named Chief Justice of the state Supreme Court, and R.I. native and Dodgers second baseman Davey Lopes led the National League in stolen bases for the second straight year.
Sports card collectors could find other deals then, too, that by todayâ€™s standards look like steals. A 1933 Goudey card picturing local hero Napoleon Lajoie was valued at $500 back then. Those cards picturing the Woonsocket native and Baseball Hall of Fame star now sell routinely for $50,000. A 1959 Fleer set of 80 cards that traced the life and career of Boston Red Sox slugger Ted Williams could be had for $22 or so in 1976, while today youâ€™d be lucky to get one now for $1,800.
From the beginning, the guiding force behind the local show has been Tom McDonough. Each year heâ€™s been ably assisted by volunteers from the St. Joseph Menâ€™s Guild of Immaculate Conception Church in Cranston. But it is McDonoughâ€™s vision that has kept the show on track. That track leads to an event designed specifically with collectors and dealers in mind.
There are no frills like long lineups of autograph-signing sports stars charging for their signatures that dominate many shows. And there never have been any bells and whistles, or any other such gimmicks. About the only autographs collectors will occasionally find are those of sports figures who are attending the show, either as collectors themselves or as friends of McDonough or the parish. Over the years, that list has included the likes of Lou Gorman, Mike Roarke, Mark van Eeghen, Joe Morgan, Jerry Remy, Ken Ryan and Greg Gagne. Chances are, you could find one of them standing right next to you viewing cards or artifacts at a dealerâ€™s tables.
When the doors open at 8:30 a.m. on February 5, it will be 1,800 or so collectors who pass through them, and most of the regionâ€™s top dealers will be waiting inside to greet them. Some of the dealers have been with the show from the beginning.
One of the regulars for several years has been Alan Rosen, the nationâ€™s largest dealer in sports cards and memorabilia. Based in New Jersey, Rosen has come to be known as â€śMr. Mintâ€ť in the collectibles business, but in 1976 when the Cranston show started, he hadnâ€™t ever been to a card show much less buy and sell the collectibles. Now, he comes to Rhode Island with a briefcase full of cash, ready to buy the best collectibles brought to his attention. If any of the regionâ€™s collectors have especially significant cards or artifacts, they can contact Rosen (201-307-0700) and request a special pre-show or post-show meeting.
The beneficiary of the showâ€™s long record of success is the Immaculate Conception parish in Cranston. Over the past three-and-a-half decades, about $200,000 has be donated, supporting projects deemed important by the parish itself.
It was in the churchâ€™s parish hall that the first Cranston show was held. As it grew in popularity, the show moved to the former Auction City hall, then the Schofield Armory, before settling in at the spacious West Valley Inn in West Warwick. That venue offers plenty of room, plenty of snacks, plenty of parking, and more sports cards and memorabilia than you thought existed.
Showtime on Feb. 5 is 8:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m.