In Memoriam: Hobby Mourns the Passing of a Pioneer

It’s probably a good lesson for those involved in buying and selling baseball cards: the man with the biggest, most comprehensive collection ever accumulated was the largest dealer in America and, conversely, wasn’t really even a dealer at all.

tsparky4.jpgLarry Fritsch, 71, of Stevens Point, Wis., died Dec. 8 at the Aspirus Wausau Hospital in Wausau, Wis.

A self-described “dinosaur,” Fritsch was a collector first, last and always. He traced his collecting roots back to 1947; he launched his company in the 1960s, becoming a full-time dealer in May 1970.

With an estimated 65 million cards in the inventory of Larry Fritsch Cards, the pioneering collector had long since passed the reins of the day-to-day operation to his son, Jeff.

That move left Larry free to pursue his true passions: maintaining and enhancing his personal collection and an epic attempt to build a museum to house it.

To that end, he opened the Larry Fritsch Baseball Card Museum in Cooperstown, N.Y., in 1988, just a couple of blocks away from the Baseball Hall of Fame. The unwieldy logistics of that effort closed the museum after one summer; Fritsch would make another attempt at opening the facility four years later. tsparky10.jpgUltimately, his collection was shipped back to Wisconsin, and the building in Cooperstown eventually sold.

LARRY FRITSCH is shown with his son, Jeff, in the warehouse in Stevens Point.
The father and son “worked” together on their hobby for much of their adult lives. How cool is that?

His accumulation of cards was so prolific that stories surrounding it seemed to look as much like urban myth as actual fact, but the Larry Fritsch Collection did feature unopened vending boxes and even cases as far back as the late 1960s, and he did travel much of the Midwest in the 1950s picking up vast piles of cards as he worked for the railroad.

Much of the incredible unopened material is housed in warehouses at the headquarters in Stevens Point; a significant percentage of Fritsch’s personal collection, with complete sets of some of the most obscure and difficult prewar cards known, warranted being relegated to bank vaults.

tsparky1.jpg“It’s dumb to have this collection if it’s sitting in a vault,” Fritsch said in an interview in SCD in 2000. “Either the people will enjoy it, or maybe it’s time to sell it. I never talked with Barry Halper about what he went through emotionally with the sale of his collection. That’s got to be a big struggle, but I have to be realistic.”

Though he had not taken a table at the National Convention in nearly 25 years and had long since halted traveling to shows even to buy material, he continued to add to his legendary collection even as he worked feverishly to open a museum in Stevens Point. That also proved elusive; and in recent years he had started to do the unthinkable, selling some of his treasures through Mastro Auctions.

Buying and selling cards for the last 40-plus hardly tells the whole tale, either. Larry and Jeff also produced dozens of sets of their own, reprinting many of the most famous cards in the hobby, including tobacco cards, early gum issues and regionals. tsparky2.jpgFor collectors who wanted to find cards of as many major league players as possible, they produced several series of “One-Year Wonders,” cards of players whose cup of coffee was so short and sweet that Topps didn’t get around to making a card of them.

He also produced a number of minor-league and Negro league sets, this coming many years before the rash of minor-league issues came around in the 1980s. Still, the highlight of the Larry Fritsch Cards printing escapades would be the multi-series All-American Girls Professional Baseball League (AAGPBL), which helped immortalize the players who were portrayed in the feature film “A League of Their Own.” That’s a 421-card set that is arguably the largest creation of its kind in the hobby.

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“I accumulated a lot of baseball cards because I love baseball cards,” Fritsch said in a 1995 interview. “There was never any thought about selling them to make a dollar.”

tssixties1.jpgHe and his brother bought cards from 1948-58, and ended up with 55,000 of them that were kept in a huge cabinet. Fritsch got married in 1958 and put a padlock on the cabinet; his brother returned the favor and slapped his own padlock on it.

Those cards sat untouched for the next quarter-century; they were divvied up in 1984 when Fritsch’s mother died. Imagine: a stash of pristine cards all from 1948-58 that didn’t see the light of day for all that time.

Even when Frtisch brought his share to Stevens Point that year, he promptly sealed them in cases and tossed them into a vault.

Remember, he was a collector.

Those beauties would be missed, but Fritsch was hardly running low on baseball cards, even in the early 1960s. He started buying quantities even then, purchasing cases directly from Topps when he could and breaking them into sets and individual series. These were the vending boxes that were the mainstream of the serious collectors in those days.

“Around 1964, I counted every card I had and there were 21/2 million,” Fritsch recalled in that 1995 interview. “That’s a lot of cards.” It was enought to fill up an entire bedroom. “I had to start selling part time just to get some room.”

It wasn’t terribly lucrative at the time, because the hobby boom was still at least a generation away and the prices even of superstars were barely pennies. There was hardly even a premium for the biggest stars, and the notion of rookie cards was still quite a ways in the future.

A political science major in college, Fritsch divided time between state and federal jobs in Madison and Stevens Point, all the while buying lots of cards … and selling a few. He worked as a baggageman on the railroad for a decade, and put those long train trips to good use by scouring the Midwest for cards that he wanted.

“I would buy cards in stores in Milwaukee, the Twin Cities (Minneapolis and St. Paul) and Chicago,” Fritsch recalled. “I would come back to certain stores consistently and I got to know the people and they would buy boxes for me because they knew I would take it all.”

So the cards continued to pile up, and at the same time the demands on his time were becoming too much. By the late 1960s, he was working full time for the Community Action program in Stevens Point, preparing about 300 income tax returns every year, and was heavily involved with the Little League in the area. And then, in February of 1970, he suffered what he thought at the time was a heart attack but ultimately turned out to be something less ominous. Still, his doctor suggested that he lighten the load a little bit.

He decided to quit his regular job and devote himself full time to selling baseball cards. “It was a scary decision,” he said. The hobby, such as it was in 1970, didn’t look like much of a vocational haven even for a collector/ dealer as prolific as Fritsch. There were only a handful of part-time dealers, a couple of newsletters, certainly no organized hobby, and the first real card shows were a couple of years away. “It wasn’t reasonable to think anybody could make a living selling baseball cards,” he said. Larry’s mother solemnly told him that he would starve to death.

That didn’t happen, but Fritsch conceded that he didn’t really turn the corner on the business for several years, with virtually all of the money from those days getting funneled back into the inventory, or maybe equipment.

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The stories about Fritsch’s inventory are legion, and often inflated to preposterous proportions when repeated over and over by awe-struck neophyte collectors. But who’s to question anything when Larry himself would provide the details?

In that same interview a dozen years ago, Fritsch recalled a Christmas Eve 1970 purchase of 115 vending cases, a transaction that came to $1,150, or roughly $10 a case. A couple of years later, a similar opportunity arose when a candy wholesaler in Milwaukee offered 30 or 40 cases of 1972 Topps Football high numbers for free, provided Fritsch would pay the freight costs. That deal came out to about $5 a case; he would engineer a similar arrangement in 1975 with 100 or so cases of 1975 Topps Baseball.

Fritsch’s venture into the hobby predates the time of star cards or even, gulp, rookie cards. “I was the first guy to grade cards,” Fritsch continued. “I can remember when I was buying cards mail order from the Card Collectors Co. and you would send in your dime or whatever and one card would come back near-mint and the second one would be all beat up … for the same price. So we went to a grading system.”

“We also developed something called ‘high demand’ and ‘very high demand,’ and this was the beginning of superstar cards. We put the premium on the cards because we were selling more of them and we had to work more to replace our inventory.” If that doesn’t sound like the underpinnings of the current hobby, it’s hard to say what would.

When the hobby boom arrived in the mid-1970s, few were perched as prominently as Fritsch to tell the tale of a hobby pursuit once thought suitable only for children. When collectors found out that they were not alone, it was the value of the cards that impressed the media and the uninitiated, so Fritsch, the guy who really just liked the card themselves, played along to spread the gospel, so to speak.

“One of the things that I did that helped the hobby take off was that I contacted a lot of radio and television stations and newspapers and I got a lot of free publicity,” he said.

He dutifully answered all the standard questions, most notably the old “what’s it worth” ditty, and ultimately did so many of those interviews that some of the glamour quickly wore off. “What’s this worth, all those questions are part of the reason I don’t like doing interviews now with people who don’t know about cards,” he admitted.

Fortunately, he didn’t say “don’t know as much about cards as I do.” If he had ever set the threshold that high, he wouldn’t have anybody to talk to.

The lengthy compilation in this issue of old hobby friends reminiscing about Fritsch makes it clear that wasn’t the case.