Larry Fritsch: Card King
“He has, by far, the best baseball card collection in the world."

            Pile all of Larry Fritsch’s baseball cards – one on top of another – and it would touch the bottom of a flying airplane.

            Or toss them into a big pile, and it would cover Yankee Stadium’s entire playing field.

            Or … well, you get the point: Fritsch’s 35 million cards make him the king of collectors. And the 52-year-old Spencer native maintains this total despite selling nearly 200,000 cards each week.

            Ah, but leave the wheeling and dealing to George Steinbrenner. Fritsch would rather spend his time thumbing through a handful of cards from the ’50s any ’ol day.

            “I really love these damn things,” he said.

            Larry Fritsch Cards, a Stevens Point mail-order business which opened in 1970, receives 100 to 250 card requests daily. Collectors who can’t rest without owning every Pete Rose (or Marv Thornberry) card need to look no further.

            But while the business is his bread and butter, the Larry Fritsch Baseball Card Museum in Cooperstown, N.Y., is his pride and joy. Located just a one-hop throw from the Baseball Hall of Fame, the museum showcases Fritsch’s personal collection.

            “He has, by far, the best baseball card collection in the world,” said Steve Ellingboe, executive director of Sports Collectors Digest.

            As a result, Fritsch has grown accustomed to giving interviews, where the questions, at times, seem as redundant as his 500 baseball cards of Dick Green from the 1970 Topps’ set.

            Hundreds of media outlets – as varied as Time to P.M. Magazine to Tom Snyder – have wanted to know how he developed a baseball card empire.

            So Fritsch politely offered the essentials of collecting as a kid, as a college student and as a husband. He described how he placed ads in shopper newspapers seeking cards at a time when parents routinely tossed their kids’ old ones in the trash.

            But 35 million cards!

            No, a collection like that is an obsession, and this is the part Fritsch tells seldom:

            Like the time he bought several thousand Jell-O boxes and hundreds of cereal containers because they had baseball cards on the packages.

            Or about the scouts (“bird dogs,” he called them) to whom he pays a percentage when they discover certain cards.

            Or about the $32,000 that he spent to purchase a collection last week.

            Or about the more than 12 million cards that he buys each year from three leading baseball card makers: Topps, Donruss and Fleer.

            Now – as every American town contains at least one card shop – Fritsch’s status in the hobby community rivals that of an iconic clean-up hitter.

            “Years ago,” he said, “people used to kind of laugh at me: ‘There’s that crazy Larry Fritsch who collects cards.’ Well, it’s come full circle obviously.”

            Located on Stevens Point’s outskirts, Larry Fritsch Baseball Cards includes two warehouses and two offices – all of which sit behind Fritsch’s small, dark green frame house. Two more warehouses are used as well.

            “When we built the first building in the mid-’70s, it cost $20,000,” Fritsch said. “I thought, ‘Holy Christ, how are we going to pay for this?’ Now I buy a collection for twice that amount and don’t even think about it.”

            Fritsch also doesn’t think twice about commuting between Stevens Point and Cooperstown, where his museum occupies the spot of a former Ford dealership.

            A tour of the 7,200-square foot museum, which had its grand opening last July, takes almost two hours to complete, Fritsch said.

            “You walk in and the first thing that hits you is a complete set of T206s from 1909, all in near mint condition. You may see one or two of those elsewhere, but certainly not the whole set.”

            The T206s  – issued in boxes of tobacco – include “The Wagner.” Pittsburgh Pirates shortstop Honus Wagner’s car that collectors regard as the hobby’s Hope Diamond.

            Valued at $75,000 each, 20 Wagner cards are known to exist. Fritsch bought one in 1974 for $1,400.

            According to baseball lore, the American Tobacco Trust pulled the card after pressure from Wagner, a reputed non-smoker who didn’t want to promote tobacco products.

            “That’s the story,” Fritsch said with enough skepticism to make David Letterman blush.

            “But I saw some articles where he was negotiating with other tobacco companies at the same time. The ‘tobacco story’ is an excellent story because a lot of people are anti-cigarettes. But in the ’48 Leaf set, Wagner’s taking a big chaw of tobacco.”

            Although he’s satisfied with the museum, Fritsch wished that a larger section of the country’s baseball fans could see it.

            “I guess if I would do it over again,” he said, “I’d probably build it closer to here. Wisconsin Dells comes to mind.”

            Biting cold air fills one of Fritsch’s warehouses. Stacked throughout the room are hundreds of boxes, each containing 12,000 baseball cards.

            Fritsch’s 30-year-old son, Jeff, who is general manager of his dad’s business, said collectors who tour the facility often leave dazed.

            “Most of them almost wet their pants when they see this place,” Jeff said.

            “We had a couple of collectors here the other day. After going to the backroom, their palms were sweaty because they were so excited.”

            It’s been 19 years since Larry Fritsch left several part-time jobs to concentrate all his efforts on the baseball card business.

            “I think of the hundreds and hundreds of hours put in here by my wife and myself,” said Fritsch, who is divorced. “This thing didn’t get here by accident.”

            Over the years, Fritsch’s advice to young collectors hasn’t changed: Play with the cards.

            “Kids should enjoy the cards. Enjoy, enjoy, enjoy. Go out and buy the packs. Don’t let your parents put them in a closet and say, ‘You can’t play with them, they’ll be too valuable later.’”

            Fritsch’s enthusiasm for baseball goes beyond the cards. A longtime manager of an American Legion team, Fritsch spent $15,000 to renovate a ballpark in Stevens Point. The park’s electronic scoreboard now reads: “Larry Fritsch Field.”

            When explaining why he enjoys collecting cards, Fritsch mentions former pitcher Vic Raschi.

            “He pitched for the Yankees in the ’50s. A real stopper,” Fritsch said. “He died before last Christmas. But on my baseball card, he’s eternally young; he’s Vic Raschi in the ’50s.”

            Fritsch paused and added: “I guess the cards are another way of us trying to delay the inevitable.”

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