The value of beat-up baseball cards

As he sits in a noisy coffee shop in San Diego, Anthony Tarantino is shuffling through a stack of baseball cards and selecting a few for show-and-tell.

One is a 1962 Topps of Duke Snider wearing the interlocking “LA” of the Dodgers on his blue cap -- but with a blue-ink speech bubble drawn from his mouth and the words “I am a Met” (which he was in 1963).

On a 1954 Topps, Yankees shortstop Phil Rizzuto has a blue-pen mustache scribbled onto his lip and a scratch that’s eliminated most of the “zzuto” in Rizzuto.

Tarantino also has a 1940 Goose Goslin with half his head missing, a 1952 Eddie Stanky with his eyes and mouth erased (replaced by cartoonish features) and a 1957 card of journeyman outfielder Lou Skizas that’s ripped into three pieces and still has remnants of the tape that held it together.

“And here’s my favorite,” he says, holding out a 1968 Mickey Mantle. The Mick is in his left-handed stance and peering through hand-drawn glasses while sporting a full blue-ink beard and smoking a pipe.

“All he’s missing is a smoking jacket,” says Tarantino, laughing.

Give him your tired, your poor and your huddled masses of torn, folded, defaced, water-damaged, burned and faded baseball cards, because Tarantino -- a lifelong baseball fan and collector -- has found treasure in everyone else’s trash cards. He’s one of a minority in the hobby who is interested in collecting poor-condition cards that have limited or diminished cash value but are rich in character.

Since 2008, he has been posting stories about his finds on his blog, Poor Old Baseball Cards.

“When condition doesn’t matter,” reads the message on the front page of the site. “This blog is dedicated to all those baseball cards that have been put through the wringer. It’s not always about that perfect Gem-Mint 10 … Is it?”

Cards with 'character'

Tarantino isn’t alone in his quest for the worst cards, sometimes called “beaters.” There are other blogs that celebrate the trashed. One, called Things Done to Cards, celebrates “all the different things that can be done to cards, good and bad.”

Lyman Hardeman of Austin, Texas, the editor of Old Cardboard magazine, has a few in his collection but doesn’t specialize in them and has met just a few collectors who do.

“They make interesting cards,” he says. “There’s not a lot of collectors that collect those, but most collectors have a few in their stack somewhere.”

Mark Macrae, a well-known collector and dealer in Castro Valley, Calif., says he’s met many who seek out poor cards, mostly for the nostalgic value.

“They have character,” he says. “It’s not exactly what you’d call investment character, but it’s something you can have fun with.”

Specialty collections like Tarantino’s, he says, are done for passion rather than investment, similar to the barber he knew in Arizona who collected cards of players with facial hair.

Like everyone else, Tarantino, a page designer at the San Diego Union-Tribune, started out collecting new cards and has many thousands. As he got older, he became intrigued by vintage cards because of their history -- but couldn’t afford to spend wads of cash on high-grade items.

Now, among his approximately 1,000 prized poor cards, he has ancient ones of Hall of Famers Babe Ruth, Ty Cobb, Walter Johnson, Johnny Evers and Dan Brouthers that not only didn’t cost several paychecks but have quirks -- like the pinhole right above Cobb’s head that shows it was once someone’s prize on a wall. The Evers, once owned by a man in Mississippi, has water damage from Hurricane Katrina.

His 1952 Topps rookie card of Willie Mays has two creases across the face; a 1920 card of Ruth as a Yankees pitcher is missing three corners.

To Tarantino, the cards not only tell stories of the players but also of the owners.

“Why would somebody draw a mustache on Phil Rizzuto?” he asks.

Now every card he seeks must be in poor condition.

“I have this quest in my head to get the worst baseball card in the world,” he says. “I’m just looking for the card I can never find.”

So far, that label goes to his 1909 T206 card of Red Sox infielder Heinie Wagner, acquired on eBay for 1 cent. It’s brittle, torn, faded and creased. He loves it.

“It’s absolutely horrendous,” Tarantino says.