There's no reason Honus Wagner, a bow-legged deadball superstar nicknamed the Flying Dutchman, should have ever invaded the life of John Cobb, a retired trucker from Cincinnati who once played keyboards with Bootsy Collins. Except that Cobb is a collector, a man who has found value in other people's discards ever since he worked a garbage route as a teenager. And when you're a collector, your dreams are hitched to chance.

Twenty-four years ago, a friend convinced Cobb to buy a Wagner baseball card for $1,800 at an estate sale. Cobb didn't know who the Hall of Famer was and didn't think much of his purchase until one night in 1993, when he was home watching a David Copperfield special on TV. As the magician "tore up" the most valuable piece of memorabilia in the world, a T206 Honus Wagner card from 1909 worth $451,000, Cobb turned to his cousin. "I've got that card," he told his cousin next to him, Ray Edwards. Pack rat that he is, though, he didn't seriously consider selling it for another nine years.

In 2002, Cobb finally decided to cash in. He enlisted his cousin's sales and web expertise (Edwards runs an online nutrition store) and agreed to split the profits. Together, they quickly discovered that being a collector demands an obsessive knowledge of your acquisitions. Over the next few months, Cobb and Edwards traded excited phone calls about the number of T206 Wagners known to exist—only 50 or 60. And they marveled at the sale records these mini Mona Lisas had set; the price now topped $1 million. They came to realize they had to verify their T206 as the real thing. And to do that, they needed to consult professional experts.

That's when things got complicated. Professional Sports Authenticator (PSA), the dominant company in the memorabilia verification business, was happy to help them out. The company just needed Cobb and Edwards to submit the card to its Newport Beach office for analysis. PSA authenticates more than 100,000 cards a month, and, like most big firms, doesn't want outsiders around to interfere with the work. No exceptions. But Cobb and Edwards didn't want to hand over their T206 to strangers they didn't trust. "Someone could scratch it," Edwards says. "Anything could happen."

So the two took matters into their own hands. They talked to the press, and eventually gained coverage in outlets such as the Cincinnati Enquirer, HBO's Real Sports and the New York Daily News, where reporters Michael O'Keeffe and Teri Thompson spent a chapter on Cobb and Edwards in their book The Card, a history of the T206 Wagner. In 2003, they drove to Appleton, Wis., to have their card evaluated by a paper specialist named Walter Rantanen. His verdict: Fibers in the card date to before 1921. But industry insiders summarily scoffed at Rantanen's analysis, claiming the paper expert knew squat about memorabilia.

But Cobb and Edwards were convinced, and they put their Wagner up for auction on eBay in 2004. But as they hadn't verified the card with any of eBay's memorabilia partners, PSA among them, the auctions were shut down. "They sell a piece of toast with Jesus' face on it for $28,000, but they can't auction our card," Edwards says. "Everywhere we go we run into the big authenticators."

In fact, PSA had seen scans of the card that Cobb and Edwards had posted online and concluded it was a fake, or at best, a real back attached to a counterfeit front. "The colors and registration look off," explains Joe Orlando, PSA president. "The look of the card just doesn't match known exemplars of authentic Honus Wagners."

Meanwhile, word of the disputed card had spread, and visitors to online memorabilia message boards went after Cobb and Edwards. Some treated them as interlopers, and many posts crossed over into racial insult. Sample comment: "I wish they would take their card, burn it and go back to selling refurbished cell phones and horny goat weed."

More determined than ever to end-run the establishment, Cobb and Edwards took their card to Bob Connelly, a Binghamton, N.Y., memorabilia dealer, in 2005. Connelly appraised the card at $850,000, but before he could broker its sale, Edwards got into a message board flame war. One poster told him: "You sound like someone who lives in the projects and wants to mooch off whitey while bad-mouthing whitey." Such nastiness scared one buyer away, and plans for an auction were scuttled. The card has been locked in a safe at Connelly's office ever since, while its owners remain as convinced as ever that they're holding an authentic T206.

"This whole thing," Edwards says, "has been like having a winning lottery ticket you can't cash."