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BASEBALL CARD COLLECTING, like baseball itself, is a world governed by tidy metrics -- achievement, timing, scarcity. But every now and then, an aberration throws things into disarray. Rich Klein stumbled across one such glitch a few years ago when he heard a rumor about a card that was confounding hobbyists. Klein, a mortgage servicer who moonlights as a collector, looked up the card -- the 1964 Topps Curt Flood, a middling, widely produced issue -- and saw that it was inexplicably overpriced. "I did a little research and thought, 'This is fascinating,'" he says.
A low-quality copy of the '64 Flood goes for about $30 -- more than five times what it should, Klein estimates. A pristine copy costs upward of $1,000. Such prices defy logic; while the Cardinals' center fielder was an exceptional ballplayer -- Flood won the Gold Glove seven times -- he was no Mickey Mantle. Flood is best known for challenging baseball's reserve clause, spurring the creation of free agency.
The case of the '64 Flood has befuddled card hounds for years. A blogger who chronicled his pursuit of the entire '64 Topps set called it "one of the more perplexing cards" in the collection. Numerous message-board threads pondered the riddle. "This card was a pain," complained one collector. Others said they had heard a single buyer was gobbling up inventory. "Perhaps he's just absent-minded and forgets to cross that card off his want list," someone offered. Klein wrote about the '64 Flood for Sports Collectors Daily, noting that it had attained "mythical status."
Many fans build collections around a single player. Very few, though, have sought out multiple copies of a single card. Reggie Jackson is rumored to have tried to buy every copy of his own rookie card; one anonymous collector owns more than 300 of the 1,000 copies of Albert Pujols' 2001 Donruss Elite card. Cornering the market is not only difficult but also unlikely to be profitable; as soon as supply expands again, inflated prices typically plummet.
Chris Buckler, a dealer in Kentucky, says he's sold about 10 cards to the so-called Flood guy. He's met him at card shows, but he can't recall his name. "It's a weird hobby," he says. The message-board threads didn't reveal the collector's identity, but one commenter wrote that an eBay account belonging to Madcardbuyer seemed to be a locus of Flood-related activity. The user's avatar is a tiny photograph of two cats lounging inside a home office. His name, the site says, is Mike Hally.
A quick records search produces an address, then a number. When Hally picks up the phone, he chuckles. "You've found the guy," he says.
Hally, 59, is a retired engineer. He spent 25 years at Atari designing games like Star Wars. He's lived in California since 1969, when his family left tiny Centralia, Missouri. During the summer of '64, Hally, then 9 years old, played center field like his idol Flood. "He could do everything," says Hally, who smuggled his mom's transistor radio into school to listen to games. That fall, St. Louis won its first World Series in 18 years.
Decades later, while working at Atari, Hally started collecting cards. When he first saw the '64 Flood, memories washed over him. He was enchanted by the player's grave pose -- glove up, hand nestled inside. "He's just got that look of determination in his eyes," Hally says. He decided to purchase several copies of the card. Then he bought a few more. Eventually he had acquired so many '64 Floods that dealers started setting them aside for him. Today he owns some 4,000 copies, likely close to a quarter of the population. He keeps them in special boxes, stashing the most valuable mint-condition ones in a safe.
Hally admits that his hoarding has created "a nightmare in the hobby." He has seen the posts about the collector. "I thought, 'Oh yeah, that's me.'"
It's easy to understand why Hally loves Flood's card. It's less clear why he decided to buy all of them. He doesn't have a simple explanation. "Lots of people do things that some people think are weird," he says. He has no plans to sell. Instead, he's still chasing a dream that reminds him of his past while also pushing him forward. Every morning, he wakes up and checks to see if a new '64 Flood is for sale.
"I bought one yesterday," he says. "I'll probably buy one today."