Pope Baseball Card Creates Buzz

The sports trading card generating the most buzz among collectors right now doesn't feature a baseball, basketball or football player. This captivating athlete was a soccer goalie who also liked skiing, swimming, hiking and kayaking.

His name: Pope John Paul II (search).

A one-of-a-kind card featuring the pontiff's autograph was released earlier this year by Topps (search), the best known maker of baseball cards. When the pope died last month, collectors wondered whether anyone had found the card and what it might fetch in a marketplace suddenly sizzling for all things John Paul.

The location has been determined. A collector in Stockton (search), Calif., beat 1-in-135,475 odds and plucked the pope rarity out of a $1.50 pack of otherwise ordinary baseball cards about two weeks before the pontiff died. The day before the pope's funeral, he sold the card to Jeff Hoekstra, the manager of a collectibles store in nearby Modesto (search).

How much is it worth? That's what Hoekstra is trying to find out.

He paid into four figures for the card, then immediately took it to eBay seeking a hefty profit. His first auction closed at $8,100 but the sale fell through, so he offered it up again for $6,999 but got no takers. His third try began Sunday and expires next Sunday. Like the first time, he started bidding at a penny and will take whatever he can get.

Hoekstra said his first posting drew so much interest within the first hour that "if someone had offered $15,000, I would not have taken it. ... I thought I could get about $25,000 or $30,000."

Now, however, "my thinking is, day by day, this card is getting less and less valuable," said Hoekstra, who is 32 and not Catholic.

While the card's value may be dropping, interest in it remains high.

It's on the cover of the upcoming issue of Beckett Baseball, a leading trade publication, and many media outlets reported the $8,100 "sale" last week. Hoekstra's initial eBay posting has drawn 13,400 hits, with more than 600 coming since the auction closed; by comparison, the most hits he'd ever received previously was around 500 for a rare Michael Jordan card.

"The lure of this card is very much his recent death and the fact the pope was an extremely popular world leader," Beckett Baseball editor Mike Payne said. "Even if he was still living, I think the card would bring a significant figure."

Why Topps even made a pope card is a story itself.

About a decade ago, card makers rejuvenated their industry by putting "inserts" into a limited number of packages. The prizes had natural tie-ins, like autographs and pieces of jerseys and bats. Topps stretched the boundaries last year with cards featuring autographs of every U.S. president.

Since George Washington isn't around to give his John Hancock, Topps used "cut signatures" — autographs cut out and embedded into a card. While historians might be horrified, it's an accepted, authenticated practice. And collectors love it.

So Topps responded with two sets this year: the 48-card World Treasures collection featuring a lineup of historical heavy hitters such as the pope, Napoleon Bonaparte and Winston Churchill; and a 51-card Power Brokers series that ranges from John Paul Getty and P.T. Barnum to Thomas Edison, Martin Luther King Jr. and Helen Keller.

"By taking autographs of some of the most famous people who have ever lived, it really attracts new collectors," Topps spokesman Clay Luraschi said. "That's our biggest thing. We want to bring people into the hobby."

The cards actually are pretty bland. There's no picture, just the autograph on the front and a short bio on the back. The pope's autograph looks like "J P II," a shortened version of his full signature, "Joannes Paulus II."

The pope card was "pulled," as traders say, from a box of 36 packs, said Jerry Schoolcraft, owner of Big Valley Collectibles, who unknowingly sold it. He said the lucky buyer was an infrequent customer who recently resumed collecting.

"He came back and had it in a baggie. He said, `Is this a good card?'" Schoolcraft said. "I told him if he wanted to sell, now was the time. It wasn't the kind of card to hold onto forever and ever."

Why would anyone pay so much for it, especially when a pope-signed, official Vatican photo of John Paul and Mother Teresa recently went for $1,750 on eBay?

"Really, it's about bragging rights," Payne said. "You can buy a pope autograph cheaper, but Mr. Deep Pockets wants this one."