BIDDEFORD, Maine – A baseball fan took up smoking a century ago and with it acquired another habit: holding onto little cards that bore the faces of baseball's earliest greats.
Now, the trove of more than 1,400 tobacco cards featuring a slew of Hall of Famers like Cy Young and Ty Cobb -- the legacy of a teenage smoker whose family hung onto a collection that dates to 1909 -- is going up for auction.
The cards will be sold by a Maine auction house that is becoming known for selling rare memorabilia, Saco River Auction Co. in Biddeford.
Troy Thibodeau, the company's manager and auctioneer, said the collection of cards dating from 1909 to 1911 -- an era when the Yankees were the Highlanders, the Dodgers were the Superbas and the Braves were the Doves -- belongs to the grandchildren of a Brooklyn, New York-born man who began smoking when he was 19.
"Every time he got a card, he threw it in a box," Thibodeau said.
The collection has been dubbed the "Portland trove" because some of the collector's descendants ended up in Maine's largest city. The family doesn't want to be identified, Thibodeau said.
Due to be auctioned individually and in small lots starting in January, the collection includes about 10 cards depicting Young and a dozen depicting Cobb, along with other Hall of Famers like Chief Bender, Christy Mathewson and Walter Johnson.
Smaller than modern baseball cards, these cards known as "T206" cards to collectors feature color lithographs on the front and a tobacco advertisement on the back.
"They're not like your normal baseball card where there's a stock piece of photography that's printed on millions and millions of cards. These are truly pieces of art. They're colorful, they're bright, they're folky, they're Americana," Thibodeau said.
The collector preferred a cigarette brand from Havana called El Principe De Gales. But there are cards featuring logos from other cigarette brands of the era like American Beauty, Sweet Caporal, Sovereign and Piedmont.
Such a large collection is unusual but not unprecedented. Large collections come up for sale every year or two, collectors say. Part of what makes this one special is that the cards are in great shape.
Scott Hileman from New Jersey-based SportsCard Guaranty, who graded the cards, said they're all among the type of cards used to market brands that were part of American Tobacco Co. for three years, from 1909 to 1911. He described the trove as "incredible."
Missing are two of the rarest cards: Those depicting pitcher Eddie Plank and shortstop Honus Wagner. The priciest baseball card ever sold was a 1909 Honus Wagner, which went for $2.8 million.
Nonetheless, the collection is valuable with the potential for some of the single cards to reach into five figures, Thibodeau said.
Saco River is making a name for itself despite being a small auction house.
Last year, a collector from Massachusetts paid $92,000 for an 1865 baseball card depicting the Brooklyn Atlantics amateur baseball club. In 2012, the auction house sold a rare 1888 card of Hall of Famer Michael "King" Kelly for $72,000.
"If you love baseball, this is the beginning of it. This is where stars were made and heroes were born. It's history," Thibodeau said.