Back in 2003 I was in Puerto Rico on a treasure hunt to find vintage baseball items relating to Negro Leaguers who played in the Puerto Rican League back in the 1930s, 40s, and 50s. I had been invited to view one of the largest (probably THE largest at the time) collections of Puerto Rican baseball memorabilia on the planet. This particular collector was quite a character. Not to speak ill of the dead (he passed away several years ago) but this guy was not the most ethical person I’ve ever met.

“Anything for a buck” is probably my best description of him. There are many fake Roberto Clemente autographs that have made their way into the hobby, and most of them came from him. On January 1st, 1973, when the entire island woke up to the heartbreaking news that Roberto Clemente had died in a plane crash, his first reaction was to hire a team of divers to try to salvage pieces of the wreckage as collector’s items. He offered to sell me a piece, which he later consigned to an auction house to the outrage of many in the hobby. No one was more outraged than Vera Clemente and the rest of the Clemente family.

While I was at this collector’s house, he mentioned that he’d like to start selling his collection. I told him I was mostly interested in cards, but also photos and magazines, especially of Negro Leaguers. He brought out a stack of albums for me to look through. They were all Toleteros albums from all three years (1948-49, 1949-50, 1950-51) and all were complete. Up to that point I had only seen a few examples from each set, so this was overwhelming and exciting. I would later get the checklists for these sets added to the Standard Catalog of Baseball Cards, but this was my first time seeing most of these cards.

As I flipped through the pages I started mentioning some of the players I knew played in Puerto Rico who might have cards. “Josh Gibson doesn’t have any cards, does he?” I asked. To my disappointment, he assured me that Gibson had no cards. After flipping through the 1948-49 and 1949-50 albums, which had already blown me away due to the number of great Negro Leaguers in them, I came to a stack of four 1950-51 Toleteros albums. I started turning the pages and kept getting chills at how cool these cards were. Full color, tons of Negro Leaguers, what’s not to love? Eventually I turned a page and BAM! There it was. Josh Freaking Gibson!!! I immediately went into shock.

1950-51 Toleteros album page with Josh Gibson

I didn’t know what to do, so I tried to remain calm and quickly flipped to the next page. Normally in this situation, I would tell the owner what they had, but this guy was slimy and I knew he wouldn’t do the same for me, so I just kept flipping pages. The next album also had Josh Gibson. So did the others. One of them even had TWO, one taped on top of the other! In total there were 5 Josh Gibsons in the 4 albums. I asked for a price for all the albums. He put an absolutely outrageous price on everything, especially not knowing about the Josh Gibsons, thinking I would never pay it. But I agreed immediately, without even negotiating. My head was spinning. I had just made a significant hobby discovery. JOSH GIBSON HAS A BASEBALL CARD! It pictures him on the 1939-40 Santurce team, and while it was issued after his death, it’s the closest thing to playing days card of him there is, unless you count the 1931 Harrison Studios real photo postcard.

No caption needed–just enjoy the view

I’m a collector first and foremost, but unfortunately not a wealthy one, so I have not always been able to afford to keep some of the better items in my collection. I no longer own a Josh Gibson card. But fast forward to 2018, I’m on another treasure hunt, this time in Mexico, and what do I discover but the original photograph used to make the 1950-51 Toleteros card of Josh Gibson!

The image quality was incredible. I have no idea how a photo of Josh Gibson playing in Puerto Rico wound up in Mexico, but I’m sure glad it did. I knew this was probably too valuable of an item for me to justify keeping, but I love Josh Gibson, and I love this image, and now I had not only been the one to discover his baseball card, but I was also lucky enough to unearth the original photo used on the card. How could I let myself wind up without the photo OR the card? So I worked out a deal when I sold the photo. I would get a certain amount of cash, plus the buyer would pay for a painting of it by the greatest living painter, Graig Kreindler.

This turned out to be one of the best deals I’ve ever negotiated because I get much more enjoyment out of seeing that painting every day than I ever would have if I’d kept the photo, or even the card. The same image was used on the cover of the January 7th, 1940 issue of “Baseball de Puerto Rico” which I do still have. I did stumble upon the photo at the National last year. I could have bought it back for a mere $500,000.