(Reader, be prepared: this post is a long way of asking a simple question. What is your favorite card in your collection? If you don’t feel like reading about mine, then just leave your comment below.)

Why We Collect

We all collect for different reasons. Sometimes those reasons change over time.

I started collecting as a kid in the 1980’s, mainly as a way to study up on my favorite players. I was a stats nerd and the card back was more useful to me than the front! We didn’t have a 24/7 news cycle, and This Week In Baseball was light on stats and heavy on blooper reels. We only had a few channels on TV and obviously no Internet. So, card backs and the weekly stats section in the newspaper were the only ways to stay connected with the particulars.

What We Collect

As I got a bit older I chased the popular rookie cards of any given year (Cal, Ryno, Strawberry, Gooden). But I was also a student of the game. I grabbed my first vintage Mantle, Aaron, and Mays, 1969’s, from my local barber at age 12 or so. I still have some of those early finds, including a 1960 McCovey rookie and a 1971 Munson. They aren’t high grade but I cherish them still.

As an older adult, I am still drawn to baseball history. Most kids grow up learning the Jackie Robinson story, and arguably, the breaking of the color barrier in MLB transcends sport more than any other baseball moment. But as I studied the Civil Rights era in general and baseball’s color barrier in particular, new stories came to light that piqued my collecting interests.

Finding a Focus

I eventually learned more about the Negro Leagues, and only much later about integrated leagues that predate Jackie’s MLB debut by decades. Cubans were just as enthusiastic about baseball as Americans. And without the legacies of slavery and racism, integration was the default. The same was true in Venezuela, Mexico, the Dominican, and just about anywhere else baseball was being played. Without a doubt, some of the best baseball in history was played by some of its greatest players in these leagues. Josh Gibson, Oscar Charleston, and Martin Dihigo never played MLB and as a result will never be household names. But are all arguably GOAT candidates in terms of skill and accomplishment.

There are very few true playing days Negro Leaguer cards–just some postcards and rarities. If you are interested in collecting these players, you need to look to rare Cuban and Caribbean issues. My absolute favorites are 1920’s Aguiitas (cigar cards). They are like tiny photographs, and many are gorgeous portraits. To me, they are time capsules, historical artifacts, rare links to a nearly-forgotten past.

I have many favorite cards in the personal collection, and on a given day I might choose my ’54 Aaron or ’68 Bench as my favorites. These are cards I always wanted as a kid and finally found the means to obtain as an old guy in mid life crisis mode.

My Favorite Card

But if I can divorce myself from the nostalgia, value, or hobby significance, the card that I always pull out of the case if I want a reminder of why I still collect is a 1924-25 Aguilitas Matias Rios.

Why? Well, for starters, just look at it. The joy in his smile is contagious. It’s a fantastic, crystal clear image. And it is a rare link to a little-known history. Rios, a Cuban, played American Negro League and Cuban league baseball for nine years, making his debut as a 20 year old. Sadly, he passed away in 1924, possibly before this card was even issued, at just 29 years of age. As is often the case with biographies of players from this era (including another of my favorites from this era, Valentin Dreke) we are left with the thought of what could have been. I still love my “regular vintage” cards and will always have my Hanks, Banks, and Benches, but if there is a card that captures my love of collecting today, I’ll choose the Rios.

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