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Old 06-27-2016, 03:03 PM
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David Kathman
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Default 1993 Syracuse article on Jefferson Burdick

While looking for something else, I came across this article about Jefferson Burdick that appeared in the June 30, 1993 Syracuse Post-Standard, almost exactly 23 years ago, on the occasion of the Met putting cards from the Burdick collection on public display for the first time. Nothing much that most people here don't already know, but the columnist interviewed Frank Nagy (then 71 years old and still active, though I think he died not long after), Alan Rosen, the late former Net54er Bruce Dorskind, and Bill Mastro. I'll paste in the text below the link.

A one-of-a-kind collection: At the Met, an obscure Syracuse baseball card pioneer gets his due

By Sean Kirst |
Email the author | Follow on Twitter
on June 30, 1993 at 3:48 PM

Jefferson Burdick was of slight build, his body twisted by severe arthritis, the pain so bad he often struggled to lift his arms off a table.

He worked as a parts assembler at Crouse-Hinds. To the best knowledge of his surviving friends, he never attended a professional baseball game. He spent much of his life in a small Crouse Avenue apartment, where he devoted his energy to perpetuating what he always called his "hobby."

Burdick was a card collector. The greatest ever. The undisputed father of baseball card collecting in America. Thirty years after his death, in a time when that avocation has turned into a billion-dollar industry, the masters themselves defer to Jeff Burdick.

"He was the No. 1 guy," said Frank Nagy of Detroit, a titan among baseball card collectors. "He was bigger than life. Everyone looked up to him."

"My idol, " said Alan Rosen, the self-described "Mr. Mint" of New Jersey, who lays claim to being the world's largest dealer of old sports memorabilia. "He's a legend. He literally wrote the book. All our library classifications, our way of cataloging, that came straight from Burdick."

Yet until an unprecedented museum opening Tuesday in New York, Burdick's legacy was understood primarily by enthusiasts - although every kid who loves collecting owes Burdick some thanks.

When the lifetime bachelor died in New York City in 1963, neither Syracuse newspaper immediately ran an obituary. For 30 years, his staggering collection of 300,000 postcards, hat cards, tobacco cards, military cards and baseball cards was kept locked away in New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art, available for viewing only on special request.

That all ended Tuesday, when the museum finally opened a Burdick exhibit.

It includes Wee Willie Keeler. Honus Wagner. Babe Ruth. Willie Mays. Jackie Robinson. Their cards are all on the museum wall, a few minutes away from the works of Rembrandt and Van Gogh.

The display consists of 80 baseball cards. It is a tiny fraction of Burdick's total baseball collection, which experts say is worth millions of dollars. The cards are mounted in a corridor of the American wing, which was jammed Tuesday for the opening. Yankee great Phil Rizzuto was the guest of honor. Reporters and photographers bounced off each other in the crowded hallway.

Burdick's best friend, John DeFlores, wasn't there. He was back in Syracuse, and he wishes it hadn't taken so long for a public exhibit. But DeFlores knows Burdick would be happy with the display.

"He was a very generous man, " DeFlores said. "Sometimes I'd ask him what one card was worth, and (he'd say) that card might be worth a fortune. But he didn't want to sell them. He said he'd rather leave them for posterity."

The only card hanging alone on the museum wall is a 1910 Honus Wagner, taken from a Sweet Caporal tobacco series. Wagner, a Hall of Fame shortstop, hated smoking. He demanded that his card be withdrawn from that pioneer release. Only 36 to 40 of the cards are believed to survive.

A mint copy has sold for $250,000. Burdick had one. In 1955, he estimated its value at about 50 bucks. The chance to see it up close was among the reasons the Metropolitan was packed.

"One long-time museum official said this is the most media we've had for an opening since they brought in the Mona Lisa, " said Harold Holzer, the Metropolitan's director of public relations.

He wasn't kidding. Curator Elliot Bostwick Davis said Burdick may have saved an "ephemeral" art form, even though the backs of many of his cards were ruined when he pasted them into scrapbooks. Others remain pristine. They are all part of the first permanent exhibit of baseball cards at a major American art museum.

"It's a big deal because it acknowledges baseball cards for what they really are - an American art form, " said Bruce Dorskind of Manhattan, who describes himself as "a serious collector."

Despite the enormity of Burdick's role, museum researchers struggled to gather detailed information on the reclusive collector. They learned too late of DeFlores, 85, another retired Crouse-Hinds assembler.

He worked "back to back" with Burdick for years. They sat on the same bench inside the plant, piecing together detonators and intricate electrical parts.

On Saturdays, DeFlores often visited Burdick's Crouse Avenue apartment to help prepare the vast collection for donation to the museum.

According to the writings of the late A. Hyatt Mayor, a former Metropolitan curator of prints and illustrations, Burdick first came to New York in 1947 to propose the donation. Mayor was unsure of how the museum would handle such a daunting task, but he decided to accept it.

He grew to admire Burdick, "this racked, frail man with black-lashed eyes of a haunting gray violet." The process of donating the collection would become, for Burdick, a race against death.

Weighed down by the pain of arthritis, and by sickening doses of cortisone, Burdick retired from Crouse-Hinds in 1959. He moved from Syracuse to New York, where he continued cataloging and filing the massive collection.

"The mounting piles of scrapbooks drove him to work at a ... desperate pace, " Mayor wrote. "From time to time he would say quite impersonally, as if he were talking about a horse race, 'I might not make it."'

Burdick finished the job on Jan. 10, 1963. It was the last time he saw his cards. The next day, Mayor recalled, Burdick admitted himself to New York's University Hospital, where he died two months later.

For 30 years, as baseball cards exploded into a national obsession of finance and nostalgia, the Burdick collection was sequestered at the Metropolitan, available for viewing on a case-by-case request, known only to baseball card devotees.

"I asked (Burdick) once what good they'd do at a museum, " DeFlores said. "He said he had collections of women's hats, military uniforms, baseball cards. He said if someone wanted to get information about that (American) period of time, they'd just go to the museum and check up on it."

That is the importance of what happened Tuesday.

Burdick was never able to drive, DeFlores said. He used the trolleys, and later the bus, to get to work. Milton Juengel, another retired worker from Crouse-Hinds, remembers Burdick's Crouse Avenue apartment as a single mass of organized cards, many of them stored in a dry attic space.

Neither Juengel nor DeFlores can recall Burdick attending a single baseball game.

After Burdick donated his collection to the Met, he moved into a smaller Wolf Street apartment. It allowed him to walk across the street to his job. Throughout all the years of their friendship, DeFlores said, Burdick refused to ever use a cane.

That was in defiance of arthritis so severe, DeFlores said, that Burdick couldn't open his mouth wide enough to put in a ball of hard candy. "All he was interested in was cards, " DeFlores said. "He was a bachelor, and that hobby was his life's work."

Nagy, a 71-year-old Detroit collector, is considered the man who elevated baseball cards into a profit-driven passion. But Nagy credits Burdick with establishing the entire hobby, particularly through his 1939 bible of collection, "The American Card Catalog."

The book outlined checklists and library systems, which grew into the complicated sorting and evaluating process used today.

Burdick's role, Nagy said, can be compared to what legend says Abner Doubleday did for baseball. The dogged tenacity of the Syracuse man established the hobby, and inspired myths among other collectors. "He'd go all over, " Nagy said.

Since baseball cards were of little value, museum researchers say, many collectors gladly gave Burdick their cards. There were stories about Burdick finding treasures in trash cans.

Bill Mastro, another prominent American collector, said the rare Wagner card was given to Burdick by a Pennsylvania enthusiast named Charles Bray, simply because Bray had two Wagners and Burdick had none.

"You have to understand, those guys were like a fraternity, " Mastro said. "It's not anything like it is today. It was a group of older men who wrote letters and sent the cards to each other. They'd travel around the country in station wagons, and the thrill was in getting (each card). If you didn't need a Ty Cobb, you didn't take an extra one."

DeFlores said Burdick was the child of a farming couple. But his only sister died, and he had no direct survivors. That may explain Burdick's decision against selling his collection.

Burdick chose instead to leave a gift for all his descendants. They include anyone who ever kept a card-filled shoebox in the closet, anyone who knows the sheer joy of filling out a baseball checklist. Burdick died in obscurity, with millions of heirs.

Sean Kirst is a columnist for The Post-Standard.
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Old 06-27-2016, 08:57 PM
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ValKehl ValKehl is offline
Val Kehl
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David, I greatly enjoyed reading this - thanks for posting it. The best part of it is the very last sentence: "Burdick died in obscurity, with millions of heirs."
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Old 06-29-2016, 02:37 PM
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Great article David. Thanks for posting it. We owe a lot to Mr. Burdick.
Leon Luckey
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Old 06-29-2016, 05:24 PM
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Fun to read, thanks for sharing.
Looking for T206 rare backs. Clemente PSA 7!page=2
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