Who is Fred Clarke?4/5/2017
Baseball card collecting, Iowa style with John Liepa
BABE RUTH OR FRED CLARKE?
Babe Ruth is arguably the most important player in baseball history. And since it can take a lifetime to find and attain the Great Bambino’s rare and valuable rookie card, you might surmise a big-time collector wouldn’t voluntarily part ways with it.
Meet John Liepa.
Liepa, 72, is a hardcore collector who lives in Indianola. He’s been collecting cards for most of his life. He had the Holy Grail of rookie cards, and he sold it.
After having the card auctioned off, Liepa divided half the proceeds among his two children, and he used the remaining half to reinvest in other rare cards, one of which is Fred Clarke’s.
Liepa isn’t a fool, so no one is saying he’d take Clarke’s card before Ruth’s, at least not straight up — the price differential is too significant. But what if the cards were worth the same money?
In that case, Liepa would at least need to think about it, which begs the question: Who the heck is Fred Clarke, and why did Liepa want his card?
Hold that thought; we’ll get back to it.
BABE RUTH VERSUS A MOTORCYCLE
“Let me share a short story,” begins Liepa. The former college professor at Des Moines Area Community College is a historian, a professional speaker, a baseball history expert and a natural-born storyteller. When he starts talking, it’s time to pull up a chair and listen.
Two decades ago, Liepa was at a local baseball card show when a young man came through showing off a stack of rare cards called M-1014s — manufactured by Felix Mendelsohn in 1916.
The stack was loaded.
“There was a Ty Cobb card, a Honus Wagner card,” remembers Liepa. “And then in the middle was a skinny pitcher from the Boston Red Sox, a rookie named Babe Ruth.”
The young man knew these relics had value, but he wasn’t interested in keeping them. His family had given him the “OK” to sell them — previously they had belonged to his grandpa — and he was set on cashing them in and buying a motorcycle.
Suspicions are often aroused when someone surfaces with a surplus of something so rare. Con men and counterfeiters can craft nearly exact replicas, but after years of collecting, Liepa can confidently authenticate cards to his own satisfaction. So while most of the show’s other dealers shied away, he dove in.
“I told him right away I was interested,” says Liepa.
The two eventually worked out a deal where Liepa walked away with the cards, and the young man had enough to get the motorcycle he wanted.
And that’s how the Red Sox’s rookie, the skinny pitcher named Babe Ruth, eventually became the means to an end named Fred Clarke.
But you’re probably still wondering, who the heck is Fred Clarke?
In the beginning, Liepa collected cards the same way all his friends did. Upon completion of his daily newspaper route, he pedaled his bike to the corner drugstore, plunked down whatever it cost to procure a few packs from the store’s racks, and then he’d hold his breath while hoping to hit the jackpot by finding one of his favorite players — namely Mickey Mantle. The non-Mantle cards were assembled into complete sets or used to make trades.
Liepa grew out of his boyhood hobby sometime during his high school years, and he forgot about baseball cards through college, grad school and early adulthood. But when his son reached Little League age, Liepa remembered the old collection. Together with a few friends and armed with a price guide, he sifted through his childhood treasures.
“Our eyes became as big as saucers,” Liepa laughs while remembering the group’s amazement at the cards and their corresponding values.
In the ensuing decades, Liepa has heard innumerable people say the same thing.
“They look at this stuff and say ‘I used to have that card, I used to have that card… Why did my mom throw this stuff out,’ ” Liepa chuckles. “Well my mom didn’t throw my cards out.”
He’s glad she didn’t.
HOME AGAIN, HOME AGAIN…
Thumbing through his old treasure trove reignited Liepa’s passion, but his methodology is now much different than it was as a boy. Liepa now looks for antique baseball cards made during the game’s formative years — the late 19th century — and he specifically targets Iowa-born players.
Liepa might have the most impressive collection of Iowa-born baseball players featured on trading cards, magazines, photos, etchings, books, cereal boxes and an assortment of other interesting items.
“I’m fairly certain that my Iowa player collection is the most extensive in the state,” he says.
Taking the thought one step further, he adds that his collection is possibly the most complete of any that is confined to big leaguers from a singular state.
“There are people that have a lot more cards than I have,” he says. “And they have more valuable cards than I have, and they have deeper pockets, but find me one collector who has a bigger collection of just New York players than I do of Iowa players.”
He says it’s unlikely you will find such a collection.
Liepa’s collection has grown so large that he no longer stores it at home. Instead he rents a locker at the bank. And the locker is full.
IOWA BASEBALL HISTORY
Liepa collects information as well as cards. He is a member of the Society for American Baseball Research and is regarded as one of the leading Iowa historians on all things pertaining to baseball. He has written extensively for Iowa Heritage Illustrated and for the Iowa Cubs, and he is full of fascinating tales about Iowa and baseball.
“The first known meeting (in Iowa) of any baseball club, team, game, anything, was in 1858 in Davenport,” informs Liepa.
Organized baseball was mostly put on pause in 1861 after the Civil War began, but once the war ended the sport again exploded in popularity.
“The year after the war, in 1866, there were 10 known baseball teams in Iowa,” he says. “And only one in Des Moines, called the Capitol Nine.”
By 1867 the state had more than 200 teams, and Des Moines had at least nine.
“When you came here as a homesteader, your priorities were to build a home for your family, a school, a church and a baseball team,” he says.
Having a baseball team could put a town on the map.
“There were tiny towns of a couple hundred people that had two teams,” he says. “It caught on like wildfire.”
But baseball back then didn’t look like it does now.
“The modern-day rules didn’t exist,” he says. “There were no gloves, there were no catcher’s masks or all those kinds of things. It was a different game.”
In its infancy, the sport had an assortment of rule variations.
“There were three different kinds of rules that were being played,” he says. “Philadelphia rules, New England rules and New York rules. And gradually the New York rules won out, and that’s something like today’s game.”
THE FIRST BASEBALL CARD EVER
Liepa keeps a list tracking Iowa-born players to play big league baseball. The list numbers more than 220, including seven Hall of Famers. Iowa was even represented on the first-ever professional team.
“Calvin McVey was an 18-year-old kid who was living in Cincinnati at the time,” says Liepa. “He had played for a couple of town teams before, and the owners knew he had talent.”
Liepa reports the Cincinnati Daily Times once described Cal McVey as “powerfully built, with broad shoulders and barrel chest…handsome though shy, and is a favorite of the ladies. He is very conscientious and a hard worker…a good fielder, but his strength is with the ash in his hands…he is a long…good thrower…and he doesn’t drink.”
The young McVey was from Montrose, Iowa, and he was the last man added to the roster — to play right field, although he later played many other positions including pitcher — and he was the state’s first pro player.
“He and his father agreed that he’d play for $800 a year,” says Liepa. McVey was still a minor when he inked the deal, so he needed parental consent, but he was glad to get the contract. “The average income for a household of four at the time was less than $500.”
Since McVey was on the first professional team, he was also put on the first commercial baseball card photo ever produced. The card printed in 1867 and showed the entire Cincinnati Red Stocking team. Liepa has one of those, too.
He also has McVey’s autograph — it’s on an 1872 CDV of McVey, an early type of photograph — and he says it’s one of only two known autographs of the player.
“It should be in the Hall of Fame,” he says. “But the Hall of Fame is not going to get it for now.”
To honor McVey, Liepa wears a replica of the 1869 Cincinnati Red Stocking uniform that is similar to what McVey would have worn. The uniform was custom made with cricket flannel, which isn’t the ideal summer fabric, but it is what was used during the time period.
“Imagine wearing that for five hours in the August heat and humidity of Iowa,” he says.
Along with the uniform, Liepa has a replica bat from the era, a lemon peel ball and boots made from one of the two different styles that were common in the 1870s.
“It’s the most I’ve ever paid for a pair of shoes ($250),” says Liepa. “I had to have them made.”
THE BEST IOWA PLAYER EVER
McVey was the state’s first player, but who is its best?
Bob Feller was a Hall of Fame pitcher. He graced several Wheaties’ boxes and hundreds of cards. Liepa allows that Feller is probably the state’s best pitcher, but he thinks a couple of position players are in the conversation for the designation as the best overall pro player from Iowa.
“A lot of people would argue — even though he was a racist and he’s one of the reasons Jackie Robinson had to break down the barrier — Cap Anson. He was the first to get 3,000 hits and was a fabulous, fabulous player.”
Anson was also one of the best player managers in the history of baseball, which adds to his legacy.
And then Liepa warns not to overlook a guy by the name of Fred Clarke.
But who is Fred Clarke? You didn’t forget about him, did you?
THE BLACK SWAMP FIND
“There was an incredible find about four years ago (called the Black Swamp Find),” says Liepa. “But it was actually in an old grocery store (in Defiance, Ohio), and the family had owned it for like four generations. And the great grandfather had been a butcher, and he took some of these absolutely mint cards and wrapped them up in butcher paper and put them away for 70 years.”
The cards began to sell to the public about four or five years ago. Among the cards sold was a Fred Clarke rookie, which graded at Mint-9.”
Mint-10 is the highest possible grade, but because of the inferior printing and cutting equipment of the day, that rating is nearly impossible to achieve on older cards, even when they were brand new.
“That card is 107 years old,” he says. “It is extremely difficult to find anything that old that is in nearly perfect shape.”
The Mint-9 card is now in Liepa’s collection with the rest of his Fred Clarke cards and other players from Iowa.
“He had a 23-year career as a manager and a player,” says Liepa. “First of all with Louisville, and then the rest of his career with Pittsburgh.”
He was born near Winterset in 1872 and later moved to Des Moines. The lefty played from 1894 to 1915. He also became a player/manager, and he was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1945.
Clarke batted better than .400 one season, played for 23 years and had a career average of .312.
Interestingly, the Clarke card that Liepa purchased out of the Black Swamp find is rarer than Ruth’s rookie. It’s older, and, of course, Clarke is from Iowa, which is what matters the most to Liepa.
And by the way, six months after Liepa bought his rare Clarke rookie at an auction, he says the auction house called him with a question. Someone had contacted them and offered to buy it for double the amount Liepa had paid.
Some collectors might jump at the chance to double their money in six months.
But now you’ve met John Liepa.
“I’m going to sit on this puppy for a while,” he says. ♦