By Dave Hrbacek
ST. PAUL, Minn. (CNS) — A baseball card collection worth thousands of dollars was a split second away from being dropped into a trash can and disappearing forever in a landfill.
Father John Ubel, rector of the Cathedral of St. Paul, recalled that moment more than 15 years ago when he was transferred to a different priestly assignment and wanted to purge some of his belongings. He wasn’t sure what to do with a box containing hundreds of cards in mint condition from the 1970s.
“Every time you move assignments, it’s a great opportunity to divest yourself a bit,” he said. “I literally had them out at the trash, and changed my mind and brought them back in.”
Eventually, he began to add more to the collection, and now estimates its value at more than $25,000. Soon, he will make good on his urge to get rid of the cards. This time instead of a trash can, they will go to avid collectors and the proceeds given to the Aim Higher Foundation in St. Paul, where he serves on the board of directors.
The nonprofit organization gives scholarships to low-income students at Catholic elementary schools in the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis. Students receive $1,000 every year they are enrolled in a Catholic school through eighth grade. A student can receive as much as $9,000 if he or she qualifies beginning in kindergarten.
Father Ubel, 57, is organizing an online auction for the weekend of March 12-14, the fourth Sunday of Lent, Laetare Sunday.
He was inspired to sell his collection after watching how Catholic schools have courageously offered in-person learning despite the coronavirus pandemic, which has kept many public schools closed since last March.
Although archdiocesan schools closed as well and quickly implemented distance learning, they reopened in the fall for in-person learning.
“I thought to myself, (Catholic) schools are hitting it out of the park. And, I thought, it’s time to give something back,” he told The Catholic Spirit, newspaper of the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis.
He has more than 2,000 cards, but will focus on the most valuable — about 50 — at the auction. Two big sellers are expected to be a 1948 Jackie Robinson rookie card and a 1954 Hank Aaron rookie card.
Father Ubel said the Robinson card is worth more than $15,000 and the Aaron card worth about $6,000, although the latter figure is continuing to climb since the slugger’s death Jan. 22.
Robinson became the first African American player in the major leagues in 1947 with the Brooklyn Dodgers and faced racial discrimination. Father Ubel noted that Aaron likewise faced discrimination, most notably while chasing Babe Ruth’s record of 714 home runs, which stood for nearly four decades. But break it Aaron did April 8, 1974. The slugger retired having clubbed 755 homers, today the second most in major league history.
Father Ubel started collecting cards in 1970 while in the first grade at Visitation School in Mendota Heights. He bought most of his cards between 1970 and 1974. His interest waned after transferring to nearby St. Thomas Academy, graduating in 1981.
The cards were stored in a Girl Scout cookie box in the attic of his family home for several years before he eventually retrieved them and started taking them wherever he went after ordination as a priest. His interest picked up years later and he added the Aaron card in 2009 and the Robinson card in 2010.
The reason he fell in love with baseball is simple: “It’s the only sport I ever really played.” He was a member of a city championship team in 1977.
The reason he fell in love with baseball cards is equally simple.
“This is nostalgia, and it brings you right back. … And, I think memory is very
powerful, and memory is very compelling. It brings us back to a simpler time,” he said.
For sentimental reasons, it would be understandable for Father Ubel to want to keep his collection. He admitted there’s a tug on his heart to do so, which creates tension surrounding his decision to let go.
“On a human level, I don’t want to part with these,” he said, “but I also think there are other needs right now that in my life are more important. And, the benefit I received from a Catholic education is really immeasurable to me, my whole life, from kindergarten all the way through seminary and beyond.
“And, to me, it’s time (to sell the cards). I just felt the Lord speaking to me. You know, Matthew 19 (verse 21): ‘Go, sell what you have.’ It’s time. It’s time to do something and to give back.”
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Hrbacek is a staff writer for The Catholic Spirit, newspaper of the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis.