Monday, August 13, 2018

A Collector's Pilgrimage: Larry Fritsch Cards

This is how horror movies begin. A decision to leave the main road. A mailbox with fading address numbers. A winding path shielding you form any sort of view. Or help. A ramshackle structure surrounded by an uncertain geography. A door that urges you to open it, and standing next to it, a sign weathered by age.

Just what were we getting ourselves into?

Here's what happened. Last week my family and I went on a camping trip to northwestern Wisconsin. On our return to Milwaukee, I suggested we stop in Stevens Point (approximately in the geographic center of the state) in an attempt to visit this card shop I had heard so much about. Yes, I am referring to Larry Fritsch Cards, the well-known pre-internet mail order card seller. If you cracked open a non-Beckett price guide in the 1980s or early 1990s, you probably saw one of their full-page ads hawking the cards of yesteryear, promising to fulfill your set-building needs in a way that your local baseball card retailer couldn't possibly handle. We were getting slightly off the beaten path, but the detour was minimal. Traffic was a little heavier than usual for a Thursday afternoon, but that was because of an eastward migration taking place because of that evening's Packers preseason contest. This route was more scenic as well.

As we approached Stevens Point, we began to follow the directions on our phones. We turned onto a wooded residential drive not far from the Wisconsin River. Expecting a storefront, we soon began to wonder if we were on a fool's errand. "The destination is on your left," said the disembodied voice. All we could see were trees. We inched ahead, and then we saw the three numbers barely visible on a black roadside mailbox. Not too far from that, a sign indicating that a business of some type was indeed open.

No turning back now, we decided to move forward, ominous trail or not. The dirt driveway ambled for about 200 feet until emerging into a clearing. A few cars were parked, but still no indication of what I should do, exactly. I picked a parking spot and decided to check things out. Ahead of us stood nothing fancier than a pole barn, so signage visible save for an unpromising door. I exited the vehicle and approached on foot.

Upon reaching the door, I saw a number of notices posted in the window. One gave instructions to delivery drivers, and another urged would-be thieves to ply their trade someplace else. I walked the length of the building to my left, hoping there was another entrance.

Turning the corner, I was reassured I was in the right place when I saw the Larry Fritsch sign. It's better days were well behind it, but it served its purpose. I signaled to my wife that she needn't worry, but we had agreed she would hasten away with the children and seek help if things got dicey.

I walked inside.

Letting my eyes adjust to the light, I was relieved when I saw my surroundings. There was no impossibly old patriarch sitting upon a throne of human bones, no light fixtures adorned with skin lampshades. Just a wood paneled office setting with maybe three people working languidly at computers. This was the place where time stood still, where the year was always 1987 Topps.

Soon a man emerged from somewhere behind the dividers that broke up the office. He politely asked if he could help me, and I explained that I was passing through town and wanted to visit this place about which I had heard so much during my youth. He was an amiable fellow and explained that most visitors the shop received were there to pick up orders they had placed. I could tell that this place really lacked the capacity to do retail business, so I dropped any thought of making a purchase. I asked if I could take some pictures, and the guy had no problem with that.

The front of the shop/warehouse had most of the identifiable stuff. Behind these first six feet or so was a work area populated with desks, phones, and computers. To respect the privacy of the workers, I decided not to take any shots of people. Further back is what I assumed to be a storage area holding what was likely several millions of dollars' worth of cards.

In these photographs, you'll see some of the wares. I got the sense that this was something of a triage area for things recently purchased by the shop, most likely collections they intended to resell. I'll gloss over most of the visible items so you can explore them Where's Waldo style, but I will point out some of the things that caught my eye.
The thing that made my heart race in this first photo is the pile of three NIB Sports Talk Players, probably my all-time favorite oddball item. Smash-and-grab artists would be wise to go for these first.

To the left of the door was a scene typical of most of the rest of the office. Ragtag assortment of posters featuring vintage card sets dominate the landscape. The real star of the show, though, is the Tom Seaver poster that's kind of trying to look like a 1954 Topps card, but is actually a 1990 issue made by a company known as Geo Graphics.

The first counter you can reach was holding many boxes of baseball postcards (not my thing, but if you're into those, cool) and a display promoting the Fritsch-produced AAGPBL cards.

After I took a few snapshots, the man who greeted me offered a current Fritsch catalog, which I gladly accepted.

It may not be Cooperstown, Duryea, or the Chinese restaurant DeWayne Buice was looking for shortly before wandering into The Upper Deck, but it's a place in hobby history that calls Wisconsin home. It was an enjoyable visit.