He leans forward at the desk in his cluttered study, fanning out three baseball cards like a man unveiling the winning hand in a poker game.
The faces are in black and white, the subjects in bow ties and upturned mustaches. The names — Gleason, Hemming, Reitz — would mean little to most modern fans.
Yet the players belonged to perhaps the greatest team in local baseball history, the cards to a set so rare that owning them changed Dan McKee's life. He sold them for six figures in 2006, earning enough on the deal to purchase his family's dream home in northern Baltimore County.
But for the 51-year-old lifelong hobbyist, the sale also came to represent the way collecting has changed from an innocent pursuit into a high-stakes trade. He never thought he'd part with the cards, and now that they're on the market again, he said he'd "have to rob a bank" to get them back.
"You could say there was 'before the Alpha cards and after the Alpha cards,'" said McKee, who also works as a software developer.
Only one such set is known to exist, making it "one of card collecting's most legendary and rarest issues," according to a catalog published by Robert Edwards Auctions of New Jersey, which specializes in memorabilia.
Pitchers George Hemming and Kid Gleason and infielder Henry (Heinie) Reitz starred for the team, which featured seven future Hall of Famers, collectively hit .343 and finished 50 games above .500.
The saga of Dan and the Alphas began, in a way, 44 years ago, when he was growing up in middle-class Reisterstown.
His father, Lambert ("Dan") McKee, a construction company manager, collected vintage coins and other artifacts, many of them off the mainstream hobbyists' path.
In 1969, when Dan Jr. was seven, the Orioles were an established power in the American League East, winning 109 games en route to a World Series appearance. Dan's path became clear: He'd collect baseball cards.
In those days, he insisted, it didn't occur to him to measure their value in dollars. What he valued was the simple joys they represented, like riding his bike every week to a local store to score Topps' latest.
The five-cent packs contained five cards and a sweet-smelling slab of gum.
"I had a happy childhood," he said. "It's why I collect. I think looking through my stuff is a way to remember."
He kept at it, amassing a complete big-league set each year and learning to save "doubles" to trade his way up. He learned history — how tobacco companies published the cards starting in the 1880s, then bread and clothing firms, then Bowman, Topps and other bubble-gum outfits.
As Dan Sr. took him to memorabilia shows, he never took to baseball much — "too slow," he said — but the cards depicting it were something else.
They exuded history, embodying the way baseball and the culture changed together from the pre-World War II era through modern-day life. Yet one tale was missing.
Collectors familiar with Baltimore sports had long told him of a great team even locals were beginning to forget — the 1894 Orioles, a squad so formidable that historians have compared them to the 1927 New York Yankees.
Playing in the National League, the only major circuit of the day, they finished ahead of 11 other teams, including the second-place New York Giants and the cellar-dwelling Louisville Colonels. They finished 89-39, averaged 9.14 runs per game and established an aggressive, often dirty style of play.
The players included third baseman John McGraw, later one of the greatest managers in history; shortstop Hughie Jennings who later managed the Detroit Tigers to several World Series victories; and William ("Wee Willie") Keeler, the right fielder who reeled off eight straight 200-hit seasons while popularizing the phrase "Hit 'em where they ain't."