Rare Orioles cards

Dan McKee, has come into possession of some of the rarest baseball cards in the world -- those of players from the 1894 Baltimore Orioles of the National League, printed by the old Alpha Photo Engraving Co. (Lloyd Fox, Baltimore Sun / August 5, 2013)

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.

Printed by the old Alpha Photo-Engraving Co. in Baltimore, they show 15 members of the 1894 Baltimore Orioles of the National League.

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."

Yet no collectors McKee knew had ever heard of a card set showing the team.

In 1992, that changed.

Dan the elder was at a Sotheby's auction in New York, trolling for oddball cards, when he realized a consigner was offering a set that showed 14 of the team's 16 members.

It was printed by Alpha, a long-defunct company described only briefly in the auction catalog. For reasons unknown, it didn't include Keeler, the team's biggest star, or backup catcher William "Boileryard" Clarke. But the rest were there.

The cards were the first ever made for some of the players, including Keeler. That made them "rookie cards," a genus that exploded in value during a collecting boom in the early 1990s.

The set failed to meet its reserve price of $3,000, perhaps because collectors had no idea it was coming. The consigner sold the cards separately to others around the country.

McKee's appetite was whetted, and he kept watch.

"They were one-of-a-kind. They included many great players. But most of all, they represented 19th Century Baltimore Base Ball — and I do mean 'Base Ball' with two words," he says, referring to the accepted spelling of the time.

This, he thought, was a set worth assembling.

Over the next decade, he went after each card, acquiring them one nervous deal at a time. He never paid more than $2,500. By 2002, he'd spent $30,000 and owned them all.

"I felt — complete," he said, a grin spreading below his close-cropped mustache.

Later that year, another hobbyist, W. Thomas Lawrie, decided to write an article on the set for a collector's magazine. He spent weeks researching the Alpha company. His work was a window on history.

Lawrie believes that Alpha took the unusual step of printing just the single set so it could place the cards in a display window when the city was in the grip of pennant fever.

"Look closely and you'll see a minor strip of damage at the top of the backs of [most of] the cards," he said. "It's reasonable to guess that those correspond with tape."

McKee loved the cards so much he'd often pull them from his safe and stay up late studying them. But eventually he had to weigh the value of his love. In 2006, a New York collector approached him at a card show and made him an offer he couldn't refuse.

He would not name the buyer or reveal the specific price, but said it was a six-figure amount large enough that he could finalize the purchase of a home worth more than $700,000.

McKee, who had figured the set might be worth $40,000, was stunned.

He later learned the man was keenly interested in vintage rookie cards — and that the sum meant little to him.

"It meant a big change for us, though," said McKee, adding that he was reluctant to sell, even at that price.

Lew Lipset of Old Judge Vintage Cards Auction in Arizona, a longtime dealer, said he might have guessed the set's value to be closer to $6,000 per card, or $84,000 total, but added it wouldn't shock him to learn that they'd sold for much more.

"It's very hard to set a real market value on a one-of-a-kind set," Lipset said. "It's worth what a buyer thinks it's worth."

The New York collector eventually sold off some of the non-Hall of Fame cards. McKee reacquired Gleason, Hemming and Reitz for about $2,000 each.

The New York investor recently emailed McKee to give him first crack at the Alpha Hall of Famers he has decided to sell. He hasn't named a price yet.

McKee's sure the cards will be out of his range now, but he'll make an offer just the same. It would be great to get the old set together again.

"The Alphas were my pride and joy."

jonathan.pitts@baltsun.com