Trading on Fans' Nostalgia : Baseball Cards Are His Strong Suit

Times Staff Writer

You pored over them as you did long ago when they were treasures in a shoe box, the greats of the game and so many who were far from even being good, men with short hair posed batting against red, orange or blue backgrounds.

And the memories of the players and your childhood--forever entwined--rushed back and were as sweet as the sugary smell these baseball cards always had from the pink, brittle gum they were packed with.

But the gaunt, tanned man who displayed the cards at a sports memorabilia show in a carpeted room at the Long Beach Arena last weekend did not share your nostalgia.

Jim Kovacs, one of the most prosperous baseball card dealers and known as the meanest man in the hobby, did not reminisce about the thrill of watching Willie Mays make a spectacular catch because he never saw Mays play--or cared to.

He'll Give It to You--for $400

To him, you can have your memories, but please relive them with a Mays card from the early '50s that might have been in that shoe box your mother threw away. He'll sell it to you for $400.

That's his thrill.

"I'm in this strictly for the money," Kovacs said, keeping a sullen eye on approaching youngsters, the bane of his existence.

"I hate kids," he said. "All kids have a dirty shirt and a dollar bill and they don't want to change either one. Kids screw up your cards, that's why my table's up so high." (It was set on buckets.)

When he got into the baseball card business seven years ago, Kovacs said he didn't know Pete Rose from Joe Schmo, but now he knows he can get $300 from any interested Schmo for Rose's rare 1963 rookie card.

Kovacs said he has been to one baseball game--in Cleveland 42 years ago when he was 8.

Never once could he recall, as a kid, buying a pack of bubble gum cards.

'I Was a Good Pool Player'

"I wasn't into sports," he said. "I was a good pool player. Show me a good pool player and I'll show you a wasted childhood. Who said that? (W.C.) Fields."

Kovacs does not deny his reputation has been earned.

"It's my personality," he said. "I don't take anything from anybody. I'm just obnoxious. I'm not a salesman. I'm very bad with the public, but I'm successful."

Kovacs has tried to improve his image. In previous years, he let his helper do the work while he stood around in a plaid shirt, drank beer and collared kids who slobbered on his display cases.

"Now that I'm by myself I dress up (he wore a tie, blue sports coat and a white golf cap) to be more professional and smile," he said. "It hurts."

Will Davis, who promoted the show and who has baseball card shops in Fullerton and Long Beach, said of Kovacs:

"Jimmy has the finest merchandise in the hobby. He understands quality and he's willing to pay for it."

"They respect my money," Kovacs said.

'Everybody Likes Heroes'

Kovacs benefits from the hold baseball lore has on so many.

"Everybody likes heroes," he said. "Baseball heroes are alive, they're real people."

He does not know much about the players or their records, but he respects them.

"I think that's a nice achievement, to be on a card," he said.

A man bent to get a close look at a Sandy Koufax card from the early 1960s that had a $10 price tag.

"Don't lean on the cards," Kovacs said. "It puts dents in them."

"Why is that $10?" the man asked.

"Because he's somebody," Kovacs said. "He's in the Hall of Fame. All Hall of Famers are $10. There are 10-cent and quarter guys and there are $10 guys."

Some of yesterday's players and the worth that Kovacs has assigned to their cards: Bobby Tolan (10 cents), Al Luplow (50 cents), Dale Long ($1), Danny Cater (15 cents), Whitey Ford ($4 even though he's in the Hall of Fame, too), Dave DeBuscherre ($3).

"Everybody used to ask me for Mantle, Mays and Aaron cards," Kovacs said. "Now they ask for Lasorda."

His Price Is Slightly Higher

The Baseball Card Price Guide's suggested price for a Tommy Lasorda card, made in 1954 when he pitched for the Brooklyn Dodgers, is $3. Prepare to pay at least $15 if you want one from Kovacs.

Kovacs is doing his best business in dime and quarter cards, mostly obscure, mediocre players many of the collectors probably never heard of--Ben Wade? Ron Negray? Ray Culp?--but need to complete sets. Sets consist of all the cards issued in a season.

"I'm successful because I listen to what people ask for," said Kovacs. "That's how I stay one step ahead of the racket."

"All these other guys are showcasing the star cards and they're just sitting there."

Kovacs left the poolrooms of his childhood to become a craps dealer in Las Vegas, working for Howard Hughes. He also became a heavy gambler.

"I made a lot of money and gambled every dime of it," he said.

Busted and disgusted, he returned to his hometown of Canton, Ohio, vowed to never gamble again and drove a bookmobile for $75 a week. Then he opened his own bookstore and stocked up on comic books.

Kovacs remembered watching incredulously as a lawyer wearing a cashmere coat came in his store, got down on his knees and went through the comic books. "He was giving me dollars for something I paid a nickel for," he said.

Like a Sale on $10 Bills

He dealt comic books until seven years ago when he saw a copy of the Baseball Card Price Guide. He immediately started buying cards.

"I couldn't believe it," Kovacs said. "It was like buying $20 bills for $10 apiece.

"I made $300 before the doors opened at a (memorabilia) show in Kansas City. I had money falling out everywhere."

The 115-pound Kovacs hasn't always been careful with it.

"I got drunk and was rolled for $2,700 in a bar in Dallas," he said.

Will Davis once took in $7,800 at a weekend show, but Kovacs refused to reveal his best. "I wouldn't tell you that at gunpoint," he said. "It's none of your business."

Because the business has been on a downswing since its boom early in the decade, Kovacs now usually does one show a month.

"The rest of the time I sit in the sun (at his Laguna Niguel home) and restock," he said.

He said he is burned out and soon will sell his stock and maybe sail to Australia.

"It's no fun anymore," he said of the business. "You travel, make money, but you never see any girls in this hobby. I'm tired of looking at guys."

By late Saturday afternoon it was obvious that this wasn't going to be a good show for Kovacs. He had taken in less than $300, no girls had come by and now a baby was crying.

Kovacs quickly packed his cards and left.

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