Baseball Cards--Thieves Get In on the Action

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Two weeks ago, someone broke into Pop's Sports Cards and Collectibles in the Santa Clarita Valley and made off with $62,000 worth of baseball cards and other sports memorabilia. Investigators say it was the skilled work of a professional thief.

At Bases Loaded, a card shop in Chatsworth, bars on the windows and burglar alarms didn't stop six break-ins in 12 months. About $15,000 worth of baseball cards from the last burglary were recovered after they had apparently been traded for cocaine.

Collecting player picture cards has become a big-time industry, and card dealers and Los Angeles police say it is now breeding big-time crime.

In the Los Angeles area, dealers and police report a trend in which numerous card dealers' shops have been broken into in recent months.

In some instances, the thefts have led to injuries. A San Diego dealer was attacked by a man who stole cards from his shop. And in San Luis Obispo, Frank Gove was found beaten to death in March behind the counter of the baseball card store where he worked. About $10,000 in sports cards and other memorabilia were stolen.

"There is no doubt that what was once a fairly innocent hobby now has a darker side," said Detective Mike Brennler, who is investigating the murder.

Nobody knows that better than Robert and Mike Manning, the father and son who operate Pop's Sports Cards and Collectibles in Canyon Country.

Two years ago a burglar broke into a shop that the Mannings operated in nearby Valencia to steal coins and try to open the safe. The display cases filled with baseball cards were left untouched.

Last month, however, when a burglar broke into the new shop, the four display cases of baseball cards were emptied and, this time, the coins were left behind. Gone were the gems of the Mannings' card cases: a 1953 Willie Mays, a 1956 Mickey Mantle and others. Many were worth hundreds of dollars each.

"It used to be, in this business, that you worried about fire or water damaging your stock," Mike Manning said. "Now you have to worry about the criminal element."

In the old days--which for card shops largely means the early 1980s--many shops didn't even have alarms. But the recent crimes are causing changes. Now many shops have sophisticated alarms and other means of security. Like jewelry stores, some shops place the most expensive cards in safes when they close up for the night.

The Mannings, who thought an alarm system was enough for their shop in Canyon Country, are now thinking about putting bars over the windows and doors.

"All this for baseball cards," said a dejected Robert Manning, who invested much of his retirement savings in cards to sell at the store.

Other Southland dealers make similar observations.

"People are getting ripped off; you have to take precautions," said Matt Federgreen, owner of the Beverly Hills Baseball Card Shop. "I protect my store like it's a jewelry store. I have a second alarm, video cameras and bars on my windows and doors."

Federgreen said he doesn't even keep his most valuable cards inside his store on North Robertson Boulevard. They are in a safe deposit box and he shows them by appointment only. "After I get to know someone, then I will bring out my good stuff," he said.

Federgreen stressed that collectors need to be as careful as dealers these days. He reported that one of his 14-year-old customers recently had a collection valued at $10,000 stolen from his home.

Baseball cards have become a billion-dollar business, observers say. Though still the domain of youngsters who collect and trade them, player picture cards and other sports memorabilia have also become prime investment concerns to collectors young and old with big bucks. A mint 1952 Mickey Mantle card can go for $8,000 this year, next year maybe even more. Rarer specimens have even more astronomical prices.

A sense of the growth can be seen in the San Fernando Valley, where in 10 years the number of card shops has more than quadrupled from three to at least 14, said Max Himmelstein, operator since 1980 of the Valley Baseball Card Shop in Tarzana.

Along with the expansion and success of the market has come what dealers and law enforcement authorities believe is a wave of crime.

"With the surge in prices and interest in sports memorabilia, you are going to get the types who will resort to criminal means to get cards," Brennler said.

Mark Gorman, owner of Bases Loaded in Chatsworth, said the phenomenon is discouraging and irritating but possibly unavoidable because of the value of collector cards.

"I don't know what to do about it," Gorman said. "I put bars on the windows and alarms all over the place but still they get in here."

In the first week of April, Bases Loaded was burglarized twice in five days, losing $15,000 in baseball cards. Police recovered a number of the cards after detectives learned from an informant that the burglar had stolen them to trade for cocaine.

Police used a warrant to search a suspected drug dealer's home and found the cards alongside a cache of cocaine. Detective Butch Cantalupo, who collected cards as a boy, called the case a telling example of how the hobby has lost some of its innocence.

"More and more, baseball cards keep coming up related to crime," Cantalupo said. "There is a lot of value to some of these cards. They can be turned over and sold" easily by thieves.

The burglar who hit Pop's Sports Cards and Collectibles on May 30 was both cagey and knowledgeable. Before breaking in, the thief disconnected not only the alarm, but the phones to all stores in the small strip shopping center. The burglar then smashed in the shop's glass door, clearing the display counters and stock shelves of more than 7,000 player cards.

"He knew what he was looking for," Mike Manning said of the burglar. Some cards were taken, some were left behind. The burglar dumped one carton of baseball cards out so the box could be used to haul others from the shop.

"The cards were what they wanted," Sheriff's Sgt. Dick Young said. "It looks like it was done by a professional. This wasn't some kids breaking in to grab cards."

Detective Brennler said numerous card shops have been robbed nationwide in the last two to three years, but the Gove killing is apparently the only murder that has resulted.

Gove was attacked as he was closing the Central Coast Baseball Cards shop. He was beaten with a blunt object and his body found slumped behind a counter. None of the stolen baseball cards or memorabilia have turned up, Brennler said.

Such crimes are difficult to solve, detectives say. Most cards--except extremely rare ones--are hard to trace because they can't be marked by owners and there are usually duplicates on the market. They are also easy to sell. In addition to shops, sports cards are traded hand-to-hand by collectors as well as bought and sold at swap meets, sports memorabilia shows and through collector magazines and catalogues.

Detectives investigating baseball card crimes hope for breaks and stay in touch with dealers, who in turn keep on the alert for stolen cards. Last week, a Santa Clarita Valley dealer who was aware of the break-in at Pop's Sports Cards called deputies to report that two young boys had just entered with a large box of cards to sell. Deputies rushed to the shop but the cards didn't match those taken during the Pop's burglary. The boys were allowed to go about their business.

Dealers are eager to cooperate because many have been victimized. Increasingly, the dealers work together to guard against losses as well as taking security measures on their own.

"You have to be careful now," said Himmelstein, who is considered the dean of San Fernando Valley dealers. "There might have been a time when shops didn't have alarms, but it's not like that now. Anything that gets big and more valuable brings attention" from criminals.

"The dealers I talk to are quite aware of the fact that there are some frightening episodes occurring," said Brennler. "They are taking appropriate precautions."

To some like Brennler, the trend is discouraging. As a boy he avidly collected cards. As a detective he is investigating the bizarre extreme of the hobby, the slaying of a card dealer, and collects information on other baseball card-related crime.

He recently helped his 9-year-old son start up his own card collection.

"I haven't tried to sully his hobby by telling him about all of this," Brennler said. "But it is a concern to me."

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