The Hungry Hobby

By Clarence George on February 2, 2015
The Hungry Hobby
"I look at my Helmar cards every night, and I always get the feeling that I’m back in 1905."

For those of you who share my nostalgic yearning for the old and timeless, a word or two on Helmar Brewing Company’s collectible cards…

“Beware the hobby that eats.”—Benjamin Franklin

It’s been almost a quarter of a century since I picked up Victoria Gallery’s set of 20 boxing cards, featuring heavyweight champs from Jack Johnson to Mike Tyson. Printed in England in 1991, with handsome artwork by Rob Larson and an appealing sky-blue border, I’m happy to have added this nifty set to my collection. And yet…it doesn’t evoke sarsaparilla. For those of you who share my nostalgic yearning for the old and timeless, a word or two on Helmar Brewing Company’s collectible cards.

Helmar’s cards bring to mind the majesty of the American Tobacco Company’s renowned T206, a series of baseball cards issued between 1909 and 1911, and most famous for its Honus Wagner, one of which sold for $2.8 million in 2007.

Writes Mike Shannon in Sports Collectors Digest, the Helmar cards “are based on beautiful original artwork done by highly talented contemporary artists. They are handmade from top quality card stock and other intriguing materials and intentionally distressed so that they appeal to true collectors and not to wheeler-dealers interested only in their money-making potential. They are produced in extremely low quantities and not released in sets so that collecting them is a worthy challenge.”

Charles Mandel’s Helmar Brewing Company, based in Michigan, produced an award-winning beer, promoted by “snazzy player-portrait labels and caps for the bottles and artistic advertising materials.” But, said retailers, “Look, we just don’t have any room for another beer. There’s just too much competition already. But we love your posters! Can we keep some of them?”

Knowing how to turn suds into lemonade, Mandel suspended beer production in favor of “Famous Athletes,” his first set of collectible cards, featuring players from the Golden Age of baseball. In addition, says Mandel (a man after my own heart), “I make cards of guys most collectors have not even heard of. And we don’t skimp on the art used for those players either. When we make a card of Art Nehf, for example, we put just as much time and effort into that card as we would a card of Ty Cobb.”

“The painstaking care used to make Helmar cards is almost inconceivable,” writes Shannon. “Anyone who has ever held a few Helmar cards in his hands will understand what I mean. After all, is Topps (or any other current manufacturer) making any baseball cards that combine as many as eight layers of card stock, utilize die-cut techniques or have leather or multi-faceted crystals embedded in them?” Says collector Skip Morgan, “I look at my Helmar cards every night, and I always get the feeling that I’m back in 1905.”

In addition to baseball’s Major, Minor, and Negro Leaguers, Japanese players, and House of David boyos, there also boxers. I’ve seen Abe Attell, Jack Johnson, Primo Carnera, and Max Schmeling. Indeed, I’m the proud owner of a Helmar Tony Galento card. Based on Sam Andre’s famous studio portrait of “Two Ton,” Tony is shown against a wine-red background. He’s also shirtless, apparently to make him look less like a poolroom bouncer and more like the formidable heavyweight contender he was. But if the soiled shirt is gone, the cigar remains, firmly planted in the center of our bruiser’s mouth. Also remaining are the tendrils of smoke, and the game of tag between light and shadow. Across the top of the border of golden brown is written Tony’s famous, “I’ll moider da bum,” while on the bottom is written, “Tony ‘Two-Ton’ Galento,” accompanied by his stats. All right, there some mistakes. It’s “Two Ton” Tony Galento, for one thing. For another, he had 80 wins, not 86, as the card incorrectly states.

But remember the Inverted Jenny? It was a stamp issued on May 10, 1918, on which the image of a Curtiss JN-4 biplane (the Jenny) appears upside down. A costly error. Or, rather, a pricey one. A single such stamp sold at auction some eight years ago for almost a cool million.

My Helmar Galento card says 86 instead of 80? All the reason in the world not to 86 it.

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  1. Irish Frankie Crawford Beat Saijo aka Gimpel 09:20pm, 02/03/2015

    Clarence George-Just read the NYT obit on Herbert Vogel and I am blown away!

  2. Clarence George 06:27pm, 02/03/2015

    Great story, Irish.  I’m reminded of Herbert and Dorothy Vogel, a couple of modest means and humble background who amassed an amazing art collection.

  3. Irish Frankie Crawford Beat Saijo aka Gimpel 05:17pm, 02/03/2015

    Clarence George-Lo these many years ago my then lady friend had a close friendship with an elderly couple who lived next door. She and the neighbor lady shared a common interest of collecting dolls. The couple moved out of state to a retirement community and my friend kept in touch with cards, notes and phone calls. Time went by, the senior lady passed away and the old gent called one day and told my friend that he had something for her if she ever was able to find the time to visit. I remember her saying at the time that maybe just maybe the something was a particularly fine doll that had been in one of the display cases in the old couple’s living room. Long story short, she visited and spent the afternoon with the old guy….upon leaving he told her that his wife wanted her to have the collection in the living room and oh by the way the crates of dolls out in the garage. She returned to California with a trailer in tow….the collection was subsequently appraised at the time at $250,000 and that was some forty years ago.

  4. Clarence George 09:53am, 02/03/2015

    Ah, Eric, if I only had the G.I. Joes my father used to buy me at Rappaport’s.  Five dollars in those days (the equivalent of about $40 today)...I’d make a handsome profit, especially if undisturbed in their original packaging.

  5. Eric 06:47am, 02/03/2015

    Seems like baseball has cornered the market on card collecting. The other sports just don’t generate the interest or same type of money of collecting baseball cards. The Honus Wagner card sold for 2.8 million in 2007?!  I had no idea that this card had become that valuable in the last few years. Last time I had kept track of the card’s worth it was in the mid 6 figure range. I have a tote full of baseball cards from the late 60’s & early 70’s, just never took great care of them. Those old lunch boxes, comic books, toys, records-albums, etc., you just don’t think at the time that someday someone will come along and over you a helluva lot more than you paid for them.

  6. Clarence George 04:37am, 02/03/2015

    Thanks very much indeed, Bob.  And you’re quite right about collecting.  It’s great for kids, but few do it today.  When my brother and I were collecting stamps in the ‘70s, there was a dealer (a veteran of Verdun!) across the street from the Whitney.  Can you imagine a stamp dealer on 75th and Madison today?  Yeah, right.

  7. Bob 04:09am, 02/03/2015

    When I read article such as this one, I realize how much fun collecting must be - whether it is sporting cards, stamps or other such items. Just being on the lookout for such items must be a thrill, and the joy of locating and purchasing or trading for them must be immeasurable. I can understand how collector Skip Morgan is brought back in time every time he views his collection. Very interesting and offbeat article that I enjoyed very much.

  8. Clarence George 08:22pm, 02/02/2015

    Glad you liked it, Peter, and thanks for the 411 on the Bert Sugar book, with which I wasn’t familiar.

  9. peter 07:31pm, 02/02/2015

    Nice article. In 1988, Bert Sugar had a good idea: he published his “Classic Boxing Cards”, a glossy compilation of “56 Full-Color Reproductions from the Mecca Cigatette Sets, 1909-1910”. The Mecca photos are little pieces of art, similar to the Helmer cards, (which I just googled after reading this article.)  In comparing and contrasting the two sets of cards, is one set more preferable or valuable?  Stylistically, they seem similar. Perhaps one day an enterprising, (and wealthy), boxing/art fan will compile the Helmer cards into a beautiful book.

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