It started when I bought my own house. My parents made good on their threat to bring all my old baseball cards (along with various other mementos of my childhood) from Cleveland to Atlanta. They’d been storing them for years, mostly because I had been in college, then graduate school, and had lived in a series of small apartments in three different cities.
My first-ever job—I started when I was 10 years old—was working for a guy who had a side business selling baseball cards (and comics, but I was never into that) at shows. It helped that he was my father’s assistant manager. I had the option of taking my payment in cash or merch. I picked merch a lot. The problem was that it was the early 1990s, right in the middle of what became known among baseball card collectors as the “junk wax” era. Cards from the ’60s and ’70s were starting to appreciate in value as card collectors began to appreciate in age and look back fondly on their own childhoods. It fueled a speculative bubble that led to several companies entering the baseball card market and flooding it to Russell Crowe movie-like levels. This was the era when it wasn’t enough to just have the regular Fleer, Donruss, and Topps sets. There had to be Fleer Ultra and Topps Stadium Club and Leaf. I still don’t know what Leaf was. But I had easy access to all of them, and several packs and boxes made their way home with me.
Fast forward nearly a quarter century (yikes!) and it meant that my parents brought me a box of early ’90s cards, complete with some of the finest photography of Shane Mack known to man. I stuck them in my basement for a while, but I had to face facts. The cards were a nice reminder of my childhood, but they were in the way. But what to actually do with them? I felt weird just throwing them in the recycling bin.
That’s when I stumbled on Jerry Milburn, a Kentucky resident who started Commons4Kids. His goal is to collect old, unwanted baseball (and other sports!) cards and to pass them along to kids in need. In some sense, it’s a perfect solution. The cards are colorful and sports related, the perfect distractor for kids. And some of these kids need a distraction. According to Jerry, he’s worked to get cards into the hands of kids in children’s hospitals and domestic violence shelters.
I asked him a few questions by e-mail:
RAC: First of all, tell us how and when you became a card collector and which cards you most fondly remember from your childhood.
JM: I have been a collector since 1987; I still remember getting my first pack of 1987 Topps from a local gas station. I didn't get into collecting until 1989 and I strictly stuck with baseball. I was a big fan of the 1989 Donruss and, of course, the 1989 Upper Deck set. There is no telling how many packs of 1989 Upper Decks I opened trying to get that elusive Ken Griffey Jr rookie.
I grew up in the small town of Danville, KY and we had a small card shop but I could never talk my mom into just paying the $10 for the card, so I would always settle for a pack and never had any luck. That card became like the holy grail for me but I just couldn't get one.
One night, my mom had been out playing Bingo and I was already in bed when she got home. She came in, woke me up and gave me a pack of cards that she had stopped and picked up. I was so excited that I didn't even realize that they had already been opened. Sure enough, in the middle of the stack of cards was Griffey's huge grin—I seriously lost it!
Time went on and I got out of the trading card hobby but always kept my collection stored away in my closet. Once I got back into the hobby, I went through my cards and found the Griffey and all those childhood memories came back. That Griffey card is framed on my Commons4Kids wall. That is the joy that I hope we give to some kid out there.
Every millionth card we donate is a 1989 Griffey Jr. card and to date we have donated three of them. Our first million was a huge milestone for us. We donated a graded 9 version and we donated a new one straight from a set. Our second millionth card donated was a version from my personal collection and we should give away our fourth version in the next few months to celebrate the three-million mark!
RAC: What led you to starting Commons4Kids?
JM: My card collection has always stayed with me, even when I wasn’t active in the hobby, it was stored away in a closet somewhere. One day, I was cleaning out my closet and found them and decided to go through them. I rediscovered the childhood joy that I had when collecting them and the “bug” hit me all over again. As I went through the cards, I realized that 90 percent of them weren’t even players or teams that I really cared about. As a kid, the goal was just more and more cards, regardless of who it as.
I realized that I had about 100,000 baseball cards but really only “wanted” 10,000 of them so I was left with boxes and boxes of cards that I didn’t really want. I couldn’t bring myself to throw them away, these represented my childhood. Years of collecting, trading with friends and trying to pull that one card I couldn’t live without.
I didn’t want to donate them to Goodwill because of past experiences—our Goodwill had a box of about 1,000 commons, most were in bad shape, and they had $35 on them! I was thinking, how can a kid afford that? Then it hit me, give them directly to kids!
Plus, since I was getting back into the hobby, I knew that I would be buying boxes of cards that would leave me with thousands of commons in the future.
I called up the children’s home in my hometown (I didn’t want to just walk up to kids and give them cards); they were thrilled to accept them. They even called the local newspaper and they did a story. That story was picked up by the Associated Press and went nationwide, even in USA Today. From that point on, folks from all over started mailing us cards and contacting us.
RAC: How can someone make a donation and what do you do once you get the cards?
JM: Cards can be mailed to me. The address is on our website. If the cards are located in Kentucky, we can usually arrange to pick them up. The best way is to just put them in a large flat rate box, which holds about 5000 cards.
We have gone as far west as St. Louis to pick up huge donations, that one was 250,000 cards! We have also taken trips to Pittsburgh, Chattanooga, Cincinnati and Indianapolis to pick up donations. If we go to big cities like that to pick up big donations, we always bring cards with us for their local children’s homes or charities.
Once we get the cards, we post about them on Commons4Kids.org and add the person who donated them to our #C4KFamily page. I don’t want people thinking that I donate these cards personally. I still buy cards and I still personally donate thousands of cards a month, however, C4K runs based on other collectors, so we created the #C4KFamily in order to show the world that this project is powered by collectors—not just me.
RAC: What organizations do you work with and what do they do with the cards?
JM: We have worked with over 40 charities and agencies. We started out with children’s homes and they told us that they brought all the kids together and let them go through the cards. Many of these kids had been abused or had really rough lives, so something as normal as trading cards really helped them feel like kids again.
We have worked with Ronald McDonald House—we were told that they put the bags out so the kids who have to stay there can grab a bag and maybe take their mind off of their situation for a little while. We’ve worked with Big Brothers/Big Sisters—they gave the bags to the “bigs” and it helped them connect with the “littles.” We have given cards to little leagues, kids at conventions and worked with smaller agencies like Rainbows for Kids in St. Louis that takes kids with cancer out once a month for a party, Cardinals games, fishing, etc.
We recently received a story from a lady about how the cards we donated to her son helped him with being bullied at school. He was really shy and quiet and he took his cards to school to go through during recess. One of the kids that had been bullying him noticed the cards and actually started talking to him about them, he was a big card collector. They realized that had a lot in common and actually became friends.
RAC: I've heard that you'd had a few professional athletes who have helped out, including a recent autograph session with Austin Kearns. Can you tell us a little bit about that?
JM: Former NBA star Rik Smits sent us several cards from his personal collection with tons of autographs. Former Reds catcher Joe Oliver sent us 100 autographed cards. Former Bengals star Deltha O’Neal sent several autograph cards as well. We’ve also had several Cincinnati Reds prospects send us autographed cards.
The first “in person” autograph session presented by us was with Austin Kearns, which was a huge success. Mr. Kearns came out for our 2014 Jason Ellis Memorial Donation with the Danville/Boyle Co. Cal Ripken League. Mr. Kearns signed tons of autographs and took tons of pictures. We gave away over 63,000 cards. Mr. Kearns didn’t charge us anything and did this event out of his own pocket.
Thanks to Jerry for his time and for this project. If you have cards that you are ready to part with and want them to go somewhere other than the garbage can, feel free to go to his website for more information.