In 1910, Shoeless Joe Jackson played in 136 games for the Class A New Orleans Pelicans of the Southern Association. It was nine years before his time with the World Series-throwing Chicago Black Sox of 1919, and Jackson hit .354 as a Pelican with two home runs.
He also may have helped change the life of a Raleigh family some 110 years later.
Jackson appeared on a baseball card, which was inserted into packs of cigarettes, during that 1910 season. Unlike the more famous series of tobacco cards — now known as T206 cards, which featured Hall of Fame players Cy Young, Ty Cobb and Honus Wagner, whose T206 is perhaps the most famous, and expensive, baseball card in existence — the so-called T210 cards on which Jackson appeared featured minor league players and are usually an afterthought to the more famous set that features the legends.
So, when Raleigh’s Ben Foster found a lunch pail containing his father’s old baseball card collection, he focused on the T206 cards.
“There were about 585 of them,” he said. “I looked through them and quickly saw there was no Honus Wagner. I knew to look for that.”
With that potential million-dollar payday off the table, Foster began sorting through the cards, a task made more difficult by the fact that the tobacco cards only listed the player’s last name.
A self-proclaimed Pokemon card collector as a kid who had no interest in baseball, Foster was at a loss to identify the players.
“I would ask my dad, ‘Young. Would that be Cy Young? Cobb. Would that be Ty Cobb?’ I thought that was pretty cool,” Foster said.
Then he turned his attention to the red-bordered minor league cards. He asked his girlfriend to help find information on them on the internet. She came back with some disappointing news.
“They’re not as valuable (as the T206 cards),” she reported, “unless you happen to have a Joe Jackson.”
Foster found a card reading “Jackson, New Orleans” and checked with his father.
“No,” his father replied. “New Orleans didn’t have a major league team. That wouldn’t be him.”
Late that night, however, Foster recalled that the set featured minor leaguers. So the fact that New Orleans wasn’t a big-league city made sense. After some more internet research, he realized that he did, in fact, have a Joe Jackson, and it was listed as the 10th-rarest baseball card, with fewer than 20 known to exist.
“I got out of bed at 2:30 a.m.,” he recalled, “went downstairs, and put it in a hard plastic case. Then I went back to bed.”
The Jackson card originally belonged to Foster’s great-great-uncle.
“He would have been 10 or 11 when the cards came out,” Foster said. “So he probably got the cards from his parents’ or uncles’ packs of cigarettes.”
When Foster’s father showed an interest in collecting in the 1950s, the great-great-uncle passed his collection on to the child. Like many baseball card collections, they were eventually packed away and lost to the world.
“My father would talk a lot about his old cards,” Foster said. “He focused on the ones he collected himself. He would say that he had some Roberto Clementes and Johnny Podres (two stars of the 1950s and ’60s). He never mentioned the tobacco cards.”
When Foster was helping his father move in 2009, they found an old metal lunch pail in a partially finished room in the basement.
“It was in this cold, dark room, and it had a (Cubs Hall of Famer) Ernie Banks stamp on it,” Foster said. “My dad knew right away what it was.”
Foster was in high school at the time, so he set the pail on a shelf, never really forgetting it but never finding time to go through it. Until last Christmas, when he found the Jackson.
He had the cards insured and professionally graded, and Shoeless Joe is currently on the auction block at Heritage Auctions. The bidding runs until Thursday, with a presale estimate of $400,000.
The current bid isn’t public information, but Heritage reported that the reserve amount (the minimum the card will be sold for) of $300,000 hadn’t yet been met as of Tuesday afternoon.
Foster isn’t worried.
“I know most of the activity takes place in the last 48 hours,” he said. “I’m sure I’ll be glued to my computer on Thursday, though.”
Assuming a bidder meets the reserve, the windfall will go to Foster’s parents.
“Hopefully, it will knock a few years off my mother’s career,” he said, “and allow her to retire early.”
All thanks to a former minor leaguer whose name Foster recognized, though he wasn’t entirely sure why.
“I’d never actually seen Field of … what’s the movie? ‘Field of Dreams’?” he said. “I’ve seen it now.”
And later this week, his family’s dreams will come true, thanks to a long-lost lunch pail and his great-great-uncle’s childhood hobby.