It turns out the best view of the New York City skyline is from a miraculously unobstructed hillside above a public soccer field across the street from a cemetery in North Arlington, New Jersey, between Jersey City and Secaucus. The entire western edge of Manhattan gleams from within a vast and lusterless frame of swampland and sky. New York is so endless that even its drab industrial backend is packed with wonders. Above a thickening labyrinth of low concrete rectangles the size of football fields floats the brushstroke corporate logo of H Mart, its empire’s-worth of frozen mandu deliveries apparently coordinated from a midrise deep in an industrial park. And nearby, on an otherwise unlabeled door on the ground floor of an immense and windowless building, a single sheet of paper instructs consigners to ring once and only once, and then wait for someone to let them in. Beyond the door lies a fever dream.
I assume the people who arrive at the headquarters of Probstein123, eBay’s largest dealer of sports cards and other hot collectibles, aren’t allowed all that far past the threshold, and thus have an incomplete sense of what the operation really is. They drop off their consignment items, pick up some paperwork, and then hope the market favors them. Maybe they see the long rack of jerseys near the entrance, and wonder how many of them are autographed or game-worn, and maybe they glimpse the backroom, where a hive of assistants prepare the human race’s recent cultural residue for shipment. The luckiest visitors make it to the inner sanctum, to Rick Probstein’s office, a unique magnetic anomaly in the global material spectrum, and a place where potential treasures crowd every possible surface, cards and photos and documents and trophies and video games stuffed into bursting rows of boxes, half-arranged on crowded shelves, occluded within a half-dozen locked safes. The 1937 Heisman Trophy is perched on a high ledge, a monument to the ancient accomplishments of Yale’s Clint Frank. By the end of the hour I’ll have gazed upon the ominously tapering squiggles of Vladimir Putin’s signature, affixed to what Probstein described as “some Russian document,” a relic of living history which you’re apparently not allowed to sell on eBay anymore.
Only Probstein himself could possibly know the room’s entire contents. An hour in there raises questions that four hours in it probably wouldn’t answer, along with questions that just aren’t meant to be answered.
Some of these questions are practical. How did it all get here? Easy enough, in the case of a basketball encrusted in emerald and silver Swarovski crystal and safely ensconced atop a roll of tape, a keepsake of the Milwaukee Bucks’ 2021 NBA championship. “It’s one of a kind. They only made one,” Probstein explained with a notable lack of animation. “There’s certain things I see that I buy because I think they’ll be good investment pieces, or I just like them.” Later, calmly defining the appeal of three hyper-rare sealed editions of the very first Madden football computer games, on whose cover the former Raiders coach has a head full of natural hair and the visage not of football’s elder statesman but of a googly-eyed lunatic: ”I like having things that other people just don’t have.” And then later on, after showing off a bank withdrawal slip from the day before the 1929 stock market crash signed by Charles Solomon, Al Capone’s Jewish right-hand man, proof the mob knew the Wall Street plunge was coming, Probstein commented: “Anything that’s really historically oriented—that, I enjoy.”
The even more beguiling questions raised within Probstein’s office are metaphysical in nature. The largest single sale in Probstein123 history, he told me, was a “Tom Brady champ ticket,” the rarest of signed and serial-numbered rookie cards issued of the future seven-time Super Bowl winner. “They’re very condition sensitive, because of how they made the card,” Probstein said. “There’s nothing graded over a 9.” The one he sold had been given an 8.5. To my mild shock, there happened to be a somewhat lower-graded one in a cardboard box right in front of me.
The Brady champ ticket that I held in my hands, suspended within a seemingly blast-proof sheet of clear plastic and glass, was worth a measly half-million dollars, which is still seven years of untaxed median American household income. The young Brady half-steps out of a monochrome silver-blue background, teeth clenched, viper eyes trained on what might have been a crossing tight end, or maybe on his near-future glories. The right half of the card, dominated by a hockey ticket-shaped info box, looks absurd compared to the awesome image of this great man of history in mid self-creation. Where did my throat-tightening sense of the uncanny come from, that strange wave of exhilaration verging on fear surging as I held a cardboard rectangle worth orders of magnitude more than its weight in gold? I wondered, and still wonder: In the sense that every inanimate object has both a monetary value and a transcendent, intrinsic value, why was the paper in my hand worth anything at all?
“We live in a culture that’s intoxicated by sports,” Probstein explained. He said this, like he says nearly everything, in a tone that’s not quite bored or detached, and that certainly isn’t joyless, but that doesn’t stray all that far beyond the emotional requirements of mere description. America is indeed sports-drunk, but Probstein, a short-haired, middle-aged father of five in a pink button-up shirt and a black kippah squeezing some productive hours out of a pre-High Holiday Sunday morning inside an office with no natural light, came across as a pillar of sobriety. “I’m like a pastry chef that’s in the kitchen all day,” he said. “At some point desserts just don’t excite you anymore.” He did, however, admit to being a Yankees and Giants fan—Daniel Jones is good, he says, “but he holds the ball too long. It’s just so easy to see if you’re looking for these things.”
Probstein’s career as a card salesman began at the age of 11—he estimates he made $35,000 from the card show circuit that year, about $1,000 per event. “The big card back then is still the big card now,” he said: a Mickey Mantle rookie. “I remember it being a $1,000 or $1,500 card, which was a tremendous amount of money for cards in those days. You could still buy cards at garage sales.” There are three 10-graded Mantle rookie cards in existence, and they are now estimated to be worth between $25 million and $30 million.
Over the past 40 years, Probstein explained, sports cards “made the evolution from collecting to investing to where it’s now a real asset class” and “a legitimate investment vertical for people that have money.” Grading and certification agencies—there are only two of them—oddball experts on things like early-20th-century photographic paper stock, sports nostalgists with money to blow, card-show obsessives, and internet retailers in industrial parks on the fringes of major cities have joined with portfolio managers and the hyperwealthy to turn a hobbyists’ pursuit into an insanely lucrative and semi-informally self-governed commodities market. Cards are desperately scarce specialty items whose supply never increases, recession-proof holders of value that can cushion someone’s net worth and which are easily converted into heaping piles of cash. When most high-end collectors buy a card, “they get it, they put it away, and they sometimes don’t see the light again if they’re really special.” The real treasures—that Patrick Mahomes one-of-one that sold for $4.4 million, or maybe a Michael Jordan card with a piece of game-worn jersey embedded in it—exist only so that they can be concealed from human view.
The card market has exploded in the past decade, but collecting has not yet become so drearily rationalized that the fun went away. Participants in the market now speculate on promising young players’ careers: There are 50 Justin Herbert cards worth more than the most valuable Dan Fouts card, Probstein pointed out, comparing the San Diego Chargers’ current quarterback of the future to the franchise’s long-retired all-time great, who never won a Super Bowl. The most stable investments are cards for players whose reputations can’t abruptly collapse. “Retired is less risky, a guy still paying is the most risky, and then dead is the least risky,” Probstein said. Michael Jordan is a safe investment, but Babe Ruth is safer still. An especially dicey proposition was in a box in front of me, head angled toward the basket, elbows in full deployment: Luka Doncic, the electrifying 23-year-old Slovenian swingman for the Dallas Mavericks. “Luka has cards that are about 300-400k. He had a card that sold for $4 million,” Probstein said. But: “Luka’s got to be careful. His whining with the refs, that kind of stuff affects the demand that he has. If people start seeing him as a big baby it’ll affect demand for his cards.”
The values of your average sports fan, rooted in such reactionary concepts as greatness and winning and championships, have the ability to move millions of dollars in the collectibles market, a ruthless assessor of legacies. Collectors are not statheads—the market sees what the passionate fan gloriously wasting away his Sunday on a barstool sees. “There are certain players that have a disconnect with the industry,” Probstein explained. Bryce Harper “doesn’t have that likability factor,” an assessment which delighted me as a Nationals fan. Collectors penalize the statistical freak Mike Trout for never having played in a single especially meaningful game or done anything the least bit memorable. “There are more Vince Carter collectors than James Harden collectors,” Probstein said, with the industry showing more interest in a universally beloved and safely retired slam-dunk savant who never made first-team All-NBA than it does in a whiny and unexciting MVP winner in his prime.
Whether it really matters that steroid-using home run king Barry Bonds isn’t in the Hall of Fame is a philosophical question, and how one approaches it can reveal their outlook on everything from the state of the baseball media to the nature of historical memory to the metaphysics of fairness itself. The memorabilia market has an easy answer for that one, though. “If Barry Bonds gets in the Hall of Fame his cards will go crazy. Like, crazy. They’ll like, triple in price,” said Probstein. Rafael Palmeiro is one of seven players with 500 career home runs and 3,000 career hits, but the unforgettable spectacle of him lying to Congress about his steroid use all but erased each and every one of his at-bats from history. “You can’t sell Palmeiro for a hundred bucks. Nothing,” Probstein said. “He’s just thought of as garbage.”
It is this ineffable admixture of rarity, investment capital, folk wisdom, and stark moral criteria that imbues little slips of cardboard with astronomical value. Sentimentality factors in, but raw wonder doesn’t seem to. When I was a kid, I explained to Probstein, Alan Iverson was bigger than basketball and bigger than life itself, the player every 12-year-old wanted to be. Probstein nonchalantly reached into a safe and retrieved a stack of autographed rookie cards, AI with short hair and a jarring lack of tattoos. The most valuable of the cards might fetch around $600, according to Probstein. A nearby Michael Jordan rookie card, which Probstein said was worth somewhere north of $200,000, was mostly interesting to me for its front image, a profile view of the young demigod in flight, haloed in a border of brilliant Chicago Bulls red. But the parade of signed Iversons told a more compelling story for me, one that harkened back to my earliest years as a sports fan. It struck me that these cards linked the past and present of a saga in which a tamed former delinquent turned scowling badass and world beater agreed to leave $32 million in Reebok endorsement earnings in escrow until he’s 55, supposedly for his own good, thus forcing the once-troubled megastar to generate cash flow through the diminishing returns of the memorabilia trade.
But the thing with the highest wonder factor that I saw in Probstein’s office barely had any market value at all. It was an object that told a simple yet poignant Jewish American story.
Probstein was not raised religious: He “went to a chapel-prep-school type of environment” growing up in Delaware, played soccer and football at the University of Massachusetts, and only frequently interacted with Orthodox Jews as part of a JCC job in his early 20s, an experience which, he said, “just sort of opened my eyes,” such that greater Jewish observance “made sense to me and I just sort of took it on.” He spent some time in Israel, and married a woman from “a black hat yeshivish family” in Borough Park. A well-used ArtScroll siddur rested on a back shelf. Of course, the most valuable card for a Jewish baseball player is a 10-graded Sandy Koufax rookie card, of which there is only one in existence. Probstein doesn’t have it, but he showed me something about as compelling.
It was a receipt from Congregation Beth Abraham in Detroit, dated Sept. 16, 1958, a time that wasn’t as open or comfortable for Jews as our current one. It was the second day of Rosh Hashanah. The document confirmed that Mel Allen, the radio voice of the Yankees and perhaps the leading play-by-play man of the entire mid-20th century, had joined the synagogue for the year, probably so that he could attend High Holiday services there. The Tigers stole a game from the eventual champions that afternoon in front of about 8,000 fans, but Allen had more important things on his mind, assuming he was even in the ballpark. “So he actually went to shul,” I mused. “And he had every excuse not to,” Probstein added. “But he joined a synagogue just to go.”
Armin Rosen is a staff writer for Tablet magazine.