Years later, we became friends when I started setting up at the Orland Park shows. My first time out as a dealer at Orland, I only took one table. At $30 a pop, I didn't want to start the day out $60 or $90 in debt by purchasing multiple tables. It was a good thing too. At my first Orland show about 12 years ago or so, the room was crowded but I did not get much action. I knew a few of the modern card guys from the north-suburban shows. Born and raised up north, this was my first venture into the south suburbs of Chicago. I knew two vintage dealers -- John Meckler and Jim Goodfriend. Both guys were regulars up north. I also met Goodfriend when I was a kid at those Hillside shows. You would think that when you buy cards from a guy from age 12 to 35 he might be nice to you when he sees you at a show. Hell no, not Jim Goodfriend. He was a complete tool when I first started setting up at the Orland shows. In no uncertain terms, he told me to leave. Obviously, I ignored him.
Chuck, on the other hand, took me under his wing from the get go. About the third time I was set up in Orland, Chuck brought me a shoe box filled with 1955 Bowman baseball cards and two monster boxes of 1974 Topps. He sold them to me for a song. I thought there was something wrong with the cards. I didn't know Chuck very well and I assumed he was hustling me some how. I asked some of the other dealers why they did not buy those cards from Chuck. I learned Chuck never offered the cards to anyone else, he brought them just for me. He practically gave me the cards. For the next 10 years or so, twice a month, Chuck was Santa Claus... bringing me one tremendous gift after another. I sold him some cards too but I always felt guilty because of all the great deals he gave me. For the last couple of years, I couldn't charge him much. I often just gave him cards he needed to complete various sets. How do you charge a fee to Santa Claus?
Chuck was no ordinary Santa Claus. He didn't have a band of elves making toys. Instead, he scoured the Orland and Sun-Times shows along with eBay for deals on cards. He bought cards by the thousands. Usually, the bulk of the cards were 1974 Topps, of which he would make sets and sell them on eBay.
From years of building these 1974 Topps sets, he became an expert on them He could tell you which cards were difficult to find; which cards always had snow or a printing mark on the upper right corner; which cards were never centered; and which cards always had rubber band marks and more. I always wanted to sit down with him and a video camera while he discussed each and every card in that 1974 set. He had some enlightening or interesting note about all of the cards. It was remarkable to listen to him talk about those cards.
He was also an expert on the Post Cereal cards issued from 1961 to 1963. Back in my early Orland days, I was having trouble differentiating the Post Cereal cards from a similar issue placed on the back of Jello packages. The Post and Jello cards look almost exactly alike except for slight variations. I remember asking John Meckler some questions about the Jello cards. He gave me some answers but finished each statement with "that's what Chuck said." From John, I first learned about Chuck's vast knowledge of these unique cards. So I began to pick Chuck's brain and he taught me how to spot a Jello from a Post Cereal card. Then Chuck started to bring me stacks of Post Cereal cards. I love the Post Cereal cards and eagerly greeted each and every stack of cards Santa Claus brought me.
There were endless discussions about the Post Cereal cards. The cards were issued a few years before I was born. But Chuck was a kid in his prime baseball card collecting years when the cards came out in the early 1960s. He told me that the difficult cards from those sets were originally placed on the back of Raisin Bran cereal. Chuck said that kids hated Raisin Bran, so fewer of those cards made it into circulation. The cards with the greatest circulation were on sugary cereals. Chuck shared stories of making a conscious effort of joining his mother on grocery trips so he could direct her to the Raisin Bran. He hated Raisin Bran like all the other kids, but he wanted those cards.
He had such a great memory and shared many wonderful anecdotes. My favorite story is about the 1963 Fleer. Unlike the Topps cards that came with a stick of gum, the Fleer cards were packed with a cookie. All of Chuck's friends hated the cookie. He, on the other hand, loved them. He was able to load up on those cookies because he was the only one who liked them. I can just picture young Chuck flipping and sorting cards with a mouthful of cookies.
When I met Chuck, I had just ended my 11-year career as a journalist and was completing law school. Chuck had been a practicing attorney long before I met him. He spent many years as a Will County prosecutor. I eagerly listened to his tales from the front lines, dealing with infamous folks like Drew Peterson. When I started practicing law and landed a job in Downtown Chicago, Chuck would visit me on occasion when he had to be at the Daley Center or an administrative hearing with the Secretary of State's office. We would go out to lunch Downtown and talk cards. It was heaven.
Essentially, that's what we did at the Orland show -- talked cards. My corner of the room is sort of like a corner tavern. I invite folks to pull up a chair, stay awhile and chat. At my tables, Chuck was like "Norm" from Cheers -- only funnier, with much more wit. He regularly enthralled the crowd at my table with tales from his many years of collecting cards. I always knew there was going to be some laughter when Chuck sat down. He would spew all sorts of one liners, he was the Rodney Dangerfield of the Orland Park card show.
Jokes aside, his passion and joy for collecting old baseball cards was something to behold. He was always one of the first guys to enter the room at Orland in the morning and one of the last to leave. He would come in wearing a T-shirt featuring an image of a 1956 Topps Ernie Banks card. He always carried a duffle bag filled with cards and often went home carrying boxes and boxes of cards, freshly purchased.
The thing that struck me most was how he glowed when he was at the card show. As soon as he entered the room, he could not hide his joy and happiness. You know how you automatically squint when there is sun in your eyes? Well, when Chuck was in a room full of sports cards, he automatically smiled, it was a reflex. He could not hide his joy. I don't know if he was even aware that he was smiling and glowing. He was just so happy to be in that room with all those cards and all those people who loved them just like he did. It was so genuine, so honest, and incredibly endearing. I think that best describes Chuck Thomas -- genuine, honest and incredibly endearing.
Though, I admit there are other words too. I must not forget the word compassionate. My wife has had a lot of health problems. A few years ago, she had to go to the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota for some testing and treatment. I was distraught. I must live 60 miles away from Chuck but when my wife left for Minnesota, Chuck came right over. I showed him my basement hideaway which he dubbed "The Card Bunker." He then drove with me and my kids to Milwaukee for the Gonzaga show. I can't say how much I appreciated his efforts and company at that time.
Chuck was my buddy. While we met twice a month at the Orland show, had lunch Downtown, he also visited me at the Bloomingdale and Schaumburg shows. It was such a treat to hang out with Chuck.
On my computer, I have hundreds of saved emails from Chuck. Seems like we wasted our work days emailing each other back and forth about cards. Many of his emails poke fun at Jim Goodfriend. They're so funny and priceless. I know Jim probably reads my blog. Jim you were a real jerk but I'm over it and you've actually gotten much nicer over the years. Though you deserved all the jokes Chuck made about your sweatpants. Man, I'm going to miss those emails. The ones titled "Chuck's Wide World of Sports," or "Right, Right, Right," or "Monster Chuck Strikes Again," or "Skinny Daddy's Sportscards." Most of the emails were just some quick tidbits like these below:
Tony, everyone complains how hard it is to get checklists for the '74 Topps baseball set, so I bought 189 of them this morning on e-bay. It's bold moves like this that have won me my fortune.
My client and I have to be at 100 W. Randolph tomorrow for a prelim on that professional regulations case I told you about. I won't have time for lunch, maybe next time. Until then, see you on Sunday. I am desperate for a 1977 topps baseball #354 Pirates team in nice shape. Chuck
Tony, I have some items listed on ebay. Last weekend was King Con II, which turned out to be a much better show than the first one. Jim Colias and Leroy were there and some of the other guys from Orland...including
right...right...right. I have a bunch of cards that fall into the following categories: Post cereal baseball--about 275 cards, semi-high and high number baseball, mostly '70 through '73, and some sharp baseball commons from the '60's. Hope to see you soon...CT right...right...right.
Chuck and I suffered from a rare affliction called "Cards On The Brain." The prescribed treatment is constant discussion about cards. Chuck and I made all sorts of big plans during our many discussions. We were going to go to the National together this past summer in Cleveland. He even gave me table fee. Then he got sick and I gave him his money back. I didn't want to go to the National if he couldn't go. We talked about opening a card shop together. He was going to retire in January and was ready to give a card shop a chance. I think we might have actually done it.
Chuck enriched my life. He was more than a friend, he was a contributor. He is irreplaceable. It's surreal. I went to his wake. I felt like littering the floor with Post Cereal cards. Though, out of respect for his family, I kept the cards in my pocket. He has a wonderful family. I enjoyed seeing the photos of him relaxing with his kids and pets. I can't believe Chuck is not here any more. It's just not fair.