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23,000 pieces of Dodgers memorabilia, and counting

David Petersen has been collecting for 50 years

Nine-year-old David Petersen became a Dodgers fan in much the same way Dodgers fans of all generations did, by cheering for a team other than the New York Yankees. Growing up in Dallas, Texas, however, Petersen’s motivation was born not out of geography, but out of a quest to collect baseball cards. The year was 1971 and Dallas did not yet have a major league franchise. The Washington Senators would relocate to the Dallas area in 1972.

“My best friend was a big Yankees fan, his dad had been a Yankees fan. So I chose the Dodgers because I didn’t want to compete with him by collecting the same team,” Petersen said. “The Dodgers had a lot of history with Jackie Robinson and (Duke) Snider and so forth. I became more of a Dodgers fan as I collected. I started out wanting to be part of the group and I picked the Dodgers.”

First impressions frequently resonate, and Petersen had become hooked. He began to learn more about the Dodgers and team’s history, dating back to 1890. The quest to collect Dodger cards had begun. Fifty years later the quest is still going, although it is closer to completion than one would have ever expected.

David Petersen stands next to his many shelves of baseball cards.

Petersen is not a typical Dodgers fan, having spent much of his life in flyover country. He attended Texas A&M University, majoring in psychology, a degree he would not wind up using, except to joke about his OCD tendencies toward Dodger items. After college, he began working for Bentonville, Ark.-based Walmart, his employer for 36 years, including 15 years in international operations. He settled in Northwest Arkansas near the retailer’s corporate headquarters 20 years ago and retired in January of this year at 59 years of age. Today, he spends some of his free time helping at Cleve’s Baseball Cards and Collectibles, but also a fair amount of time working on his collection.

Ah, yes, the collection, and the 50-year quest to collect all Dodger items. Really. All of them.

“I have a tendency to take things to the Nth level,” he said. Acquiring anything Dodger-related is his quest. Baseball cards. Yearbooks. Media guides. Postcards. Thousands of autographs. Ephemera mostly, but his collection also includes bar ware, soda cans, pennants, bats, books, and, well, anything connected to the Dodgers.

Aside from the Hawaiian-inspired Dodgers button down shirt Petersen wears as he greets a visitor, it is impossible to know the team-related riches that await inside the modest four-bedroom, two-car garage home in Northwest Arkansas he shares with his girlfriend, Shannon, and their rescued Australian Cattle Dog, Adelaide. Petersen has two adult sons who live outside the region.

Much of the collection resides in a back bedroom containing six floor-to-ceiling bookshelves, a desk with a laptop and printer, one office chair, and a rolling kitchen island converted into a sorting table. His baseball cards and other small flat items are stored in protective sheet pages in matching binders, each meticulously labeled by year and arranged chronologically beginning with the 1900s. On top of the bookshelves are Dodger pennants, 300 in all. One hundred baseball bats, many protected in plastic tubes, are hidden in the corner. His collection bleeds into a second bedroom, his “baseball rooms.” All four bedroom closets store baseball treasures as well. The most valuable items are in a safe deposit box.

Petersen has catalogued more than 28,100 unique, collectible Dodger items produced between 1890 and 1999. By his estimates, he has more than 80 percent of those, or nearly 23,000 items. Petersen stopped with 1999 because he was raising a family. But also, the number of Dodger baseball cards became overwhelming - his collection of 1999 cards and other items fills five binders alone!

Petersen spends 15-20 hours per week scouring online auction sites and researching items to add to his collection. He recently returned from the National Sports Collectors Convention in Chicago and boasts of acquiring a black Brooklyn Dodgers pennant, a color he did not know existed. He also saw, for the first time, a 1956 Jackie Robinson Topps Hocus Focus offered at $10,000. Petersen passed. “That was really cool. I will probably never see it again in person.”

He recalls attending his first “National” in 1979, well before the era of authenticating memorabilia and autographs, and taking a flier on an 8x10 lithograph of Jackie Robinson sliding into home plate, with the inscription “Best wishes, Jackie Robinson” written in blue ballpoint ink. He paid $75 of his “hard earned money” for it. It has since been authenticated.

“I am not aware of any Dodger collection that is more complete and spans the breadth of collectibles such as cards, buttons, autographs, yearbooks, bats, balls, pennants, etc,” said Carter Gray, co-owner of Cleve’s card shop with his father, Gary. “A good majority of his collection is both rare and irreplaceable. He has spent quite a bit of money getting hundreds of items authenticated and/or graded.”

Petersen considers the original May 30, 1890 scorebook, scored in pencil, from the second game of a doubleheader between the Chicago Colts and Brooklyn Bridegrooms, won by Chicago, 11-7, as his oldest item. A notation on the scorebook indicates the game was a pm game on Decoration Day, a holiday that has since become Memorial Day. How many of these 131-year-old items exist?

One of his favorite items is a 1910 S81 Silk Premium #92 of Nap Rucker. This larger silk, roughly 7x9 inches, could only be acquired by redeeming 10-20 mini silks with the cigarette company. The silk owned by Petersen looks as if it were one year old instead of 111 years old.

Petersen’s fandom has extended beyond merely collecting things. He has also sought out personal interaction with Dodger legends. “It is not at all about the Dodgers, but about the people connections,” he reflected. “Once you meet them in person they become endeared to you because they are personable.”

He traveled to spring training in Vero Beach “about a dozen times” and has traveled to Camelback Ranch “a half dozen times.” Beginning in his late 30s, he started attending fantasy camps, four or five in all, to watch and learn. The stories which resonate most with Petersen do not, however, involve discovering a rare piece of ephemera. Instead, his face lights up as he recounts these personal memories.

Take, for example, one of the many times he attended a Dodgers fantasy camp and struck up a conversation with Ralph Branca in 2016. Petersen remembers Branca as “a true New Yorker. He would push you to see how long you could take something when he was signing autographs.”

Petersen brought a copy of a 1952 seven-inch record on which Branca, Roy Campanella, and Yankees players Phil Rizzuto and Tommy Henrich had sung. When Petersen asked Branca to sign it, Branca remarked he had never seen it before. “We had a 10-minute conversation about this record and how much fun they had making it. But he had never seen it before.”

Because Branca expressed interest, Petersen bought another copy of the record to bring to Branca at the 2017 fantasy camp, but Branca passed away in November 2016 before Petersen could give it to him.

Another interaction that left a long lasting memory for Petersen was a fantasy camp conversation with Duke Snider on an overcast day at Holman Stadium in Dodgertown.

“Nobody else was out there except me basically. Snider parked a golf cart along the third base line and I sat in the stands, a few feet from Snider. I just talked to him throughout the whole game.” Petersen recalled.

“We talked about his golf game, what he enjoys doing. He signed a bunch of autographs for me. We talked about the pictures I was having signed. It was something I’ll never forget. He was so kind.”

Carl Erskine was another player who left an indelible mark on Petersen’s memory from a fantasy camp. “He would talk your ear off about baseball. He sat up in the stands at the Vero Beach stadium and had a group of four or five of us around telling stories,” he said.

“One of my questions to him was ‘When did the number 17 become yours?’ He never gave me a straight answer on when it defined him. He was more about ‘that was the number given to me. It wasn’t choice. It wasn’t a favorite number. I don’t consider it mine. It’s the Dodgers.’”

Petersen also remembers being at Shea Stadium on April 15, 1997, the night Major League Baseball retired Jackie Robinson’s number 42 in perpetuity. “It was a cluster because (then President Bill) Clinton was there. If you weren’t there three hours before the game, you weren’t getting in, because of security.”

As the group of on-field dignitaries were walking up from the field after the ceremony, Petersen found himself in the right place at the right time. He obtained signatures from Rachel Robinson and George Will on separate baseballs.

As a testament to the human interaction he enjoys so much, Petersen also spends time seeking autographs from retired players, not just Dodgers. It is a pursuit which involves researching addresses, writing personalized letters, and sending baseball cards.

“I enjoy writing to the guys and having them write me back,” he said, relaying a story of the time former Dodger outfielder Wally Moon responded to him complementing his collection and thanking Petersen for sharing it with him.

When the Dodgers’ spring training home was still in Vero Beach, Petersen gave thought to opening a museum to display the collection. “I wanted to have the memorabilia on show and have the cards out there where people could look through them, flip pages, and look at stuff,” he said.

The move to Arizona, along with the expense of owning and operating a museum, has derailed that plan for now, although he would still like to showcase his collection in some fashion for Dodger fans to enjoy.

For now, he is content to continue his quest to get 100 percent and correspond with former players, pursuing autographs. Petersen’s in-person and TTM (through the mail) success rate is impressive as he estimates owning 40,000 autographed non-Dodger cards.

“My friends in high school were all doing it so I joined in and have taken it to new levels,” he laughed.

Nth level, indeed.

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