Dr. Nicholas DePace calls it a "Christmas Miracle." That's how he describes his decision to spend $220,000 on "The Holy Grail" of baseball cards after another collector reneged on a Texas auction-house bid.
The Haddonfield cardiologist was among the original bidders for the 100-year-old Honus Wagner card that was willed to a Baltimore order of nuns. They were selling it to raise money for overseas relief work. DePace stepped in on Dec. 20 when a Tennessee man who owns a chain of sports-card stores backed out.
He said he did it because he is a good Catholic and wanted to help out the nuns.
"We couldn't let them have a bad Christmas," said DePace. "They would have gotten the card back without the money. That would have been a disaster around the holidays. They knew I was Catholic. They hit me with my weak point. I said, 'We can't let them have a bad Christmas.'"
But wait…there's more.
DePace plans to use the Wagner card as the center piece of a new sports memorabilia museum in Collingswood. He has what has been described as "one of the great collections in the country, probably the world," according to an expert quoted in an article last week in the Philadelphia Inquirer.
His collection includes artifacts such as game-worn apparel from sports greats like boxers Joe Frazier and Muhammad Ali, including Frazier's robe and trunks worn to a weigh-in before his title fight with Ali in 1971. Frazier is a patient of DePace's and a friend, the doctor said.
Other items in the collection include apparel from Babe Ruth, Ty Cobb, Roberto Clemente, Jackie Robinson and Joe DiMaggio. DePace even has DiMaggio's marriage license to Marilyn Monroe, their passport pictures and divorce decree, he said.
His collection crosses sports, decades and eras, including items from Michael Jordan, Bill Russell and Larry Bird; Jim Brown, Joe Namath and Peyton Manning; soccer greats Pele and David Beckham; and the blanket from Seabiscuit, the prize-winning horse. He said he has thousands of items, all with a story and some significance to some sports fan somewhere.
DePace, 57, said his passion for collecting started in 1962 when he was 8 years old after attending a homerun derby between Yankee greats Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris.
DePace said his lithograph card of Wagner, one of the original inductees in the Baseball Hall of Fame, is in relatively poor condition. The same card in mint-condition has sold for $2.8 million. The card became rare when Wagner, a shortstop for the Pittsburgh Pirates, had it removed from cigarette packs it was distributed in between 1909 and 1911 after a dispute. Only about 60 of the cards remain, according to published reports. The card DePace bought belonged to the brother of a deceased nun who had kept it in a safe-deposit box since 1936, he said.
DePace now plans to house the card and the rest of his collection in a former bank in the 700 block of Haddon Avenue in Collingswood, next to the borough library. He said the vault safe that remains in the building will help safeguard his collection which is secured in storage now. DePace also plans to locate one of this three cardiologist offices in his practice on the second floor of the 9,000-square-foot building. He expects the building to ready and the museum opened within the next six months.
He thinks the collection will help put Collingswood on the map.
"It's an all-American town," he said.
Predictably, his decision to bring his all-star collection to Collingswood is a hit with Mayor Jim Maley.
"We couldn't be more delighted," Maley said Thursday evening. "We're thrilled to death. It sounds like a great use for this wonderful old building."