BIDDEFORD — Floyd Hartford wasn’t sure exactly what he’d found when he pulled a stack of cards from a trunk of old papers.

The top card showed a dapper gentleman with a handlebar mustache wearing a suit and gazing off into the distance. He was identified only as “Kelly, Capt.” of Boston.

Hartford’s first thought was the man was a boat captain but, knowing what he held was old and possibly valuable, he started to do a little research.

He soon had his answer: The man is Michael “King” Kelly, a charismatic baseball player who was considered the first celebrity pro athlete of his day.

Hartford, an auctioneer and part owner of Saco River Auction, quickly discovered this particular King Kelly card is one of only four known to exist.

The card, found by an antiques picker from Kennebunk who asked the auction house not to identify him, is one of seven Old Judge Cigarette cabinet cards from the 1888 Boston Beaneaters that will be auctioned Wednesday by Saco River Auction. The Boston Beaneaters went on to be known as the Boston Braves and, eventually, the Atlanta Braves. 

The cards are all rare because of their age and condition, but the King Kelly card is especially rare because it shows the catcher and right fielder in his street clothes, a pose that wasn’t popular with baseball fans at the time, Hartford said.

A King Kelly card with the same pose and a lower grade for quality sold for $72,000 in a private sale five years ago.

Hartford said he has no idea how much the card could fetch at the auction, but expects competitive bidding from collectors looking to complete their collections. The auction house will accept bids in person, on the phone and via the Internet. Collectors from as far away as California have already confirmed they will bid by phone, Hartford said, and their enthusiasm could drive up the price.

“(The collectors) are all scrambling because they’re so rare,” said Troy Thibodeau, an auctioneer and manager of Saco River Auction. “This is the Holy Grail.”

Old Judge Cigarette cabinet cards were issued from 1886 to 1890. The cards – larger  and thicker than modern baseball cards – featured baseball players, boxers and people from outside sports. In order to get the cabinet cards, people had to collect 35 proofs of purchase from cigarette packs and mail them to the company. Most of the cards didn’t survive because they were played with and, over the years, yellowed and deteriorated, Thibodeau said.

“They weren’t meant to be valuable,” Hartford said.

This set of cards, which includes the entire infield and pitcher, came from an estate in Kennebunk. The picker brought the trunk of papers to Hartford to see if any of it was valuable. The trunk also contained hunting catalogs, postcards and theater ledgers, all from before 1920.

“This is one of the biggest finds in Maine this year in antiques,” Hartford said. “To find something like this is everyone’s dream.”

Thibodeau, a former police officer and Boston sports fan, researched King Kelly and said it was quickly evident they had found something special.

King Kelly was the first catcher to wear a glove and chest protector, and reportedly once caught a baseball in a glass of beer he was holding on the field – without spilling a drop. He was also known to run directly from first to third base without touching second, Thibodeau said.

Kelly was known as the “$10,000 Man” because that’s the price Boston paid to get him from the Chicago White Stockings in 1886. He was later a vaudeville performer known for occasionally butchering the poem, “Casey at the Bat.” He was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1945.

“I feel fortunate I got to play with these cards. I got to touch them before they were in cases,” Thibodeau said.

Don Hontz, a collector and former owner of Don’s Card Shop in Portland, will be at the auction with hopes of adding a few rare cards to his collection. He thinks the King Kelly card will be sold for between $10,000 and $20,000 –  but he’ll be out of the running if the price goes that high.

“Everyone wants them, but does someone want to pay $10,000 for a King Kelly card? Time will tell,” he said. “It’s a nice little find and it will be exciting to see what happens.”

Hartford and his staff are eagerly anticipating the auction, as excitement builds from collectors across the country.

“You just never know what’s going to happen,” he said.

The auction begins at 5 p.m. Wednesday at Saco River Auction in the North Dam Mill. A preview of auction items will be held from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Wednesday.

Staff Writer Gillian Graham can be contacted at 791-6315 or at:
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Twitter: grahamgillian