The doctor, the nuns, and the baseball player

Just as it has done so many other times, the game of baseball brought people together on Monday, Dec. 20.

A baseball legend, with a .328 career batting average and one of the five original inductees into the Baseball Hall of Fame. A South Jersey cardiologist, who has also been an avid sports memorabilia collector for the past 30 years. And an international Roman Catholic women’s religious community, who can now better provide for the poor, in the schools and ministries they run in 35 countries.

Earlier this year, the Atlantic-Midwest province of the School Sisters of Notre Dame learned that they had inherited a rare baseball card of Honus Wagner, from the brother of a deceased nun, after he died.

The card was found in a safe deposit box, with a note that said, “Although damaged, this card will be exponentially valuable in the 21st century.”

The Wagner card, produced between 1909 and 1911 as part of the T206 series, is perhaps the most sought-after baseball card in history. With only 60 to ever have been made, the sisters knew that they had a treasure — one of the Wagner cards in near-perfect condition sold in 2007 for $2.8 million, the highest price ever for a baseball card. The sisters’ card, although in poor condition, was graded authentic.

Honus Wagner, known as “The Flying Dutchman,” played for 21 seasons, 18 of them with the Pittsburgh Pirates.

Produced by the American Tobacco Company, the Wagner card stopped production shortly after it began. Most sports historians believe that either Wagner was upset about his image being used to promote tobacco products, or that the star shortstop believed he wasn’t being paid enough.

In early November, the sisters put the card up for auction. The initial winning bidder never paid up, so Dr. Nicholas DePace, a cardiologist who works in South Jersey and Philadelphia, and a longtime collector of sports memorabilia, was given the opportunity to bid, via a call from Heritage Auctions house, of which he is a client.

On Monday, Dec. 20, Dr. DePace bought the card for $220,000.

Dr. DePace, a resident of Haddonfield and parishioner at Christ the King Church, felt it was important to help the nuns and their work.

Noting that people in his office have started calling the baseball card the “St. Jude Miracle Wagner,” Dr. Depace knows that not only is it good to be able to help the sisters, but to also be able to, now, share his card with other sports fans like him, with a non-profit sports collectibles museum, in Collingswood, currently in the works.

His vast memorabilia collection includes items from such pro sports greats as baseball players Richie Ashburn and Babe Ruth, basketball player Wilt Chamberlain, hockey player Wayne Gretzky and boxer Jack Dempsey.

“People have to start giving back,” he added, talking partly about the mentalities of some professional athletes who desire only to earn more money for themselves, without helping others.

Sister Kathleen Cornell, provincial leader of the Atlantic-Midwest province, says that the donated card was “a tangible sign of the goodness of people to us.”

“We are grateful to benefactors like the one who gave us this Honus Wagner card because such generosity enables us to continue our ministries,” she said, noting that the money received will support the congregation’s educational ministries in North America, and the work of the sisters in Latin America and Africa.

When asked if she thought there was divine intervention at play with the card, Sister Virginia Muller, former treasurer of the Midwest-Atlantic province and personal representative of the donor’s estate, believed so.

“It’s certainly more than luck,” she said. “We believe we are about God’s ministry — God’s work — and so we know it’s a gift of heaven.”

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