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Card Collectors

November 12, 2021

My little brother Kenny loved sports. He knew more about Detroit sports teams and its athletes than almost any adult. Kenny kept track of the sports statistics of almost every player from the Detroit Tigers, Lions, Red Wings, and Pistons, along with his favorite college teams, MSU and U of M. He preferred MSU over U of M because he was able to witness an actual championship, the only one of his life, since he was born a few months after the Tigers miraculously won the 1968 World Series Championship. He relished the joys of watching Magic Johnson and Greg Kelser leading MSU (where his sister Leslie went to college) to a 1979 national championship, soundly defeating the great Larry Bird. Both Magic and Bird were drafted that same year and signed with the LA Lakers and Boston Celtics, continuing an intense rivalry that spanned 15 years.

My brother didn’t just love sports. He was also a card collector which involved buying and trading hundreds of cards with his friends. He collected thousands of them, including Mickey Mantle, Kirk Gibson, Gordie Howe, and the fabulous hockey rookie, Wayne Gretzky. My family knew that Kenny loved to trade cards but didn’t know how valuable and extensive his collection would become.

Kenny loved sports so much and fittingly spent the last day of his life with my father at a Detroit Tigers game, watching Detroit beat Chicago in a 1-0 nail-biter on July 20, 1982. After the game, on the drive home, another car sideswiped my dad’s Chevy Citation on 11 Mile Road and Inkster, a half-mile from their Farmington Hills home. I was called by a policeman to come as fast as I could to Botsford Hospital on Grand River where my mom, my aunt, cousins, and I waited, so scared we could hardly talk (my sister Leslie was in Europe with her symphony and didn’t find out for another day) In the hospital, we learned that my dad survived the deadly accident but his youngest son did not. Kenny was pronounced dead after midnight and I had to go into my dad’s hospital room to give him the devastating news that his son, my little brother, was gone.

Kenny’s bedroom was a treasure trove of sports posters as well as boxes of baseball, football, hockey, and basketball cards. My mom and dad could barely touch his room for years and kept all of his cards, preserving a small part of Kenny’s memory. They hoped that one day, my sister Leslie and I would have kids and eventually pass the cards down to our kids or grandkids, sell them, or keep them as souvenirs of a time when sports were thrilling to, among others, a little 13-year-old boy.

My parents gave all of the boxes of cards to my wife, Judy, and me, to store them and eventually do something with them. These boxes survived two basement floods and many clean-ups, including a clean-up in 2019, when Judy organized all of Kenny’s cards. She had heard that Mike Silverstein, who had dated Judy’s sister, Nancy, many years earlier and still kept in touch with the family, was a knowledgeable card collector and could help direct us. When Judy’s brother, Joel, another great sports fan of Detroit sports, died in the same year of a heart attack, Mike came to the funeral.

We realized then that we would eventually contact Mike about Kenny’s cards. When Covid 19 reached the U.S, bringing fear, lockdowns, and extra time for many to clean up, wade through, and organize extra stuff. Judy and I thought: why not now? So I contacted Mike on Facebook Messenger on July 16, 2020, almost 38 years after Kenny’s death, “Mike, I don’t know if you remember me. My sister-in-law, Nancy Frank, says that you know a lot about baseball cards and she was going to contact you. We have thousands of baseball and other sports cards in our basement that my brother, Kenny, collected before he died in 1982. I know many were worth a lot then and probably more now. We are looking for a card dealer who could value these and sell them. We are willing to pay a pretty good commission on them because they aren’t doing us any good and our son isn’t interested. Are you? Let me know. Thank you.” Mike wrote back within minutes, “Of course I remember you!! Hope all is well. I appraise collections all the time!! What is a good time to take a look at the cards?”

Mike came over that night, spent about two hours thumbing through the cards, and took some boxes home, letting us know he would get back to us soon. We told him that we weren’t in a rush since we had had the cards for decades and had done nothing with them. He seemed to know which cards had sales potential and which ones didn’t. While watching Mike for a brief time, we felt his passion for sports and cards and were pleased with the way he honored my brother’s collection. Kenny’s collection of cards was my brother’s long-lost treasure and Mike treated the cards as if they were his own.

About a week later, Mike showed us which cards had the highest potential value and explained how cards were scored. He admitted that Kenny had a lot of valuable cards but that it wasn’t simply the athletes, statistics, or rareness that made them valuable. It was whether each card was near perfect or not. They could be scored from 1-10 based on centering, corners, edges, and their surfaces. We later learned that Kenny’s Gretzky rookie card (stored in a plastic case) had recently sold for $3.75 million and so we were excited what his card could possibly fetch. But Mike said that realistically (as he looked at this card in depth,) it was probably around a 3.

We told our son, Kyle, about it and he asked if he could send it to the ultimate grading facility, PSA, with a payment of $225. In a few weeks, it turned out that Mike was right. Kenny’s Gretzky card was graded a 3 and Mike said that the market at the time for his card was somewhere between $1200-$2400. There hadn’t been much excitement for sports during the last year of Covid because most arenas and stadiums didn’t let people in to watch games live. So without fans and their loud cheers, many people lost interest. Mike suggested that the Gretzky card would probably get more after hockey season in 2021 started. So we agreed to wait a few months, let Mike take Kenny’s cards to card conventions where he could draw a lot of interest with the Gretzky card and a few other top cards.  He asked us if he should take a good offer on the Gretzky card or instead wait for hockey season in 2021 when the price of trading cards could rise. We told him that he could wait. We were not in a hurry.

 Mike had told us that he had had kidney cancer and took medication and went into remission. We also learned a few months later that he had a serious case of Covid before the vaccines were offered. Yet, Mike’s attitude was positive and nothing seemed to stop him. On Father’s Day, his daughter, Jenna, wrote on her dad’s Facebook page, “Happy Father’s Day Dad! Can’t wait to go to Michigan State games with you again soon.”

We simply waited to contact Mike again, understanding that he would let us know how Kenny’s cards were selling or if we should wait a few months to sell. We didn’t give it much thought, until the last week of October, 2021, when we heard our rabbi on Zoom services recite a healing prayer and include “Michael Silverstein and his family.” Judy and I were worried and so I sent Mike a message on Facebook Messenger. No response. I checked again a few hours later and then I got a ping on my phone and then read, “This is Mike’s daughter, unfortunately he is not doing well and we have to take him off life support tomorrow.” I responded to her that we were stunned and saddened and would pray for him.

Prayers didn’t help. Mike had gotten sick at home ten days earlier. He said he didn’t feel good and after two days, was admitted to Henry Ford Hospital. He had also had a cardiac arrest, we learned, and according to his friend, Steve, who visited him in the hospital, Mike was mostly unresponsive in his bed.

So we waited with dread and heartbreak, realizing that Mike would probably not be able to watch Saturday’s rivalry game between the Michigan Wolverines and his beloved MSU Spartans, both undefeated and in the top ten. I thought back to Mike’s Facebook page when his daughter Jenna said she couldn’t wait to see MSU games with her dad and felt sad that they wouldn’t be able to see any more games together.

We forgot about Mike for a few hours when we watched the football game between the two undefeated Michigan schools on Saturday afternoon. My wife Judy and son-in-law Jonathon, both U of M grads, rooted for the Wolverines, and our daughter, Ilana, an MSU grad, and our two granddaughters, Talia and Shira, wore Spartan shirts. Michigan had a commanding lead but MSU made a valiant comeback in the 4th Quarter, taking the lead and the victory. Judy and Jonathon were upset, Ilana was thrilled, and I was disappointed since I was rooting for Michigan.

Everything changed later in the day when we read on Facebook that Mike died. His daughter Jenna wrote, “Today I got to watch one last Michigan State win with my dad. Right after the game he grew his beautiful angel wings and passed away. He will always be my hero. I love you most dad! Keep those MSU wins coming 💚💚” His wife, Suzie, later wrote, “My heart is broken 💔My wonderful husband is at peace today. I will love you and miss you forever. I was so honored to be able to watch MSU beat U of M with you yesterday! RIP baby! I love you most!”

The next day, his other daughter, Kayli, wrote, “Yesterday evening my world was turned upside down. Trying to think of the words to say is impossible. This world lost an incredible human being and I lost my best friend, my dad. My dad is no longer in pain and can finally rest peacefully. Thank you dad for being the most amazing father to me and Jenna Silverstein and an incredible husband to Suzy Smith-Silverstein. You are our everything. We love you, we love you, we love you. May his memory be a blessing. Rest peacefully Dad.”

I stopped caring about the Michigan Wolverines, Kenny’s cards, how much the cards were worth, or anything else after I heard the news of Mike’s passing. I read about what Mike meant to others, how devoted he was to his family, how much joy he brought to everyone around him. He was unselfish, kind, a true mensch. When Judy and I watched the funeral service on Zoom, we weren’t surprised at the inspiration others felt from Mike’s life. Like Kenny, he bought and sold baseball cards as a young boy and became an entrepreneur, selling tickets for concerts, music events, and sports. He didn’t just sell tickets, Mike told them. Instead, he sold “memories.”

Mike owned two sports memorabilia stores in Grand Rapids and Monroe and even after those closed, he still bought and sold sports cards. He had an incredible memory and was “one question away from being on Jeopardy.” He loved the hustle and bustle of life and even though he was struck by cancer too early in his life, he never stopped living. He was a very hard worker and devoted to making people happy. I was struck by a story when he drove four hours with his nephew Riley to deliver 2 Jonas Brothers tickets to a customer. He made $12 on the tickets but he didn’t care about the time and his gas money. He just wanted people to be happy.

I can only imagine what my brother might have been if he had lived and realized that he might have followed the same path as Mike because they were similar. He would have still been a lover of sports, probably a smart businessman as an adult, a passionate entrepreneur, still buying and selling sports cards, and quite possibly starting a wonderful family like Mike. But all this is conjecture and pointless to imagine. But it doesn’t stop me from dreaming that Mike will get to meet Kenny on the other side. I picture them together, talking about baseball cards, Magic Johnson, Detroit sports, MSU football games, and rock bands.

I didn’t care that Michigan lost a football game. I cared more that Mike was able to watch one more MSU game with his family and that his last memory was an incredible come-from-behind win that he shared with his whole family. He passed away at the end of the MSU press conference, which is stunning in itself. It might just be the ultimate way to finish life, to be able to do what you love, with your loved ones right by your side.

Even though Mike died too young at 59 years of age, I can only hope Kenny and Mike are able to see us still, watching us from above, watching all the sports games that they can now see on their own big-screen view of the world.  

Mike told his family that what he wanted to be written on his gravestone was “A Front Row Ticket to Life.” I pray that Mike and my brother are able to get actual front row tickets to whatever they want to see, whenever they want to see…sports games, our daily lives, anything we can imagine. Anything.

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One Comment
  1. Judith Morton Brown (Judie) permalink

    Thank you for sharing this story about 2 very special people. Yhank God for giving us the ability of rememorance so that people who are so special to us will live in our minds and hearts.

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