By Sonya Vartabedian
---- — NEWBURYPORT — Today, 4 1/2-year-old Alex LeBlanc is the owner of what may be the first dated baseball card in history — a rare 1865 mounted photograph of the Brooklyn Atlantics amateur baseball club.
And he’ll probably never know the significance of it.
But his father, Jason LeBlanc, who paid $92,000 for the historic card at a Maine auction Wednesday night, is hoping the prized collectible will pay major dividends on his son’s future.
And along the way, it may also serve as an opportunity to create a legacy for his late wife who never had the chance to meet her son.
Sarah LeBlanc died in 2008 while giving birth to Alex, who was born with chromosomal deficiencies resulting in multiple developmental defects. The young couple had been married just three years.
Now, Jason LeBlanc has been left to raise his son with the help of support services and the determination to provide Alex the best life possible.
“Alex is my world,” LeBlanc said. “We have a father-son connection unlike anything you’ve ever seen before. When his mom, my wife, passed away, it was just Alex and I, and he and I kept each other going. We were definitely each other’s life source.”
LeBlanc, a professional trading card investor, started collecting baseball cards as a kid, spending the money he earned on his newspaper route to grow his collection. His family didn’t have a lot of money, he said, and he wasn’t able to go to a lot of baseball games. But he could experience America’s pastime through the packs of cards.
As an adult, he turned his boyhood hobby into an investment business, buying, selling and swapping all kinds of trading cards through an eBay site online. But the Atlantics card is by far the most historic item he’s ever sought to own.
“To be able to own the first baseball card that’s ever been known to exist outside of the Library of Congress was a once-in-a-lifetime-opportunity,” he said.
LeBlanc learned the Brooklyn Atlantics card was coming up for auction a couple months ago. A Maine man had discovered the card inside an old photo album he picked up while antiquing near the Canadian border. He bought the album along with some old Coca-Cola bottles and a couple oak chairs for less than $100 combined.
The card, which dates to the Civil War era, features an original team photo of the Atlantics, one of the first teams known to invent America’s sport of baseball.
LeBlanc said a similar Atlantics card is in the collection at the Library of Congress. While both cards depict a team photo of the Atlantics taken the same day, with the same camera, the shots on them are from two different negatives. And it’s unclear which photo on the two cards was taken first.
The Saco River Auction Co., which handled the sale, expected the card could fetch anywhere from $50,000 to $500,000. LeBlanc set an $80,000 limit on what he would spend. Bidding opened at $10,000 and quickly rose — with LeBlanc battling a phone bidder at the end before putting in the winning offer of $80,000. With the 18 percent required premium, the final price tag was $92,000.
“If the bidding had gone one penny higher, I was out,” LeBlanc said.
He’s since been told the phone bidder was an agent for actor Charlie Sheen.
LeBlanc admits that some people will think he’s crazy to spend $92,000 on a baseball card. But the Bentley University graduate with a background in finances believes trading cards — particularly one of such historical significance — is a better investment than most these days.
“Right now the card market is soaring,” he said. “I find much more security in having the world’s first baseball card. This is America’s game. Abraham Lincoln is said to have gone to see the Brooklyn Atlantics play baseball. The history of the sport all comes from those roots of the Brooklyn Atlantics.”
LeBlanc believes the card is worth considerably more than he paid for it and is confident that at some point — now, a year or several years in the future — he will sell it and use the money to better Alex’s life and the lives of other children.
“I do believe that someone will call, someone will want this,” he said. “There’s so much nostalgia behind it. This is the birth of the game.”
Alex, who attends the special needs program at Brown School in Newburyport, battles something similar to Angelman’s syndrome. He’s developmentally delayed, is able to speak just a handful of words and relies on a feeding tube to eat. He has trouble walking, with his muscles unable to support his bone structure, often resulting in fractures and breaks. He’s also battled a seizure disorder, which had been life-threatening for a time, but has been brought under control with the assistance of medications.
“There have been a lot of scares in life when I thought I was going to lose the last of everything in my life,” LeBlanc said. “His ability to make anyone smile is like nothing else in life. He’s a tremendous gift. I’m blessed in a lot of ways. Alex is truly an angel.”
LeBlanc’s dream is to start a foundation, perhaps named Sarah’s Kids, in his wife’s memory to help provide medical care and support to other children facing life challenges. It would be fitting, LeBlanc says, given his wife was a speech therapist who worked with autistic children.
For now, the card will be kept in a security box. LeBlanc is considering possibly loaning it to the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y., to maybe the Yankees to put on display for others to see. At first, he thought he’d be selfish and hide the card away, simply to sell one day. But he decided he didn’t want to keep it or Alex’s story hidden.
“We’ve had a lot of hardships in life. We’re very fortunate at the same time,” LeBlanc said. “I want people to hear our hardship and hear our story that life can be difficult and a lot of good can come from it.”