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How 7 rare Ty Cobb baseball cards worth $1 million were rescued from the ‘trash’

This undated photo provided by Professional Sports Authenticator shows one of seven Ty Cobb baseball cards, a baseball-card find of a lifetime, that were found in a crumpled paper bag in a dilapidated house. (Professional Sports Authenticator via AP)

For more than a century they lay hidden in a rural Southern town, on the floor of an abandoned home, at the very bottom of a torn and rumpled paper bag. Face down, as if they needed to be any more inconspicuous.

They might have stayed hidden — or worse, wound up in the trash — if the great-grandchildren of their original owners hadn’t been searching their relatives’ house last month. Someone found the bag and, before throwing it out, thought to rifle through the papers, old postcards and assorted family artifacts inside.

That’s when they saw them: Seven small, identical, rectangular cards, yellowed with age but still bearing some of their original gloss. On the front was a drawing of a stoic-looking young man in a button-up shirt emblazoned with an elaborate “D.” On the back were the words: “Ty Cobb — King of the Smoking Tobacco World.”

The family didn’t know anything about baseball, but the name Ty Cobb did ring a bell. Wasn’t he a baseball player? And come to think of it, hadn’t they seen a story about old baseball cards on that TV show “Strange Inheritance” last year? A family had found a bunch of cards in their grandfather’s closet and gotten a lot of money for them.

Maybe these cards were worth something, someone suggested.

They were right.

The “Lucky Seven Find,” as it’s been dubbed by the baseball card-collecting world, stands as “one of the greatest discoveries in the history of our hobby,” Professional Sports Authenticator (PSA) president Joe Orlando said at his announcement of the discovery Wednesday, according to the Associated Press. He called the find “miraculous.”

Orlando, a professional sports memorabilia authenticator who verified the “Lucky Seven Find,” recounted the entire discovery in a post on the PSA website Wednesday. He said their value is “well into seven figures.”

There are just 22 of those cards in existence — 15 previously known to collectors, plus the seven discovered by the Southern family (who have asked to remain unnamed). They were printed between 1909 and 1911, when the swashbuckling Detroit Tigers slugger was heading into the prime of his career, and sold with packages of tobacco as part of a lot called the T206. That lot is now one of the most prized in collecting, and it includes the legendary “T206 Honus Wagner,” a card that has sold for upward of $2 million.

Each of these particular “T206 Ty Cobb” cards is worth at least $150,000, putting the full value of the find somewhere over $1 million, Orlando said. They’re also incredibly well-preserved. On the 1 to 10 scale used to measure baseball card quality (10 being mint condition), the cards range from 3.5 to 4.5. That’s almost unheard of for cards that are more than 100 years old.

And then there’s the sheer serendipity of it all: A stash of extremely rare cards printed as long ago as 1909 and sold in only limited quantities lasts for so long, unnoticed, and more importantly, undamaged, only to be saved by a family who knew just enough about baseball to have a hunch they might be valuable.

“Finding one of these cards is news,” Orlando tweeted. “Finding seven in one shot is ridiculous.”

After finding the cards, Orlando says, the family reached out to Rick Snyder, an authenticator in South Carolina. They sent him some pictures of the cards, which were so rare and so pristine that alarm bells immediately went off. They couldn’t possibly be real, Snyder thought.

So he emailed the images to Orlando.

“I had the same reaction Rick did upon seeing the images,” Orlando wrote. And yet, the cards didn’t show any of the telltale signs of forgery. Snyder had set up an in-person meeting with the family — and their cards — so Orlando waited with cautious interest for his colleague to report back.

When Snyder finally called, he could barely contain his enthusiasm.

“I could tell, from the tone of his voice, that he was genuinely excited by the prospect in front of him,” Orlando wrote. “As unlikely as this could possibly be, Rick was convinced the cards were the real deal.”

Orlando’s company surveys thousands of pieces of memorabilia a day, millions every year. He’s seen some of the best, rarest baseball artifacts ever collected — immaculate Micky Mantle cards and Babe Ruth autographs.

But still, the Lucky Seven was extraordinary. Looking at the cards “made me feel like a kid again,” he said.

After, he, his co-workers and an outside expert looked the cards over, Orlando finally felt comfortable declaring them real.

“This is what the hobby is all about, he wrote. “Even though we live in the information age, the Internet age, undiscovered treasure is still buried out there.”