by David Seideman
Like millions of American kids, Leonard Witman stayed up well after bedtime listening to games on his transistor radio under his blanket. Unlike most children, however, the game wasn’t baseball. “I grew up in New York City as an avid hockey fan,” says the 72-year-old attorney in Flanders, New Jersey. “I can’t even skate. I rooted for the Rangers. My favorite players were Andy Bathgate and Rod Gilbert. I just love sports, particularly hockey.”
After paying down his house in 1985, Witman took up collecting. Once again, he carved his own path, collecting hockey cards long before they became more mainstream in the US. He began hunting for the players from his childhood before branching out to other eras. By the time he finished, his collection spanned nine decades, from the first hockey card set in 1910 all the way up to the 1990s.
Over the next two years, Robert Edward Auctions will be selling about four dozen of Leonard’s binders from his 37-year quest with complete sets containing some of the hobby’s holiest grails and rarest cards.
In REA’s Fall 2022 Catalog Auction, Witman sold the seldom offered Canadian 1910-1911 C56 Imperial Tobacco hockey complete set of 36 cards with twenty-two Hall of Famers, including Art Ross, Cyclone Taylor, and Newsy Lalonde, for $10,200. This was only the second complete C56 Imperial set REA has offered in 20 years.
In the same auction, he also sold one of the most iconic hockey cards: a 1911 C55 Imperial Tobacco SGC 5 (EX) rookie issue of Hall of Famer Georges Vezina (for whom the Vezina trophy for best goalie is named each year). It commanded $16,200. A near complete set of 1966-1967 Topps hockey ranging in grades from Good to EX-MT fetched $1,980. Witman got a big kick out of the one card REA plucked out of this set to sell individually: an SGC VG-EX 4 Bobby Orr, which changed hands for $3,720.
“It flows back to 1966,” he explains. “He was my hero when I was 15 years old.”
REA’s upcoming Spring Catalog Auction, which opens on April 6, will offer Leonard’s Parkhurst Hockey complete sets from 1957-58, 1958-59, and 1960-61, as well as his near-complete set (103 of 105) from 1951-52. He will also be selling his 1934-45 Bee Hives Corn Syrup photo sets. With cigarette and chewing gum hockey cards appearing sporadically in the 1930s and 1940s, Bee Hives were the only hockey issues for youngsters to collect. Bobby Hull and Gordie Howe both recall repeatedly sending in the labels of corn syrup cans for the photos.
Also coming up for sale is Witman’s personal favorite: the 1966 Topps USA hockey set, which includes the Orr rookie. That year, hockey cards were distributed almost exclusively in Canada with a French translation of the players' bios on the backs’ bottoms. There were also English-only versions from a test set issued in limited quantities in the US. Witman says that only 100 of these test sets were made, including the one he’s consigning.
Yet another striking part of his collection’s story is how he bought each card at a time long before the Internet and auctions, flying up to Toronto for a big hockey show every May and November where dealers come from big cities, little towns, and villages across Canada.
“It quickly became very enjoyable because it’s a community of very nice individuals you’d get to know,” he says. “After a while, I’d hear someone yell, ‘Hey, Lenny. We found something for you in Nova Scotia!’”
Before the dawn of the Internet, he read all the books he could and chatted with dealers to learn about the sport’s humble origins. “Many hockey players were also lacrosse players because no one made a tremendous amount of money,” he says. “The most fascinating thing is the Stanley Cup. They used to throw it in the river and feed horses from it. It was a $50 cup.”
Like the Stanley Cup of those days, there was nothing flashy about the way Witman collected cards one at a time. “It was in the truest sense just a hobby,” he says. “I was enjoying collecting and completing sets. If you’re looking for the pristine 9’s and 10’s, don’t come to me. I have thousands of very old cards which are not in phenomenal condition. I wasn’t interested in increasing the value by grading.”
After decades of attending the Toronto show, Witman finally went to the National Sports Collectors Convention in 2022. “Everything is so outrageously expensive,” he says. “I never anticipated it growing like this.”
Since no one in his family has expressed an interest in his hockey cards, he plans on giving his windfall to his grandchildren to help pay for their college educations. Who knows - maybe the array of offerings from his collection will form the origin story for another collector to share fifty years from now.
This story initially ran on Sports Collectors Daily: https://www.sportscollectorsdaily.com/leonard-witman-hockey-card-collection/