The Newburyport resident makes his living buying and selling collectibles. As an investor, he’s looking to profit. But he’s sympathetic to the emotional attachment people sometimes have to their keepsakes.
“I don’t want to walk out with all that nostalgia and have them regret it the next day,” said Jason LeBlanc recently. “I understand these collections can be therapeutic.”
His latest purchase could be the one he’s been waiting for to anchor his own therapy. Last month LeBlanc won the bidding at an auction house in Maine to purchase a recently discovered carte de visite — a small photo mounted on cardboard — of the 1865 Brooklyn Atlantics baseball team. It’s one of only two such cards in existence (the other is in the Library of Congress), quite possibly the first-ever baseball cards. After fees, he paid $92,000 for this evocative bit of American history.
“I do believe it could be a million-dollar card one day,” said LeBlanc.
He intends to make the card the centerpiece of his life’s work. By arranging to show the card at major league ballparks and at the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y., LeBlanc hopes to raise funds and awareness for a foundation he is planning in his late wife’s name.
After setting aside his passion for card collecting to go to college, start a consulting business, and get married, LeBlanc instinctively returned to his hobby after enduring a tragedy. His wife, Sarah, died in 2008 a few days after the birth of their son, who was born with a genetic disorder that causes developmental disabilities.
“I didn’t even know how to hold a baby,” LeBlanc recalled. While grieving for his wife, he had to stay at the hospital where she died, nurturing his fragile newborn. “I was lost, and I needed to be strong to save my child.”
Alex, who is now almost 5, has severe developmental disabilities associated with Angelman syndrome: seizures, brittle bones, and digestive problems. Perhaps most cruelly of all, given Sarah’s occupation as a speech-language pathologist, he has a vocabulary of just four or five words.
Alex also has a constant smile and sunny demeanor; it might be the most unusual symptom of his rare condition. “He wakes up like he took happy pills every day,” said LeBlanc, 36, who has devoted his life to Alex’s well-being and — he hopes — to helping other families struggling with the loss of a mother in childbirth.
LeBlanc, who was born in Salem and grew up in Hamilton, moved to Pennsylvania with Sarah when they got married, to be near her family. Months after bringing Alex home from the hospital, he returned to Massachusetts. And without much consideration, he gravitated to his childhood hobby.
“I needed to go back to a place of comfort,” he said. “I did it without thinking . . . it just came naturally. I didn’t think about making a business of it.”
But his knack for evaluating cards came back to him easily. “I knew my stuff at a young age,” he said with a smile. “I wasn’t the easiest negotiator, even at age 9.”
Soon he was selling many of his finds on eBay, where he has become a noted reseller of vintage cards and ephemera. He prefers to deal in “the rarest of the rare,” cards from the 1800s and early 1900s, seeking out one-of-a-kind items from the days when trading cards were associated with tobacco, not chewing gum.
Sifting through some recent arrivals at the kitchen table of his half-empty Newburyport house — LeBlanc and his son are in the process of moving to a new home a few blocks away, where the street will be safer for Alex — he was eager to show off a tiny card from the 1880s depicting a female professional baseball player, identified only as “The Right Fielder.” It is, he said, the only one of its kind known to exist.
Although he does sell more recent superstar cards, they are not his passion. Anyone with the money, he said, can go to eBay and find a Babe Ruth card from the classic 1933 Goudey series, which typically sells for thousands of dollars. But they are not especially rare.
LeBlance also targets non-sports trading cards, such as a 1940 set of Superman cards that is rare for an unusual reason: on the eve of World War II, the manufacturer urged the kids who bought the cards to burn them to save coal for the war effort.
“He doesn’t have any fear,” said Marty Krim of Middleton, a collector who specializes in the esoteric world of non-sports cards. Krim and LeBlanc met at an auction and have since traded cards at Krim’s house.
“He goes after the big stuff,” Krim said. “You can tell he’s a man with a plan.”
LeBlanc, like most other collectors these days, does his primary business online. He recently acquired a life-size cardboard cutout of George Washington, which was displayed for decades in the home office of a North Carolina company that sold chewing tobacco in the first president’s name.
“I haven’t put that up for sale yet,” he said, looking over his shoulder at the likeness in its slim glass case. “I’m kind of liking it right now. There’s a real story to that piece.”
His own story with Alex should help increase the value of the 1865 Brooklyn Atlantics card, he believes. Father and son plan to stay in Newburyport a long time.
“I want him to grow up in the same town where he went to birthday parties when he was 4 and 5. I want a community that will accept him,” LeBlanc said.
And he wants to do what he can to let other young widowers know there is help if they need it.
“There’s nothing I’d rather do,” he said, “than help these dads pick up the pieces.”