Card collectors can be very focused. Some seek only the rookie cards of certain players, while others go after every card ever issued of a particular player. Others might hunt down special game-worn inserts or autographed cards featuring their favorite player(s). And there are some who still try to collect complete sets. The pursuit is up to the individual collector and is usually dictated by his or her passion behind the chase, and the depth of their finances. In honor of Black History Month, we look at a PSA Set Registry member who has a collecting style he’d like to share.
Al Jurgela is a 50-year-old businessman who lives in South Carolina and has a specific interest in trading cards. Starting in the 1980s – following an unforgettable encounter with some former Negro League players who were attending an Anaheim-area card show – the southern California native has been on a mission to find cards featuring Negro League stars. He believes their recognition is long overdue and that their feats on the baseball diamond deserve more attention.
Jurgela is not alone. In 2021, Major League Baseball and, more specifically, www.baseball-reference.com, started adding Negro League statistics to its overall player compilations. But when it comes to finding original Negro League cards that were issued during its active years (1909 to largely the late 1940s), the supply is scarce to say the least.
“It’s certainly a small community of collectors who have knowledge of this segment, but there are a number of serious collectors who seek out Negro League cards,” said Jurgela. “For instance, there are big-time collectors who enter the space because they are trying to fill out a Hall of Fame set, and they need a number of Negro League cards to do so.
“Keep in mind, though, that virtually every card of any Negro League player is probably scarcer than the [1910-11] T206 Honus Wagner. Most populations in all third-party grading pop report [listings] show the total number of recorded entries is often less than 10 copies each. “
Enter Lou Dials
The impromptu meeting he had 40 years ago was highlighted by an inspiring conversation he shared with Lou Dials, a former Negro League outfielder who played from 1927 to 1933. His baseball resume reflects a .264 career batting average, 134 hits and 72 runs batted in, and included playing stints with nine different teams including the Chicago American Giants, Birmingham Barons, Memphis Red Sox, Detroit Stars, Homestead Grays, Akron Grays, and the Cleveland Giants. Dials passed away in 1994 at the age of 90.
“I think the card show was in Buena Park [CA],” recalled Jurgela. “It was a small venue, and Lou just spent some time talking to me, a 10-year-old kid with ten dollars in my pocket. The passion he shared about his experiences was infectious. All those guys [former Negro Leaguers] were amazing to listen to. There must have been 12 or 13 former Negro Leaguers at the show.”
Initially, Jurgela began collecting “modern reprints” (as he called them), cards that were manufactured decades after the Negro Leagues disbanded. But as he researched the subject further, he learned about cards that were issued throughout Latin America of Negro League players during their playing careers. Many of the players participated in barnstorming games to earn extra income and many times they played full seasons outside the country including including in the Cuban, Venezuelan, Puerto Rican and the Dominican Republic leagues. The pay and the treatment of the players was often better abroad than at home.
“I started learning more and more about the segment and really got rolling on my collection about 15 years ago, when I finally had some disposable income,” he said.
Set Registry Involvement
Today, Jurgela’ s personal collection includes more than 100 Negro League legends from yesteryear including pitching great Satchel Paige, catcher/slugger Josh Gibson, hot-hitting shortstop John Henry “Pop” Lloyd and Oscar Charleston, a centerfielder with a lifetime .364 batting average. Jurgela is proud of his collecting exploits and considers himself a bit of a baseball historian.
“Obviously, the fact that the Negro Leagues had to exist was a tragedy in itself and a stain on our country’s history,” he said. “The leagues and the players themselves were amazing and worthy of recognition. I kind of feel like I’ve been on a mission to make sure they are not forgotten. “
Toward that end, during the pandemic, Jurgela started using the PSA Set Registry. He continues to enjoy the online card archival experience by sharing his knowledge – and rare cards – with fellow collectors.
“I’ve found it to be fun and very helpful,” he said. “Many of my cards were previously in SGC holders so I crossed them over to PSA and now I have many of the key sets in the Registry.”
Last month, in fact, Jurgela entered the Set Registry’s “My Top 10” contest with 10 Negro League cards he wanted to showcase.
“It was really hard to pick just 10 because I wanted to show a diversity of both the issues [releases] and the players,” he said. “While many of the cards are valuable, that was not my driving force. I mostly wanted to help people learn what’s out there in terms of great players and different issues.
“For example, I decided to include a card of the late Buck O’Neil who is a recent  inductee into the Baseball Hall of Fame. He did not have a legendary playing career in the Negro Leagues, but he had such an impact on keeping the history of the Negro Leagues alive after his career was over that he just seemed like a great choice.”
A total of 37 former Negro League players and executives are now enshrined in Cooperstown. Paige was the first (1971), while Gibson was inducted posthumously a year later along with first baseman Buck Leonard. Monte Irvin, a durable outfielder whose career spanned both the Negro Leagues and the majors, followed in 1973.
Asked to select the top three players from his My Top 10 lineup, Jurgela wrestled with his response.
“I feel terrible about cutting it down to just three players, but I’m going to say Oscar Charleston, Pop Lloyd and Josh Gibson. In my opinion, all three of them were probably the best at their respective positions in all of baseball history – and that’s saying something.”