Joe Ruocco began collecting baseball cards in 1954. He’s never stopped.
"I followed the Yankees, and I wanted to try to get as many Yankees as I possibly could," said Ruocco, now 73 and still a Yankees fan.
He has run Rock’s Dugout since 1977, and it is jammed with baseball cards and sports memorabilia. And stories — Ruocco has hundreds of them, all of them seasoned with his native Bronx accent, even though he has spent much of his life in Kansas.
He traveled to Dodge City to attend college at St. Mary of the Plains, earning an education degree. Ruocco was an elementary school teacher for 31 years in Wichita’s public schools.
He opened Rock’s Dugout in Rose Bowl East in 1977. When the bowling alley closed in 2003, he moved to Northrock Lanes.
The store has cards, autographed baseballs, photos, programs and a little of everything else. It’s a bit like poking around in someone’s attic, searching for an interesting treasure.
The constant rumble of falling bowling pins only adds to the store’s charm.
Rock’s Dugout is open five days a week, and Ruocco works there with his wife, Cathy. Despite his age, Ruocco says he has no plans to retire.
"I want to keep going for as long as my health could do it," he said. "I enjoy being in the shop every day."
Ruocco talked with Tom Shine and The Range about collecting cards, a customer’s garage sale treasure and the Chiefs winning the Super Bowl.
The interview was edited for length and clarity.
You started collecting cards in 1954, when you were seven. Who collects baseball cards now?
I did get my first cards in 1954 in my great-uncle’s candy store in Brooklyn. I would get cards and my brother would get an ice cream sundae. Well, I was always impressed with these cards. I followed the Yankees, and I wanted to try to get as many Yankees as I possibly could.
But I remember in 1956, I saw a grown man buy a whole box of cards. Now, there were 24 packs in a box and a nickel a pack. I said, 'Man, I hope someday I could afford to spend $1.20 to buy whole box of cards.' Little did I know I'd be selling boxes of cards that are as high as $1,500.
Most of my customers nowadays are adult men, [and they’re buying cards] probably to go back in their childhood to continue their collection when they were a child. And a lot of times they could afford now to get to the cards that they always wanted.
You said one thing you like about this business is you never know what's going to come through the door. And then one day a guy came through the door with a ball he bought at a garage sale. Tell me that story.
Back in 2004, a man come in with a brown bag of baseballs. There were three baseballs in the bag. And he takes one of them out and there was the most gorgeous Babe Ruth baseball. I look at it; it's in pristine condition. I said, 'Well, where'd you get this?' And he said, 'Well, we just came from a garage sale on the west side of Wichita. I asked the lady how much are the baseballs. And she said, "How many are in the bag?" 'Three.' "Give me three bucks."
So the guy paid a dollar a ball. And inside this bag was this Babe Ruth baseball, an autograph Dixie Walker baseball and an unused ball from the 1920s. It was hard to believe how beautiful this ball was.
So we sent it off; it comes back guaranteed authentic. And I told him I would offer him $25,000 for the ball. So the guy took it. So I then took the ball, put it on a national auction, and I got $30,590. I wish I had that baseball back because I think that baseball now would be worth over $100,000.
Tell the story about when you were dating your wife and her coming over.
I used to have a condo, and over the mantelpiece was a beautiful lithograph of [Yankees Hall of Famer] Mickey Mantle. And she says, 'Hmm, you have a picture of someone over the mantelpiece. Is he a relative of yours?'
I go, 'No.'
And she says, 'Well, why do you have it in your living room?'
I go, 'Because I like Mickey Mantle, and it was a great photo.'
And she goes, 'Hmm.'
Well, needless to say, that Mickey Mantle did not last very long in the living room.
You told me … that the Chiefs winning the Super Bowl has been good for business.
People love autographed jerseys. People love autographed full-size helmets and minihelmets, and we normally cater to cardboard and cards. But with the Chiefs winning, we had to diversify, and we went into some of the novelty items for the Chiefs, and also these autograph items of the helmets and the jerseys. It was a real boom for us with the Chiefs winning.
I mean, the Chiefs, if they win another Super Bowl, could possibly be America's team in football, not the Dallas Cowboys.
Is there anything unique about doing this business in Wichita versus any other city?
Wichita is the city for vintage baseball. Wichita had the Jobbers back in the late 1909 time period. And they had the history of people following minor league ball here in Wichita. A lot of major league teams played here in Wichita in exhibition games. There’s a true love of baseball here in Wichita.
Is there one item that you've come across in your business … that you’d just love to own that you don't own now?
Besides the Babe Ruth baseball? Mmm, I would say a complete set of 1953 Bowman baseball cards. I traded it back in 1982 for a grandfather clock. I still have the grandfather clock, but it doesn't work, and I wish I had those ’53 Bowman baseball cards because they were beautiful and perfectly mint cards. Yeah, I made mistakes in my day.