Baseball cards in the attic -- that's it! Our budget problems may be solved.
I don't have to tell you that government budgets are in sorry shape. Be they state, local or federal, most government bean counters face ticking pension time bombs, crumbling infrastructure and, here in Pennsylvania, an ancient quilt of political divisions designed exactly wrong for a 21st century commuter economy.
None of that seems to matter now. Some guy in Defiance, Ohio, just found a green cardboard box in his dead grandfather's attic that was filled with century-old baseball cards. The near-mint condition cards, which were distributed with caramel candy in 1908, are said to be worth $3 million or more today.
The grandson is so happy he's not even upset that Grandpa didn't share any of his caramel candy.
Journalists will write up baseball card finds whenever they happen because we know they give every man-child among us the chance to blame his mother again for throwing his cards away. It's oddly comforting to imagine you'd be rich if only your mother had left your old room alone. My own collection included a black-and-white card titled "Manager's Dream'' that had Mickey Mantle and Willie Mays posing together. I don't know what happened to it, but my mother's alibis seemed shaky.
Nobody's ever stumbled upon cards as potentially valuable as the ones in Ohio, mind you. Experts have no doubt that rich baseball nuts will pay top dollar for them. We live in a country where grown men buy other men's sweaty clothes to frame and hang in their homes and offices because they're "game-worn jerseys.''
I just returned from an overseas trip on which, between bad movies, I briefly watched a minidocumentary about a Long Island memorabilia dealer selling a box of the Los Angeles Lakers' stinky, signed sneakers. Thus we had the first time anybody had reason to yell "foul'' more than 20 years after play ended.
So what does all that have to do with governmental budget woes?
Governments have plenty of junk stuffed away. Most of it you wouldn't want; Congress-thumbed capital budgets probably wouldn't fetch much. But there must be some good stuff hidden away. Remember the last scene of "Raiders of the Lost Ark''? Imagine what the Ark of the Covenant would go for these days, particularly if you threw in Indiana Jones' hat.
There are also dusty crates at the local level. The City of Harrisburg is considering selling millions of dollars worth of Wild West artifacts. I'm not making that up. Former Mayor Stephen Reed once thought Pennsylvania's capital city would be a great place for a Western museum, probably because when you hear "outlaw,'' you naturally think of the home of the Pennsylvania General Assembly.
A decade ago, Mr. Reed spent more than $8 million in city funds as he combed the American West buying 10,000 cowboy and Native American articles. You scoff, but he came away with Wyatt Earp's poker table and Doc Holliday's dental chair, and -- sadly -- I'm not making that up either.
Thousands of items were sold a few years ago after the idea of a museum was ditched, but Linda Thompson, Harrisburg's current mayor, thinks she could generate $6 million to $10 million more by auctioning the 8,000 items that are left.
I'm not sure what all Pittsburgh has, but I do know we still have a 300-year-old, 1-ton English bell we're not using. Yeah. Three years ago, a historian in Peterborough, England, contacted me. Long story short, I soon found myself staring at a big ol' bell with "1709" and a 360-degree Latin phrase inscribed round the bell. It was hiding in plain sight on a wooden platform in the parking garage under the Westin Convention Center hotel.
It had been sitting there more than 15 years, evidently because nobody in outgoing Mayor Sophie Masloff's administration ever told anyone in the incoming Tom Murphy administration that the city had a bell. Oops.
I haven't checked if it's still there, but it's pretty hard to move, much less lose, a 1-ton bell. The last time that it was rung was probably circa 1992, when Mayor Masloff was supposed to use it to ring in the new year.
If we're not going to sell it, we ought to haul it out and ring it up and down Federal Street when the Pirates clinch a winning season and -- dare I suggest it? -- win the division and then the pennant. Hey, if millions of dollars worth of baseball cards can hide in an attic for a century, anything is possible.
Brian O'Neill: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1947.