The man with most baseball cards on Earth
'I wanna get to a billion'
It all started pretty innocently, but wonderfully, for the greatest baseball card collector in the world.
The year was 1995, and after happening upon an autograph session with Rollie Fingers, nine-year-old Paul Jones and his parents were convinced by the Hall of Famer to attend a local Triple-A Las Vegas Stars game. The family didn't know much about baseball, but Fingers thought it would be a fun way for them to find out more about the sport.
They got to the ballpark early, and, as is customary before any Major or Minor League game, kids were standing at the rail closest to the field -- trying to get player autographs. Paul was interested in all the commotion and excitement, but not really sure what to do.
"So, my wife says, 'Hey, why don't you go get him a pack of cards,'" Barry, Paul's father, told me over a recent phone call.
Barry bought a pack of Stars cards and brought Paul down to the railing where the other kids were begging players for autographs. Paul, who's autistic, but had just begun talking more and more, fell silent. He stood there like a "statue" as his father Barry described.
"Players walk by and they're looking at him, because they're waiting for, 'Can I have your autograph?'" Barry said. "What happens then is the manager walks by, Tim Flannery. He turns to Paulie and he says, 'Hey, would you like my autograph?' Paulie nods his head, Tim takes his cards, he finds his card and he signs it. ... He looks at the other cards and he sees they're not signed. ... He turns to him and says, 'Hey, would you like to go into the locker room and get the rest of your cards signed?'"
Paul looked back smiling at his dad, who was, of course, saying, "Go, go!" Paul walked with Flannery into the player clubhouse, had all of his cards signed and, almost immediately, developed a love affair with baseball and baseball card collecting.
That's all it took: The father and son were off on a decades-long, baseball-card collecting adventure.
During the 1990's and early-2000's baseball card boom, Paul and Barry got cards anywhere they could. They'd buy up card stores, Target, Walmart and KB Toys. They also traveled a lot and, when they did, they'd stop in at local Minor League or Major League baseball stadiums to purchase packs and packs of cards sold at the team store. From Vancouver to Missoula to Spokane to everywhere in between -- getting as many player autographs as they could along the way. They once went to Texas -- hitting every Major and Minor League ballpark in the state and coming home with 300 to 400 packs of cards.
"For us, it wasn't so much the quality of cards, but more the quantity of cards," Barry told me. "The more cards he had, the happier he seemed to be."
The cards were stored in boxes and filled up multiple rooms in their Vegas home. The living room, the family room, the garage, anywhere they could fit. And Paul carefully organized them each time another load came in.
"When he gets his cards, he sorts them," Barry told me. "He puts them in ABC order. And then he weeds them into the other cards that are already in ABC order."
As word got around of Paul's hobby, former collectors and friends just began sending him their cards. At times, the dedication even transcended this earthly plane.
"He's in some guy's will," Barry said. "For his baseball card collection."
It became a consistent joy for Paul to focus on, something he could look forward to day in and day out. And, as Paul told me, it opened up a world even beyond baseball.
"It helps you read, spell and do geography," he said. "It helps you keep going every day. It takes away the thing, that I'm missing Gene 16, from my head. You don't have to worry about that every day. ... It's just a fun thing to do."
"Paulie used to sit at the kitchen table, you know, read the front of the card, read the back of the card," Barry said, laughing. "It used to drive me crazy. He'd come up and ask me, 'Do you know ...' and I didn't know. Nor did I care that Rollie Fingers was known for pitching and stuff like that."
Paul quickly got into the hundreds of thousands range by the mid-2000's. And then, after getting to 528,000, he hit the record books: Guinness named him as having the largest private baseball card collection in 2008.
Most might stop after establishing a world record in something, but Paul just kept going. It brought him happiness. His story grew, people sent him more cards and it drove him to continue collecting.
Through autograph sessions and collecting, the family rubbed elbows with former and current MLBers. Paul calls Flannery and Bruce Bochy his friends (his favorite MLB team is the Giants). He has photos with former White Sox manager Ozzie Guillen.
And former All-Star Darryl Strawberry.
He even posed for an incredibly cool cover in Sports Collectors Digest one year.
Soon, Paul's treasure trove grew into the millions and then two million territory. In 2016, he told MiLB.com, "It's hard to keep counting."
Although Barry admits it turned into an expensive hobby, it's always been worth seeing the joy it brings to his son on a daily basis.
"He's just happy about it all the time," Barry said. "It didn't matter: If I bought a box, it was great. If I bought a pack, it was great."
Paul's collection hit an absurd 2.8 million in 2020, and his tale went semi-viral in a few regional outlets. His cards, in boxes of 3,500 or 5,000, and his memorabilia, were now taking up an entire basement apartment and much of the family's three-car garage in Idaho Falls.
The pandemic didn't stop people from sending Paul and Barry their cards, and the family was able to safely travel to ballparks to buy up more packs. Minor League teams weren't playing, but as Barry says, "Their stores were open!"
Today, 26 years after that first Las Vegas baseball game, Paul's collection stands at nearly four million. Barry says he's building a 60-by-60 foot shed to hold any spillover and give his son his own baseball card workshop. The stash includes 55 Hall of Famers (mostly signed) and thousands of Minor and Major League players. Paul's favorite? A Mark McGwire Huntsville rookie card.
"We picked that one up for a nickel," Barry told me.
But as Paul told East Idaho News last year, it's not really who's on the card, it's more about following his passion. It's "not for the money, it's for the love of the game."
This baseball season, Paul, 34 now, will be busy serving as bat boy for the Idaho Falls Chukars of the independent Frontier League. He's excited about the opportunity but insists that it won't stop him from pursuing his No. 1 hobby of card-collecting.
"I want tons more. I wanna get to a billion."