Baseball collection makes a hit with DIA exhibit

Neal Rubin
The Detroit News

There's a yellow button on the wall of E. Powell Miller's office. If a fire breaks out, you can press it, and then maybe you won't die.

Whether you make it  — whether you're safe or permanently out — the baseball cards will be secure.

Detroit Tigers' Ty Cobb from the complete T206 white border baseball card set from 1909-1911 appears on display at the DIA in 2018.

The bats once swung by Ty Cobb and Babe Ruth will sit serenely on the racks in their display cases. The ink won't so much as smudge on the signed jersey from Mark Fidrych's rookie season.

A fellow needs to have priorities, and Miller's is his collection: baseball, a smattering of other sports and a few staggering pieces of history dating back to George Washington.

OK, he has other priorities, too. His family. The game itself. The Miller Law Firm, and with it the career that has enabled him to spend $282,000 on one century-old Honus Wagner baseball card, creased like the Hall of Fame shortstop's glove.

E. Powell Miller  stands with a 1958 Topps Al Kaline card.

But whatever happens, save the treasures. The office in Rochester has a fire suppression system designed to suck every last gasp of oxygen out of the room. Find the button, and you have 15 bonus seconds to clear the door.

Miller, 57, used to be the kid who went to bed with a radio beneath his pillow, lulled to sleep by the voice of Ernie Harwell.

Now he's the larger kid whose cards and other artifacts are the centerpiece of "Play Ball! Baseball at the DIA," a jubilant exhibit tied to the 50th anniversary of the Tigers' 1968 world championship, which is being celebrated by the franchise this weekend. The DIA exhibit is in its last eight days, but it's been so successful that there may be a sequel next year. 

Miller is also the low-key advertiser on Tigers radio broadcasts who promises a $300 donation to the University of Detroit Jesuit High School for every Detroit triple, which means $42,900 and counting since 2015.

And he's the Al Kaline of class-action lawsuits, racking up more than $3 billion in settlements and judgments since he sold his house and car in 1994 to raise $35,000, leave a prestigious Detroit law firm and strike out on his own.

"Inside the courtroom," says best friend Jeff Johnston of Birmingham, "this guy is an animal."

The rare Honus Wagner T206 white border baseball card from 1909-1911.

Inside his office? In a lot of ways, he's still the second baseman who cheered louder than any other kid on the field when Johnston pitched for their ballclub back in fourth grade.

"To me," Miller is saying, "these are the Holy Grail." He's rocking side to side, the way a child will when he's excited, and pointing to five neatly lettered scorecards — the ones Harwell used when the Tigers drubbed the San Diego Padres in the 1984 World Series.

Miller, who lives in Oakland Township, found them at an auction house in California.

"They needed to come home," he says, to their rightful place in a room with the first contract signed by future Tigers slugger Hank Greenberg and the jersey worn by Kaline the night he smacked his 3,000th hit.

Hanging behind Miller's desk is a landscape painted by Winston Churchill, its provenance authenticated by an auction house.

On another wall, there's an 1860s railroad pass for an English reporter signed by Abraham Lincoln, Ulysses S. Grant and Secretary of War Edwin Stanton. Larger frames hold kind letters from the purportedly prickly Cobb and a missive from Washington assuring a French general that if his country were to supply naval support, the British would surely capitulate.

"In this room," Miller says almost reverently, "is the DNA of some of the greatest people in the history of the world."

Also, there are traces of pine tar and dirt.

Deanna Beaton and Wendy Akers marvel at the complete T206 white border baseball card set from 1909-1911.

Edwin Powell Miller, who goes by his middle name, loves the symmetry of baseball, the perfect 90 feet between bases that does not guarantee a fast man will beat out a ground ball or that a slow man won't.

He loves the lore and the tradition and the connection between generations — and he did not inherit any of that from his parents.

His dad, Bruce, is a well-known labor lawyer who's still practicing at 90. He grew up in Brooklyn and went to one Dodgers game at Ebbets Field, but it bored him and he left after three innings.

The late Edna Miller was English and grew up with cricket. She'd refer to the catcher as "the wicket keeper."

Miller simply watched older kids play the game at Lafayette Park in Detroit and became entranced.

"I played baseball with heart and soul," he says. Unfortunately, he didn't play it with much size or ability; he topped out as an adult at 5-foot-8, and he remains "slow as a mule."

He went out for debate instead of baseball at U of D High, won a national competition at Georgetown and sailed through law school at Wayne State. He'd hit the first level of partnership at his former firm when he resigned — a decision his father categorized as "crazy."

For the first year, he wondered if Bruce Miller was right.

But then: success, in three big cases against MichCon, Intel and Michigan National Bank. Breathing room. And in the early 2000s, he bought a Ty Cobb tobacco card from the same legendary set that's hanging at the DIA, graded 8 on a scale of 10, for $15,000.

Which he turned around a year later and sold for $20,000. Buyer's remorse. Then came seller's remorse, which was worse. He bought the best replacement on the market, a grade 7, and started collecting in earnest.

E. Powell Miller  with Al Kaline's autographed "Louisville Slugger" baseball bat.

He has maybe 3,000 cards now, about the same number as the childhood collection his parents threw away. These are different, though — rare, personal or both, in the finest condition he can find.

The DIA exhibit includes the padded 325-foot sign from the right field wall at Tiger Stadium, the sector known as Kaline's Corner. It also has a Kaline card from every year Topps printed one.

The 1965 card is not just a perfect 10, it's the only 10 known to exist. Mostly Miller talks about the collection, not the collector, but he concedes he's proud of that and of the star of the show, the full, 524-card set from 1909-11 known as T206.

The set was issued in cigarette and loose tobacco packs by the American Tobacco Company. Collectors appreciate the age, the rarity and the vivid colors in the lithographs.

Professional Sports Authenticator, one of the major grading companies, has rated Miller's T206 assemblage as the third best anywhere.

"Everyone wants to know how valuable it is," says DIA docent Susan Moiseev, a mostly retired Oakland County judge working in the "Play Ball" galleries. Referencing an Italian masterpiece from the late 1500s, she tells them, "I have no more idea what this is worth than what the Caravaggio is worth."

Miller says that counting the years of labor involved, replacing all the cards might cost $5 million. But he doesn't plan to sell them — or, unlike some owners, hide them.

"I want the world to see these," he says. That's what he said to DIA director Salvador Salort-Pons when he suggested the baseball exhibit. 

The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York frequently mounts baseball card displays.

"My collection is better," Miller told Salort-Pons. "I want to beat the Met the same way the Tigers beat the Yankees."

Nancy Barr, the museum's department head for prints, drawings and photographs, embraced the notion.

"I saw it as a merging of mass media, photography and celebrity," she says. It fit with the idea that "we provide these rare experiences you can't see anywhere else."

Since March, Barr says, about 100,000 people have passed through. The museum conducts exit surveys, and the only criticism is that "people wish it was bigger."

Nothing is official, she cautions, but there have been discussions about a 35th-anniversary commemoration of the Tigers' 1984 championship.

While Miller is trying to follow her lead and keep things low-key, he just took delivery of a signed jersey once worn by Padres pitcher Goose Gossage, who gave up a titanic home run to Kirk Gibson in the final game of the '84 World Series.

"Play Ball" will call it a season Sept. 16. But there's a saying in baseball, and apparently now in museums:

Wait till next year.

Twitter: @nealrubin_dn