When Jake Gustafson, the senior director of operations and development at Seattle Children’s Hospital, approached a cross-section of local celebrities about participating in a Topps trading-card project he had brainstormed, the reaction was overwhelmingly positive.
“I don’t know about you, but if someone asked me if I wanted my own baseball card, I would say yes,” Gustafson said with a laugh.
And when that card is part of a one-of-a-kind charitable rollout that will net Seattle Children’s upward of $200,000 in proceeds, it was even more of a no-brainer. Which is how Sir Mix-a-Lot, Macklemore, Joel McHale and Ciara joined a treasure trove of Seattle athletes in the “Seattle Children’s Heroes” trading-card collection that is jumping off the shelves at Seattle-area Bartell Drugs.
Gustafson grew up in Virginia Beach, Virginia, in the 1980s as an avid baseball-card collector, a hobby he shared with his best friend Colin Butler. Fast forward a few decades, and Butler is an executive with Topps, the industry leader in sports cards. Gustafson’s job is raising funds and awareness for Seattle Children’s, one of fewer than 100 children’s hospital in the United States.
In an epiphany last year, Gustafson decided to marry those two elements, particularly at a time when the card industry is booming again. He pitched to Butler the idea of marketing a set of Seattle Children’s baseball cards. Topps had never before done this kind of charitable project — 100 percent of the proceeds go to the hospital — but they jumped at the idea. Topps agreed to provide the expertise and production, the cost of which was underwritten locally by the John L. Scott Foundation.
From that point, it was a matter of Gustafson and his colleagues, Katie Fath and Eve Kopp, lining up the athletes and celebrities. That turned out to be the easy part. They had a long list of prominent local people who had previously done work with Seattle Children’s. In virtually every case, Gustafson said, they loved the idea instantly.
“We thought this was a really cool way to honor and thank them, and generate some funds for the hospital,” he said. “They said yes immediately. It was really kind of a no-brainer for all of these folks. They love the hospital, they love the community of Seattle. And then I think the uniqueness of the idea and how fun it was — everybody was, like, ‘Yeah. Sign me up. Just tell me what I need to do.’ “
In addition to the aforementioned celebrities, the list of participants includes four Hall of Famers in their sport — Ken Griffey Jr., Edgar Martinez, Lenny Wilkens and Gary Payton — plus Olympic gold medalist Apolo Ohno.
Ciara’s husband, Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson, who spends most of his off days during the season visiting patients at Seattle Children’s, is not surprisingly part of the project.
So are Alysha Clark and Jewell Loyd of the Storm, Jordan Morris and Stefan Frei of the Sounders, former Mariners Dan Wilson and Charlie Furbush, current Mariners Kyle Seager and Mitch Haniger, former Seahawk Cliff Avril, former Sonic Detlef Schrempf, NBA player Jamal Crawford and ex-NBA player Spencer Hawes.
It’s a glittering array of local luminaries, but three other participants are the ones who have warmed the hearts of those who purchase the packs. Each pack includes 25 cards. In addition to the 22 well-known folks already mentioned, the packs are rounded out by teenager Makenna Schwab and 9-year-olds Olivia Vitello and Caleb.
Who are they, you ask? As Gustafson says, they are the real heroes — patient ambassadors of Seattle Children’s who have each been treated for medically complex conditions; the kind that requires expertise often found only at Seattle Children’s. The kind of expertise that they are constantly raising money to keep progressing forward.
Makenna was born with Larsen Syndrome, a rare connective tissue disorder; Olivia has a rare genetic disorder called Morquio syndrome. Caleb was born with a life-threatening intestinal disorder. As patient ambassadors, they make appearances and tell their stories to help raise awareness and funds for the hospital.
“This set wouldn’t be complete without them,” Gustafson said. “They’re the real extra-special heroes, and each of them has their own unique, remarkable story, which is outlined on the back of their cards. These are three really special kids, and it’s fun to see people get really excited to get one of the autographs of the kids.”
Ah, the autographs — another special element of this set. Every single pack — each sells for $25 and, again, is available only at Seattle-area Bartell Drugs — includes one autographed card. That has caught the attention of collectors, to whom an autographed Griffey or Russell Wilson, especially on a one-off card, is still highly coveted.
“People who are collecting are going bananas over this — which is great,” Gustafson said.
In fact, if you check out eBay, you can find a signed Griffey card from this set being offered for $499, and a signed Wilson for $499. Other stars are going for a healthy amount as well.
“Even though they’re all local people and local players, you can tell, looking on eBay, that it’s kind of caused a buzz on a national level,” said Brent Holcomb, manager of Mill Creek Sports. “It’s not just local collectors looking for these cards, because most of the people in that set are national stars; they just happen to be from Seattle or play their sports here in Seattle. It’s a pretty cool thing they’ve done.”
Each athlete and celebrity signed anywhere from 100 to 1,000 cards, which led Gustafson to limit the printing to approximately 10,800 packs to ensure that each pack got an autographed card. Since being distributed this month, they are selling so rapidly that Bartell is limiting the number each person can buy at one time to allow more people to get a set. Gustafson has heard from people around the country promising to make a donation to the hospital if he’ll put aside a pack for them because “they want a shot at ripping open a Griffey autograph.
“In my wildest dreams, I thought, ‘I’d sure love to sell these by early January. That would be great. I don’t want a bunch of boxes sitting around,’ ” Gustafson said. “Ten days in, we were already 44 percent sold out. That was about a week ago. Bartell’s think they may make it through the first week of December before they’re all gone.”
Gustafson said he’s already heard from colleagues at other hospitals around the country who have heard about their success and want to give this a try. For its part, Topps is delighted with its association with Seattle Children’s, the first time it has collaborated with a hospital to create a regional fundraising project.
“The feedback from collectors around the country has been incredible,” Emily Kless, communications manager for Topps, said via email. “The Seattle Children’s Hospital is ranked among the nation’s best pediatric hospitals, and we’re honored to help shed a light on the incredible work they do for the children. The set’s name says it all — Heroes — and being able to donate the proceeds from the set back to the real heroes is what makes it so meaningful.”
If you do the math, 10,800 packs at $25 each equates to $270,000 to the hospital. And yet another unique element of this project is that each person in the set was able to designate funding to a specialty area of their choosing.
Griffey has an endowment for pediatric cancer research and earmarked his percentage of the fund to that. Macklemore, Avril and Wilkens support the Odessa Brown Children’s Clinic and designated that as their recipient. Morris, a Type 1 diabetic, put his portion toward Seattle Children’s diabetes program.
Much of the proceeds, Gustafson said, are also going to Seattle Children’s core mission of uncompensated care. The hospital provides specialized pediatric care, medical innovation for infants, children and teens, and research discoveries that result in better outcomes for kids.
“And for the most medically complex children, their ability to thrive relies on that special pediatric care,” he said. “And when folks support Seattle Children’s, those donations, no matter how big or small, allow us to fulfill that mission.”
Those who can’t get their hands on these baseball cards — which are disappearing fast — can donate through give.seattlechildrens.org. But for those who do land a pack, they have a treat in store when they rip it open and see if they got an autographed Griffey, Loyd or Ohno. Or perhaps a Caleb, Makenna or Olivia.
Oddly enough, Gustafson said, the COVID-19 outbreak probably allowed for a smoother rollout of the cards; with so many athletes having their seasons curtailed, they were more readily available to participate.
Call it one of the very few fringe benefits of the deadly pandemic. For card collectors, this is an intriguing new addition to the genre. But for those who yearn to help sick children, it’s much more than that.