At Rock’s Dugout Sports Cards And Memorabilia, customers who spend at least $20 often get more than just a free trading card. Owner Joseph “Rock” Ruocco is there to provide sports history lessons as needed.
“That’s Ted Kluszewski,” Ruocco told a young boy staring at a card featuring the former Cincinnati Reds slugger (who probably played before the kid’s parents were born). “He was the one who cut his sleeves to show his muscles.”
Ruocco opened his shop 40 years ago last month, in the basement of the old Rose Bowl on east Kellogg. Today it sits just up the stairs from lanes 5 and 6 in the Northrock Lanes bowling alley on north Rock Road.
A New York native whose Bronx accent has survived more than a half century in Kansas, Ruocco started collecting cards in 1954, thanks to his great uncle’s candy store. “We would go there on Sundays. We were offered either a milkshake or a pack of cards. My brother would get the milkshake and I would get the pack of cards. That’s what started me. I just kept on collecting.”
Ruocco found his way all the way to the now-closed St. Mary of the Plains College in Dodge City in 1965. “It was very difficult to get into college back then, especially if you didn’t have good grades,” Ruocco said. He graduated four years later with a degree in elementary education.
Planning to return home, Ruocco instead was offered and accepted a job teaching with the Wichita school district. He taught fifth and sixth grade students for 31 years at Dunbar, Irving and Clark elementary schools.
Ruocco had often thought of opening a deli, so that he could sell cards on the side. Then he discovered a shop in New Jersey that sold only trading cards, and thoughts of pastrami and rye fled from his head.
“Oh, this was my ultimate dream,” he said.
Ruocco’s card collecting suffered one major hiccup, when he visited home during college to find that half his collection — all his American League cards — had been given to a cousin. By 1977, when his baseball card collection had been built back and then some, he decided to open a shop on a trial basis. The owner of the Rose Bowl charged him $50 a month rent. “Lo and behold, it prospered,” he said.
Ruocco ran his shop from 5 to 8 p.m. nightly during the school year and all day during the summer. When the Rose Bowl was torn down in 2003, Ruocco accepted an offer from Nortrock to move there.
Before retiring from teaching, Ruocco said, “I would use my shop as behavior modification for my students. I would choose two students a week to come to the shop, work behind the counter, write out bills, price items using the price gun. They would work for three hours, have dinner at the bowling alley. It was a great thrill for these kids. It would work so well for kids with behavior problems.”
In deference to his wife, Cathy, who also works in the shop, Ruocco still maintains part-time hours: noon to 6 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday, and noon to 5 p.m. Friday and Saturday. Ruocco used to spend his mornings scouring garage sales, second-hand stores and other places for cards and other memorabilia. Now sellers come to him.
He’s got some stories, for sure. In 2004, a man walked into the shop with a baseball his wife had bought on the west side of Wichita for $1. It had been autographed by Babe Ruth. Ruocco paid $25,000 for the ball and sold it for about $6,000 more.
Ruocco said the market for trading cards “is as strong as ever. You have people who are wanting the new cards now. They’re wanting to speculate on the new rookie cards. And we’re also selling a lot of vintage cads. But you gotta price the vintage cards so that people feel like they’re getting a really good bargain.”
In addition to stacks of hand-labeled boxes of cards, the shop sells vintage balls and pennants, football helmets (including one someone brought Ruocco from St. Mary’s of the Plains), autographed jerseys and shoes and a box that once held a Babe Ruth line of women’s underwear.
The piece de resistance is a mural removed from Yankee Stadium that contains some iconic black-and-white photos from the team’s past. Ruocco got it from a bowling alley in New York owned by Phil Rizzuto and Yogi Berra, both former Yankee greats. Ruocco once brought Rizzuto to Wichita for a card signing, driving to Kansas City to retrieve him.
“He talked the whole time,” Ruocco said. “He was very frightened of a storm that was to the south of us. When he was playing shortstop in the minor leagues, a center fielder was hit by lighting and killed. I said ‘Phil, calm down, we’ll get there safely.’”
Ruocco also likes bowling — a good thing since the crash of pins provides a steady soundtrack for his business. He and his wife dabble in promoting bowling events, although he no longer plays himself.
“I used to bowl a lot and the guys called me ‘Rock,’” he said. “My true friends call me Joe.”
Now you know
ROCK'S DUGOUT SPORTS CARDS AND MEMORABILIA
Address: 3232 N. Rock
Owner: Joseph Ruocco