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John Rogers owns more photos than anyone, anywhere 

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He wasn't going to tell Upper Deck that, however. After the execs tried a few more times to wheedle a number out of him, they flew back to California, promising to come up with an offer within the week. After another call in which they tried to browbeat Rogers into coughing up a figure, they eventually sent an e-mail.

"They offered $350,000," Rogers said. "I was like: 'That's crazy!' I thought it was $3,500, and somebody had typed a few extra zeroes."

After calling Upper Deck to confirm that they did, in fact, want to give him that kind of money, Rogers made the classic rookie error. "I picked up the phone like an idiot and said, 'I'll take it!'," he said. "I'm sure they were expecting me to counter with, like, $600,000, $500,000, but I said, 'Yeah! Done!' It was probably equivalent to what I'd made since I'd been out of college — my total earnings."

The cashier's check arrived, and — still sure there had been a mistake or that Upper Deck was about to go bankrupt — Rogers sweated out a ten-day business hold on the funds and the money cleared. Later on, he learned from a friend at Upper Deck that they'd been willing to go as high as a half-million dollars for the Wingfield negatives, which have since been called a national treasure.

"These were phenomenal," Rogers said. "They were from the '40s through the '60s — the golden era of baseball: Mickey Mantle, Ted Williams, Joe DiMaggio — all the biggest of the bigs. It was an amazing collection."

At $350,000, Rogers said, the deal worked out to about $42 per negative, with Upper Deck able to use them forever. When Rogers eventually "educated himself" about photo licensing, he learned that a company like Upper Deck would normally pay $150 to $500 for one-time use of an image of a player like Mickey Mantle.

Though the Wingfield collection is the one that got away, it was a learning experience and got his wheels turning. "In their minds, they stole it," he said. "I'm the biggest idiot in the world in their minds. But I was thrilled. I was thinking: I get it now. I'm going to take this money, go out, and do a lot of business."

'There's this nut down in Arkansas...'

Rogers came away from the Upper Deck sale flush with cash and with a whole new plan, calling up all the old baseball photographers whose negatives and photos he'd originally passed on and seeking out new hunting grounds. Eventually, he bought up the archives of a slew of famous and not-so-famous sports photographers, then used the contacts he'd made with Upper Deck to cut a deal to license vintage images for their cards and memorabilia at much lower rates than they had been paying.

"They canceled all their licensing contracts with Getty [Images] and other companies, and they sole-sourced their inventory from me for four years."  

Rogers kept buying photographic archives, eventually acquiring the rights to the work of famed photographer Arthur Rickerby for $600,000. It was another game changer. "Rickerby shot everything," Rogers said. "He was at the first Super Bowl. He shot the famous photo of Don Larson with the ball leaving his hand in the perfect game in '56. He followed Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris in 1961, but he was also following President Kennedy, he was following the Civil Rights struggle, he was a Life magazine photographer. By accident, when I bought the estate, I got all these other things I didn't know about."

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