Mickey Mantle, Hank Aaron, and Babe Ruth rookie cards—trading cards commemorating each athlete’s first season as a professional baseball player—can fetch millions for mint-condition versions on the collector’s market. Professor Gary Ballinger, who calls himself a huge fan of the sport, says he was never seriously into buying cards himself. Yet Ballinger, who has been teaching at the Commerce School since 2005, has been slowly growing a more personal collection of his own: rookie business cards of former students.
The collection, which he estimates to be just beyond 150 cards at present, is split between a stack on the credenza in his office and at home. He says it started by one-off requests to former students who came back to Grounds. His earliest business cards date back to alumni he taught during his debut as part of the Integrated Core faculty team in 2005: Daniel “Danny” Lucas (McIntire ’07) with Constellation Energy and Carter Gilman (McIntire ’07) with Oliver Wyman rookie cards.
By 2010, Ballinger says he made it a more regular practice to ask fourth-year students for a business card documenting their first post-University position.
“I’d close out the last lecture of my elective Managing and Leading with a simple request for cards, and students started sending them along,” he says, noting that he now also asks third-year students as well.
We spoke to Ballinger to find out more about his rookie business card collection and what they mean to him.
In a way, business cards seem to represent a past era, but what do you see as the benefit for students making their first card as they embark on their professional journeys?
It’s hard to say. It’s all psychological at this point, given that the technology for keeping track of contacts is so advanced. I have talked to students who say an old-fashioned business card provides a bit of validation. It tells you on some level that you’re a “pro” and that you’ve arrived.
It’s small, to be sure, but it’s definitely a big deal. For me, it said a little something that I’d made it: I had an office, got paid, had a title, and a role. Looking back, those weren’t much, but for an entry-level job, that meant a lot. Some students told me that it’s a special deal when they give those to a parent or people who have backed them in their education—and I can definitely understand how that would matter. Indeed, my mom saved mine. I have it now in my office and only discovered that she saved it when I was helping her move some 20 years after I gave it to her. I’ll usually show that card to students and tell them when I ask for their rookie card in a last lecture of the season that they may not appreciate how special it is for a parent to get one of these, but they will see it when they pass that card on.
Most everyone moves on from their first employer, too. I’d say probably 80-85% or more of the cards I have are for people who have moved up and moved on from their first job—some very quickly! That’s always terrific to think about in terms of the idea of “how it started, how it’s going.”
What are some specific cards that stood out to you when you received them?
This is tough. I’m sorry I can’t talk about everyone and all of the cards!
Some that stand out are series of cards: I have Brian Tunney (McIntire ’08) Analyst, VP, and Director cards from his roles at Kipps DeSanto. I show those in class sometimes. It’s a nice progression, and it’s really cool that every time he’s been promoted at that firm he passes on a new card.
I have six cards from former students who’ve been at Deloitte—six, I think that’s the largest number in the pile.
I have a Hannah Lass (McIntire ’19) rookie card from Level Equity in New York, which means a ton for lots of reasons. She was a terrific student in my fourth-year elective Measure, Manage, and Motivate in spring 2019; I went to UVA with her parents, Eric and Lori, and was in the same fraternity pledge class as her dad (McIntire ’89).
Because some people’s first jobs can be pretty hectic, it’s always nice to get cards when you’re having a conversation to try to help them through that adjustment to work. I remember one trip to New York where I had dinner with Matt Weyback (McIntire ’14) and Tyler Saitta (McIntire ’14) when they were at Wells Fargo when I got their rookie cards. Their friend and classmate Nicholas Jones (McIntire ’14) was buried in work at Moelis and couldn’t make it, but had a small window of time to escape the office to catch up and give me his card, too. I’m still in a Water Cooler Trivia league (a business Nicholas co-founded) with Matt and Tyler and Jake Merrill (McIntire ’14) of Sands Capital, so that’s a special group of cards.
I get many of these when people come for Young Alumni Reunions or when I see them for the first time after they graduate. That’s a lot of fun. I have a bunch that came with some of the nicest thank-you notes that are also up on the credenza. It’s a great surprise in the fall semester to look in my Commerce School mailbox and see wonderful handwritten thank-you notes from students like Cat Miller (McIntire ’16) or Allie Bing (McIntire ’17) or Claire King (McIntire ’17), whose cards are all part of my Deloitte collection.
It’s also great to get letters from people who are at the same firm or living in the same house who get together on a busy day to write quick notes and drop their cards in the mail, like Ryan Curtis (McIntire ’19) and Andrew McGee (McIntire ’19) from Harris Williams. Or what I got from William Evensen, Van Spina, and Eric Pawela, who are all from the Class of ’19; John Mace (McIntire ’16) and Hugh McColl (McIntire ’16) at Credit Suisse; or Class of ’13 classmates Zach Scharf at EY and Kevin Wyckoff at Ampush.
Even students at places who don’t have paper cards reach out. I remember hearing from Selena Kowalski (McIntire ’16), who sent her BCG e-card. That’s in the email archives, and I definitely consider those part of the collection.
Finally, the one rookie card that’s specially displayed on my credenza is a Harry Elkins (Engineering ’17) rookie card from IBM. When I was giving my final lecture in the old Managing and Leading course in 2017, I showed a picture on my slides of a Jeff Bagwell rookie card from his days with the Houston Astros. Harry is a huge Astros fan, so when he sent me his rookie card later that fall, he sent it with a Jeff Bagwell rookie card in a special envelope. That was really cool.
Which are some highlights of the collection for their pure aesthetic details?
Some of them are absolutely beautiful, and some are super well-made. Palmy Veerapat Keerati’s (McIntire ’10) card from Sea is one that I believe I picked up on a trip to Thailand during an M.S. in Commerce GIE trip many years ago. It’s got a bitmoji caricature of her on it, and it’s terrific. The Disney card I got from Brian Head (McIntire ’15) is also terrific—it’s got Mickey Mouse on it. Some of them are pretty thick and printed on heavy stock, like the Lazard cards I got from Alex Russell (McIntire ’16) and Eric Pawela (McIntire ’19). I like to joke that you can slice a tomato with those. Cards with a Park Avenue (e.g., Houlihan Lokey) or Madison Avenue (e.g., Credit Suisse) or Fifth Avenue (Greentech Capital Advisors) address also stand out. I’m from the northeastern U.S., and those New York City addresses just strike me as “the big time.”
Some cards are part of a regular tradition. I tell students that my career advice has no cash cost, but they do owe me the rest of the story. That is, they have to tell me how things are going. I think I told that to Tyler Saitta first, way back in something like 2013, and he’s regularly supplied a business card wherever he’s been. Sometimes people will drop them off when they come back and want to talk about their next steps, like Hakeem Allen (McIntire ’15). And I went through a stretch when I was giving a lot of practice interviews and advice on the job market, so any of those cards from students I helped with a practice interview or conversations mean a whole lot, too, like Jack Armstrong (McIntire ’16) at Bain and Chase Pion (McIntire ’16) at JP Morgan.
What do you still enjoy most about collecting the business cards?
It’s fun on occasion to flip through the cards and remember former students and then to see how far they’ve gone from that first job is always amazing. I’ve taught probably close to 1,800 students or so in 16 years, and it’s hard to keep track of everyone, even if LinkedIn is a huge help. It’s just nice to be able to stay in touch with students after they have graduated. Hopefully they know that the faculty back here at McIntire are rooting for them from afar—and, of course, that we’ll always have the door open for them when they want to come back, have any questions, or just want to talk and catch up.