Not long ago Herman Herst Jr., who may be the world's leading enthusiast of the hobby of stamp collecting, discovered that Dr. Irving Keiser, an entomologist who specializes in stamps with insects on them, had the 1939 U.S. baseball issue in his collection.
"What does this stamp have to do with insects?" asked Herst.
"Look at it," said Dr. Keiser.
Herst peered at the stamp through a magnifying glass and said, "All I see is a guy ready to catch a fly."
"You've got it!" exclaimed the doctor.
At this point a less understanding and dedicated man might have turned to collecting entomologists, but Herst, the author of Stories to Collect Stamps By and other works, was enthralled. Plunging ahead in search of further funnies, he found in the doctor's collection a copy of the 1945 Turkish stamp showing the battleship
. When Herst asked (hopefully) what relation that stamp had to insects, the doctor replied, "She's in the mothball fleet."
It takes no more than this to put Herst in heaven. Seven days a week, every day of the year, Herst looks at stamps, writes about stamps, talks about stamps and even dreams about stamps. "In color," he says. To Herst, no hobby, sport or pastime can compare with philately. There is, he says, the thrill of the chase after an elusive stamp, to say nothing of the absolute joy of unexpected discovery. Just looking at stamps can give Herst a sense of pure esthetic bliss. Furthermore, there are the friendships to be found in philately, "friendships that transcend race, religion and nationality," says Herst, a gregarious sort who has been to Europe 40 times in search of stamps.
Then there is the knowledge to be acquired from stamps. Heist's mind is stuffed full of information, 99% of it gleaned from studying stamps. He can talk at length about the membership of the Confederate cabinet (the Confederate post office made such a profit that after the Civil War the North tried to get the postmaster general to take the job in Washington), dwell on the history of whaling or the settlement of South Africa. Mention sports, and Herst is off on a gallop about Ira Seebacher's collection of sports on stamps, pausing to throw out the fact that the former British Colony of St. Kitts-Nevis in the West Indies once issued a set of stamps to raise money for a cricket field or that the Bahama Islands not only issued stamps with game fish on them but used a postmark of a hooked sailfish. He will tell how Fred Mandell sold the Detroit Lions so he could go into the stamp business in Honolulu or recount how a bunch of kids once made hockey pucks out of bundled sheets of the very rare Providence postmaster's provisional of 1846.
Continuing in the sporting vein, Herst is fond of relating a racetrack incident that took place in Havana in 1940 when the American Air Mail Society held its convention there. The collectors just wanted to stand around the hotel lobby talking about stamps, and they were dismayed to learn that their Cuban hosts had scheduled an afternoon at the track. When a couple of collectors suggested no one would be interested in going to the races, the Cubans said, "They'll be interested in this." Out of politeness the collectors went to the track and picked up a list of the entries. To their astonishment, there was a horse named Stanley Gibbons running in the first race and Stanley Gibbons was the name of a well-known British stamp dealer. The horse was an improbable long shot, but the collectors bet him on the hunch. Stanley Gibbons won. The collectors looked at the second race entries. There was another long shot named Perforation. They bet; Perforation won. So it went through the rest of the card. In every race there was a long shot with a philatelic name that paid off handsomely.
"No one in the stands except the philatelists realized what was happening," Herst says. "The American Air Mail Society convention was one of the few stamp meetings from which attendants were privileged to go home with more money than they had come with." The Cuban government, which apparently had arranged the whole deal to make the Americans happy, was so pleased that it surcharged a stamp commemorating the convention.