While many a person may be losing his marbles, Jim Ridpath is busy finding his. In antique shops, in flea markets, in the basements of the homes of elderly widows. Sometimes even in the street. "Not much recently," he says. "Just Chinese checkers and cat's eyes. But a marble is a marble."
Is a marble. Ridpath has steelies, slags, clearies, clays, chinas and Benningtons. He's got swirls in peppermint, butterscotch and clam broth. He's got a tiny green marble the size of a gallstone, and a brown one as big as an emu egg. Rid-path's collection must be the largest in the world. "That's 161,471," he says, dutifully logging an Akro agate in his ledger.
He keeps them in water bottles, apothecary jars and display cases in the attic of his Drexel Hill, Pa. house. A single 45-gallon fish tank contains 47,429. An old electric-shaver box holds the shooters he used to win the Lincoln, Neb. championship in 1937 and '38. Ridpath, a 63-year-old retired insurance agent, grew up there playing pots, fish and little ringer. "I never snudged," he says. Marble players know what he means.
After winning all his friends' marbles, he'd divvy them up and return them. "Otherwise," he says with a laugh that gurgles from deep inside, "I'd have nobody left to play with." One day, with Ridpath's winnings at 2,000 marbles, his father suggested he hold on to them. That's how his hobby began. "The color of marbles fascinates me," he says. It certainly isn't their chewability.
He has paid as much as $265 for a wobbly 19th-century sulphide that as a kid he might have set on a pole and shot BBs at. Sulphides didn't roll straight enough for serious marble shooters.
Today, Ridpath conducts clinics twice a week at the local Y. One protégé, 9-year-old Giang Duong, finished sixth at this year's nationals in Wildwood, N.J.
Ridpath has drawn a regulation ring on the linoleum floor in his basement. Every now and then a kid will knock on his door and ask his wife, Helen, "Can Jim play marbles today?"