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Diamond Dreams

In the World of Baseball Memorabilia, it is Best to Keep Your Eyes on the Ball
Ken Shouler
From the Print Edition:
Michael Richards, Sep/Oct 97

A touch of the doorbell sounds "Take Me Out to the Ballgame." It's just the first hint of the sensory overload to come. The rooms of Barry Halper's northern New Jersey home are so cluttered with cards and photos, contracts and cigar boxes, and bats and balls that your eyes strain to focus in any one place. The array of baseball memories is a virtual orgy for the eyes. Halper owns the mother lode of all baseball collections.

On the bill of one cap are the signatures of Ty Cobb and Babe Ruth. A pepper toss away is a one-penny mutascope with a frame-by-frame account of Bobby Thomson's "Shot Heard 'Round the World," the blast that sunk the World Series hopes of the Brooklyn Dodgers on Oct. 3, 1951. There are some 500 items with Ruth's signature and another thousand with Joe DiMaggio's. There's Ruth's last bat, a 40-ounce club that he used to mash three homers in a game in Pittsburgh in 1935. Spend 10 minutes among Halper's collection and you will grow tired of gawking and saying "no one else has this piece."

But it's true. Halper, 57, owns the largest, most spell-inducing collection of baseball memorabilia in the world, a good part of it filling every nook of five rooms in his home. He even has a mounted lock of Ruth's hair, with an inscription reading "I guarantee that the enclosed hair is my own, George Herman Ruth." Barry Halper is the Ayatollah of Acquisition, the Baron of Barter, the Papa of Procurement. If the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York, offered its museum spread for Halper's straight up, Halper might reject the proposal. He could demand additional compensation. Maybe cash, two draft choices and a player to be named later.

"Look at these cigar boxes," Halper says, pointing to a shelf display. Honus Wagner and Cap Anson are illustrated on the lids. It was commonplace for sports heroes to appear inside the covers in the early part of the century. A photo of a smiling Ruth shows him smoking a cigar and holding a sign that says "Vote for Al Smith." There's a poster of "The Big Cat," Johnny Mize, urging us to "Smoke the Ultimate Cigar: Macanudos."

Most impressive of all is a sheet of paper bearing the signatures of all 15 sluggers who hit 500 homers. Centered on a poster board, the sheet is surrounded by each player's autographed baseball card. No one but Halper has the signatures of the 15 legends together, mostly because the 500-homer players' careers--from Ruth to Eddie Murray--span 83 years of baseball history.

Despite his awesome accumulation, Barry Halper is not a typical example of what's happening with the business of baseball collecting. The "hobby" includes cheats and those who would trade their mother for a 1952 Mickey Mantle Topps card. What's happening out there?

"It's disgusting," says Halper with the emotion of someone who watched a favored child turn bad. "I always say, wherever there's money to be made, it promotes thievery. People take a fake signature and put it in a picture with Mickey Mantle and sell it for $500. I can tell most of the time, but I've also been fooled." As evidence, he shows me a Mantle item, pointing out how the connection of the "n" and the "t" in Mantle's signature is suspect.

Then there was the fiasco involving Lou Gehrig. Babe Ruth had stationery that said "Babe Ruth, New York" across the top. Using this idea, one recent swindler had stationery printed that read "Lou Gehrig, New York" across the top. In a typed letter to an unknown person named George, Gehrig writes, "Bet on us to win the AL East this year." Someone going to this length to defraud people should realize that there was no AL East until 1969, 31 years after Gehrig's alleged letter was written. Halper adds a second evaluation of the forgery: "Gehrig's real stationery read 'Lou Gehrig Larchmont, New York' across the top." Larchmont was the town in Westchester County that Gehrig called home.

The industry scandals will continue. Fake signatures, phony authenticity certificates, out of sight prices for big-name autographs, surly behavior from the athletes--the baseball collectibles enterprise is a veritable Field of Schemes. Just ask Mark Jordan.

Jordan is the owner of Mark Jordan Inc., a business located in The Ballpark in Arlington, Texas, where the major league Rangers play. His business is authenticating and selling signatures. Jordan, 42, got his start in 1967, the first of five years as a batboy in St. Petersburg, Florida. "That's when I got real interested researching what was good and what was not," Jordan says. "Some of the unauthentic signatures around are pieces that bat boys and clubhouse and p.r. people sign for players.

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