In the World of Baseball Memorabilia, it is Best to Keep Your Eyes on the Ball
From the Print Edition:
Michael Richards, Sep/Oct 97
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Then there is an autographed picture of Harry Pulliam, the National League president in 1908. "Pulliam was the only one in baseball ever to commit suicide," Halper says. (Actually, others in baseball have committed suicide, including Donnie Moore, a California Angels relief pitcher, who killed himself on July 18, 1989, less than three years after surrendering a two-out, two-strike, ninth-inning home run to the Red Sox's Dave Henderson in the 1986 playoffs). "It was over a famous play on October 8, 1908. But he committed suicide in '09." The historic play became known as Merkle's Boner.
Fred Merkle of the New York Giants was on first and Moose McCormick on third with two outs in the bottom of the ninth when shortstop Al Bridwell singled to center field. Thinking the game was won, and with a throng of Giants fans swarming the field, Merkle veered off to his right, bypassing second base as he headed toward the New York clubhouse in center field at the Polo Grounds. The Cubs' second baseman, Johnny Evers, got the attention of the umpire who, after watching Evers tag second base with a ball (there was some dispute over whether it was actually the game ball), called Merkle out at second, thus negating the winning run.
Pulliam upheld the out call and ruled that the game would be replayed after the season if it had a bearing on the pennant race. It did. The Cubs and Giants finished in a tie, which was broken when "Three Finger" Mordecai Brown beat Christy Mathewson, 4-2, in the make-up game. The Cubs finished the season at 99-55, while the second-place Giants and Pirates finished at 98-56. After constant harassment about his decision the following season, and pressures from owners about other political and financial matters, Pulliam had a nervous breakdown and took his life.
In Halper's collection, every Mickey Mantle piece--like his 1956 Triple Crown trophy--is an occasion for sentimental reminiscence. "Once when Mickey was here, I asked him if he knew Bill Sunday, the preacher," Halper recalls. "Sunday drank too much and I told Mickey about him. But Mickey would just laugh and say, 'Drinking is so much fun, you have no idea.' Sharon made some shrimp scampi and offered him some, and he held up his drink and said, 'I've got my shrimp scampi here.' He drank wine spritzers." Mantle subsequently developed liver problems, received a transplant in 1995, and died shortly thereafter of lung cancer.
On another shelf is the last glove used by Lou Gehrig. Gehrig was hitting .143 on May 2, 1939, when he ran off the field and flipped his glove to clubhouse manager Pete Sheehy and said, "I won't be needing this, Pete." The disease that would later bear his name was ravaging his body. Sheehy gave the glove to Babe Dahlgren, Gehrig's successor at first. Being a right-hander, Dahlgren couldn't use it, but he held onto it for many years. When Halper contacted him, Dahlgren wanted to know if he had any mementos involving his own career. Halper told him he had a movie of the 1939 World Series in which Dahlgren hit a homer, the '39 Series program and a bat that Dahlgren had signed while playing for the Newark Bears. Halper mailed the materials to Dahlgren and Babe sent the glove.
While Halper wants to see his collection sold, seeing it go may cause mixed emotions. "As long as I can visit it and be part of the program, I won't have mixed feelings," he says. "But if it's going to California, I would have mixed emotions. 'Aren't you going to shed a tear or two?' people ask. I don't know. I've been doing this for half a century."
Halper is well aware of the pitfalls of the hobby, too, although he thinks the FBI's claim that 50 percent of all autographs are fake is excessive. He thinks the figure is closer to 40 percent. But he maintains that many items are signed with an auto pen, a mechanical device used for the signatures of people who, like the president of the United States, cannot sign every item they receive.
Hand in hand with the swindling involved in collectibles is a good deal of rudeness. Halper has advice for those seeking signatures. For one, players are generally more accessible during spring training. Two, fans should ask players to sign only when they are not busy doing something else. Too often, fans show little regard. They ask for signatures when the players are retrieving their luggage in an airport or enjoying dinner at a restaurant.
In one incident, recounted on the 1991 video "The Ultimate Baseball Memorabilia Collection," (Cabin Fever Entertainment, Greenwich, Connecticut) Mickey Mantle collapsed on an airplane flight from Dallas to New York and paramedics gathered around to see what was wrong. "They thought I was having a heart attack on the plane," Mantle said. "They were taking me off, oxygen in my nose, pinned down to a stretcher, and a guy comes up to me and says, 'Hey, aren't you Mickey Mantle? Would you sign this for me?' As far as he knew I was dying." Can you see the New York Post headline: "Mantle Cheats Death on Plane; Fan Gets One Last Autograph."
Halper has to put his signature on the sale of his entire collection. "I'm not trying to give it away; I want to be compensated fairly for it and let them [the buyers] make the money up on attendance [in a museum]. So that's where we're having the problems. God forbid anything happens to me, and my wife has the aggravation. And if anything happens to her, the children get taxed. Where are they going to get the millions of dollars to pay for this?"
There is no rush. Most memorabilia collections appreciate in value as time goes on. Just 25 years ago, his Honus Wagner card was worth about $30,000. Now it's worth more than 30 times as much. Halper is well aware of the simple truth that every object --even a baseball card--is worth what its purchaser will pay for it.
Ken Shouler, a frequent contributor to Cigar Aficionado from White Plains, New York, is the author of The Experts Pick Basketball's Best 50 Players in the Last 50 Years (AllSport Books, 1997). Figuring Fair from Foul
"I think of collecting as a hobby and not an investment," says Steve Oto, owner of Alternate Realities, a hobby store in Scarsdale, New York. Oto buys items that are aesthetically appealing to him. "If you buy something that you like, it doesn't matter that anyone else doesn't enjoy it," he says. "If it goes up in value, that's like gravy on top. People ask me what the best card is to have, and I say, 'It's what you like.' "
Oto has some sound advice about collecting:
1. "Be cautious in purchasing autographs," he says. "It's a 'buyer beware' kind of hobby. It's generally agreed that more than half of what's out there is forgery. It's so easy to forge. Even certificates of authenticity can be printed out on computers. Even memorabilia is dangerous. There are always stories about a guy who takes a new football jersey and gets it all muddy in the back yard." And then it gets sold as "the jersey he used during the Super Bowl." The same with other equipment; 50 or 100 of a certain "famous" ball or bat end up being sold.
In an odd way, the players who sign least, and those who refuse to sign at all, contribute to the forgery market more than those players who appear at many autograph shows. "If they don't sign, you get forgeries on the market," says Mark Jordan, of Mark Jordan Inc. in Arlington, Texas. "Ken Griffey Jr., Frank Thomas, Kirby Puckett--there are many forgeries of them because there aren't legitimate channels to get their signatures. Unscrupulous people take advantage of the situation."
2. Buying single cards is preferable now to buying sets. "I like Gary Carter," says Oto, "even though nobody cares about Gary Carter today--but I have every Gary Carter card. It doesn't matter to me." This is preferable to having whole sets of cards from 1980 on. But even buying individual cards has its drawbacks. "Heroes fade," Oto notes. "I know a guy who bought 100 Will Clark rookie cards, another guy bought 100 Jose Canseco rookie cards. Today, you can't get rid of 'em." The value of their cards decreased as their performances declined. Ken Griffey Jr. cards and Cal Ripken cards are liable to keep their value.
3. Buy old. "Older stuff has had time to prove its value," says Oto, standing before a display of 1950s through 1970s cards in mint condition, including Eddie Mathews, Harmon Killebrew, Ernie Banks, Roberto Clemente, Sandy Koufax and Lou Brock. "Those were the times when people weren't really saving them; they were putting them in bicycle spokes. Those that survived, and survived in good shape, are valuable--it's a basic law of supply and demand. Today millions of cards are being printed and everyone is putting them away."
Cards collectors might also refer to two standard price guides--the Beckett Official Price Guide (Ballantine Books, 1997, $6.99) and the Consumer Guide Baseball Card Price Guide (Signet, 1997, $6.99).
Above all else, Oto says, "the hobby should stay a hobby." It's supposed to give you pleasure. --KS
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