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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

(continued from page 2)

Finally, Christie's put its assessment on paper. The total valuation: a whopping $42,268,626. And two cents. The 775-page appraisal, contained in two binders, itemizes each article--excepting his baseball cards, which number more than 30,000--over 100,000 articles in all. Since the estimate was made nearly two years ago, the value of the collection is no doubt rounding third and heading toward $50 million.

Despite such princely figures, it is not money that motivates Halper. "I don't keep it for the value," he insists. "I keep it because I love baseball." Is he earnest? Fifty years of persistent collecting is proof positive. At a time when the sports collectibles market is more chock full of rogues, suckers and bloodsuckers than a hundred P.T. Barnums could ever have dreamed up, Halper presides over his hoard like a museum curator. He has motives other than money. "I've been offered more than $10,000 for the autographed team photo of the 1927 Yankees," Halper says. "But I'm not going to sell it." Selling items piecemeal is not the direction he wants to go. No doubt an item-by-item sale would result in a greater price. No matter. "I don't want to make this a fire sale," he says.

Halper possesses an unquenchable desire for historical completeness, an urge to fill in every gap in baseball history. He has the uniforms of all of the players in the Baseball Hall of Fame except Eppa Rixey, a pitcher for the Philadelphia Phillies and Cincinnati Reds from 1912 through 1933. "I spoke to his grandson a few times, Eppa Rixey III. He doesn't have one," Halper says. "I've offered the Hall of Fame a Gehrig uniform and a Ty Cobb uniform. They can't give me Rixey's uniform because it's donated."

The Rixey uniform is notable if for no other reason than it'sone of the few items Barry Halper doesn't have. He owns 400 bats (including silver ones, given to the annual batting champions), 1,800 balls, 30,000 cards, 1,000 uniforms, 4,000 photos, 1,000 contracts, 4,500 personal papers, 500 rings and pins (like Jackie Robinson's Brooklyn Dodgers ring from 1947, the year he broke baseball's color barrier) and 3,000 other items that don't fit the previous classifications, like Alexander Cartwright's Hall of Fame plaque.

Halper has so much material that it keeps you wondering, How did he ever lay his hands on that? The answer? In a word, perseverance. His desire for thoroughness led to his acquiring all the relevant props from the infamous Yankees-Royals "Pine Tar" game played in July 1983. The ensemble included the too-tarred bat that George Brett used to conk a Goose Gossage fastball more than 400 feet, a can of pine tar, Brett's Kansas City jersey and the ball itself. After he got the ball, Halper asked Gossage to sign it. "Dear Barry: I threw the fucking thing," was his affectionate inscription. Halper has since traded the bat back to Brett in exchange for the one he used to rip three homers off Yankees pitcher Catfish Hunter in a 1978 playoff game.

Obscure articles abound, such as Babe Ruth's gold spittoon and the Triple Crown trophies that belonged to Ted Williams (1947) and Carl Yastrzemski (1967). Always his own man, Williams wouldn't heed the "black tie required" at the bottom of the dinner invitation to receive the trophy. (He probably used the time to go fly fishing.) Yaz wouldn't accept his trophy because Major League Baseball misspelled his name. Yaz wrote Halper a card to authenticate the trophy. "To Barry, this Triple Crown trophy was spelled wrong and I rejected it. I was supposed to receive another, never did. You have the original and only one; Carl Yastrzemski, 1983." Across the room is Shoeless Joe Jackson's commemorative watch for winning the pennant in 1919. A bat split in half is inscribed, "To the boys of Chicago, Babe Ruth." It is signed by all of the 1932 World Champion Yankees. "The boys of Chicago" were Al Capone and his associates.

Halper started collecting almost a half century ago. The chance that a new collector will match his acquired bounty is about equal to the chance that some player will match Ruth's .690 lifetime slugging average. "If Rockefeller made a reappearance he couldn't buy another collection like this," Halper notes. "He couldn't find it." True enough. It's far too late in the game to get this stuff anymore. It's the bottom of the eighth inning for people seeking 50- and 100-year-old baseball items. Halper got started before the first inning, before anyone took collecting very seriously.

Born Dec. 3, 1939, Barry Halper grew up near Rupert Stadium, a semipro baseball park in Newark, New Jersey. He grew up when baseball was first and foremost; no other sport competed for a boy's idle time--or, in Halper's case, "idol time"--in quite the same way. He first began to hang around the stadium in 1948 to watch the Yankees' AAA International League Newark Bears play. Developing a relentlessness that his future hobby would require, he kept asking players to sign balls. He then took them home and tossed them into the closet. To get him to stop badgering the players, a player known as the "Mad Russian," Lou Novikoff, gave him a uniform. Unwrapping the paper from Novikoff's offering, Halper discovered an old Detroit Tigers uniform belonging to outfielder Barney McCoskey. Halper didn't throw this prize in the closet; he hung it. Word spread around the league like a scouting report about this kid who hung out at the park and collected stuff. By the time he reached high school, Halper had 75 uniforms. A valuable lesson still awaited the young Halper: just because something costs nothing doesn't mean it's worth nothing.

Like many kids growing up in the long shadows of Yankee Stadium's three tiers, Halper had notions of playing baseball, and he would go on to pitch for the University of Miami. But as an eight-year-old, he was also enthralled with his new hobby. In 1948, shortly before Ruth passed away, a "Babe Ruth Day" was held at Yankee Stadium. Halper attended the game and scurried under a police barrier, asking the weakened Babe to sign a piece of paper. Without uttering a word, the Sultan of Swat signed. Nine years later, in 1957, Halper took that same sheet to Jimmie Foxx, the second member of the 500-homer club (he finished with 534). As luck would have it, Foxx was a coach at the University of Miami during Halper's tenure there. (Unfortunately, Halper was better at collecting baseballs than he was at throwing them.) Foxx told the freshman, "I'll sign it soon, when Mel Ott comes to visit." So Halper waited. In that way, Halper would get Foxx and Ott--the third member of the 500-homer club, with 511, on the same sheet with Ruth, who hit 714. Sure enough, when Ott visited Coral Gables one day in late December, he and Foxx both signed. Their signatures follow Ruth's on Halper's sheet. Less than a year later, Ott was killed in a car crash. He was 49 years old.

Barry Halper went to work at his family's paper company in 1959, as his father, David, and his grandfather had done before him. In 1991, as president and chief executive officer of the firm, Halper retired. "I didn't sell the company," he says. "I decided for my health and sanity to liquidate it." Tired of rising at 4 a.m., he would use the time he saved to fill in the gaps in his sprawling collection. He was already a "limited partner" of the Yankees. How limited? "George [Steinbrenner] never likes us to say anything about it," says Halper. "But I'll say it's less than five percent." Less than five percent of a team that's worth more than $300 million.

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