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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Halper has long known how great his accumulation of diamond gems is. He had met Joe DiMaggio at an Old Timer's game in 1976 and invited him to his home. "When DiMaggio came here for the first time in 1976, he said, 'You have the finest collection of anyone anywhere in the world,' " Halper recalls, beaming. And that was 21 years ago.
While being a great source of pride, the collection has caused some friction as well. Of his first wife, Carole, Halper says, "She loved baseball until we got married." Evidently, diamonds are not every woman's best friend. He has two children from his first marriage--Steven, 31, and Marni, 28, and a son, Jason, 22, with his second wife, Sharon. It would appear that the baseball gods had intervened in the meeting between Barry and Sharon, whom he married in 1974. "Her father is named Herman and his brother and sister were George and Ruth--George Herman Ruth," Halper marvels. And now, all these years later, what does Sharon think of baseball stuff? "She'd love to see the day when it's all out of the house," he fires back.
Halper's primary modus operandi is the trade. He'll attend a huge impersonal card show if he has to, such as the Atlantic City, New Jersey, gathering of the surviving 500-homer members in 1996, but he prefers what he calls "the barter system." His best trade occurred with boxing historian Burt Sugar. "Burt Sugar came to my home and saw a picture of Walter Johnson in a clothing ad. 'I have something that would make you give up this piece,' he said. 'What if I come back next week with something of equivalent value?' " So Sugar returned with a wrapping of newspaper and polyurethane. Halper opened it to discover Babe Ruth's duffle bag with the inscription "Babe Ruth, NYC." "I gave him the Walter Johnson piece and he took a 1914 'Miracle Braves' team photo, with the images engraved on leather," Halper recalls. "I reacquired both pieces from other people over the next five years. Back to papa," he says with a laugh.
Another favorite trade happened back in the 1970s at a card show in Dearborn, Michigan. A CBS executive asked Halper and another collector, Bill Mastro, to bring their three most valuable cards. "So I have my cards and Mastro has his," Halper recounts. "Bill looked at my 1933 Goudey Lajoie [Napoleon Lajoie, the Hall of Fame infielder for the Cleveland Indians]. 'Yours is mint and mine is only excellent,' Mastro said, commenting on the grading of the cards. But Mastro's card was autographed. Bill says, 'Boy, this is the best Lajoie card ever.' " Halper proposed an even-up swap of the two cards. Mastro balked. Halper said his offer was good only for the next five minutes. The old squeeze play worked and Mastro said, "OK."
Halper's haul also contains elements of the dark side. There's the shotgun that Ty Cobb's mother used to kill his father after finding him with another woman. Halper acquired the gun from Cobb's biographer, Al Stump. On a shelf is a National Baseball Hall of Fame "lifetime pass," which reads, "Admit Pete Rose, May 1984." Rose signed it, "Barry, I shouldn't need this pass to get in the Hall of Fame. Your pal, Pete Rose." (The pass wouldn't help Rose. Because of evidence that he bet on baseball games, he was banned from baseball in 1989 and made ineligible for the Hall of Fame.) A neat row of balls includes the signatures of all eight Chicago White Sox players banned from baseball for consorting with gamblers and throwing the 1919 World Series against Cincinnati, the infamous "Black Sox Scandal."
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.
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