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Diamond Dreams

In the World of Baseball Memorabilia, it is Best to Keep Your Eyes on the Ball

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.
"There are two schools of forgery. Movie stars have people answer their mail, and the signatures are not authentic. As a young collector I tried to figure it out. I knew who answered [the players'] mail and who didn't. For example, [in the early 1960s] Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris may not have signed for the Yankees," Jordan says. "In a major league clubhouse there are boxes of balls to be signed; marginal players sign all the time. They then give them out to advertisers or whoever they want to give them out to. But guys like Mantle and Reggie Jackson would only sign them some of the time. Lou Gehrig, even while he was sick, was still appearing on all Yankee team balls. Knowledgeable collectors conclude that his wife, Eleanor, signed many of his letters and photos in 1938 and in 1939. He still signed certain things, until he got incapable of doing so.
"Then there are a few people who forge for a living; even the people who do it for a ball club. If all you do for a ball club is sign three or four names missing from a team ball, you get pretty good at it."
But Jordan got wise to the fakes. "I developed my research and took courses on paper and ink and other things, because I also collected in other fields. I have no degree." Still, he has become expert at discerning fakes by looking at the ink, the size of the signature, even the spot where the signature is signed. "Inside knowledge comes after 25 years of doing this. Some guys just don't sign the same place on the ball." These days the location of choice for a signature is called "the sweet spot," that spot on the ball where the distance between the stitches is narrowest. But this spot is only a recent preoccupation. "Nobody gave any care to the sweet spot until the early to mid-'70s shows," Jordan says, "but Ruth usually signed on the sweet spot." If balls at a card show are from players who signed in the 1960s or before and they are always signed on the sweet spot, there may be reason for suspicion. "Forgers have to do things right to fool a knowledgeable collector," Jordan continues. "Unfortunately, they don't have to do many things right to fool an average collector."
Jordan doesn't like to point out what customers should look for in forgeries, for that information benefits the forger in his deception, who'll just clean it up. But he does offer some advice. "If a Gehrig ball is signed on the sweet spot, that's a red flag." Another warning signal for Gehrig signatures is single signed balls, which were rare in his day. More balls were signed by teams then, so an overabundance of single signed balls by Gehrig is suspect. "Some guys are mediocre to good at forgery and others are really good. Some can do the whole damned 1912 Giants team. The average knowledgeable collector can't see this. There are only two or three who are knowledgeable about autographs and I happen to be one of them."
Jordan has taken it upon himself to validate genuine articles and expose forgeries. "I have my own authentication company and I will give out a certificate of authenticity," he says. He charges $100 to $150 for an average autograph and up to $250 to validate team balls, which generally contain 10 to 25 signatures. He spends most of his time authenticating higher-priced items. "A Cal Ripken autograph is not worth sending to me," he says. "It's only worth $100." But for more expensive items, such as cards, photos or balls signed by Mantle or Ruth or Hank Aaron or DiMaggio, his service is worth it.
While a Jordan certificate of authenticity carries some clout, many do not. "From an honest person certificates of authenticity are fine; from a dishonest person it's part of the lie," says Jordan. "Just because a person has an ad in a publication or a table at a card show, that doesn't mean their material is real. It has been very difficult in this industry to police the offenders; law enforcement agencies are not that cooperative. Some promoters throw dealers out but have gotten sued for doing so." And Jordan leaves would-be collectors with a valuable rule: "Serious collectors must do their research."
Barry Halper has. As collectors go, he is an exception. Most of his collection does not require verification. So extensive is Halper's collection of cards, uniforms and other artifacts--which covers every last inch of available floor and wall space in the lower level of his home--that he needed to put more than half of it in storage. Other uniforms, paintings and photos are on loan to Mickey Mantle's Restaurant in Manhattan, a joint so full of his memorabilia that it could be renamed Halper's North.
Halper has given more than 100 tours of his treasures. He tries his best to be patient with reporters who ask for the spelling of Gehrig and others who inquire, "What is a Triple Crown?" Sports Illustrated photographers once roamed his rooms for two weeks. "I just can't keep having people come over to the house," he says with a sigh. Then there are the determined waifs who call at all hours to have their 1948 Bowman Yogi Berra card appraised. When Halper's assistant, Tom D'Alonzo, tells them such a card is worth about $500, the caller fumes, "That can't be true; it's worth much more than that." It isn't. And if they wanted to argue with the answer, why did they call the Expert of Exchange in the first place?
No wonder Halper is looking to have well-heeled investors purchase his collection and give it ample room to breathe in a museum. He has retained the New York investment bank of Lazard Freres & Co. to find a suitable home for his wares. "I still want to be part of it," he says. "I want it in the [New York] metropolitan area for the public to see." One possible location is nearby Hoboken, where legend has it the first "modern" baseball game was played on June 19, 1846.
Anyone looking to buy will have to ante up some serious cash. The New York auction house Christie's finished its appraisal of his collection in November 1995. After armies of appraisers examined Halper's diamond treasures for more than six months--"Men and women came every other day; I couldn't take it everyday," Halper says wearily--they had put a price on every last bit of merchandise. (The priciest bit of attire was Gehrig's autographed uniform from 1936, the first year the "NY" appeared on the pinstripes. The appraised value? $400,000. He also owns one of the rare Honus Wagner cards. "The Wagner card would probably get $1 million at auction," Halper says of his mint condition T-206 card.)
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.
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."
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