A comics genius with a sporting side, too

1200.jpgSteve Geppi is easily one of the city of Baltimore’s biggest boosters, as a part-owner of the Orioles and his virtually undisputed role as sports fan extraordinaire. The owner of Gemstone, Diamond Comic Distributors, Alliance Game Distributors and Diamond Galleries, he has attained a remarkable stature in the world of comics, and in recent years has expanded his role in the sports memorabilia hobby as the owner of Geppi’s Memorabilia Road Show.

“I am a diehard Baltimorean, I bought the city magazine (Baltimore Magazine) I love it so much. I am very proud and very involoved in the Inner Harbor East. It is phenomenal what’s happened in Baltimore over the last two decades,” said Geppi in a recent phone interview.

“The Inner Harbor, it’s just bustling, and it’s becoming quite a place for conventions, and we’ve got a huge convention center and two hotels going up just outside of Camden Yards.

“I am opening a museum in Baltimore called Geppi’s Entertainment Museum, in the old train station at Camden Yards. It was dilapidated and falling apart, but the state of Maryland put $8 million into it to turn it into a magnificent re-creation of what it originally was.”

1202.jpgThe Babe Ruth Museum, which is on Embry Street, tried for eight years and has now succeeded in putting together what is called “Sports Legends at Camden Yards. That institution, which incorporates Babe Ruth, has also been the curator of  the Orioles and Colts archives, the Johnny Unitas Collection, the Ravens, etc., and, in Geppi’s words, “just about anything Maryland Sports is represented at the ‘Sports Legends at Camden Yards.’

“They take up the whole first floor of this building, and I just leased the rest of the building, the second and third floors, 16,000 square feet, for Geppi’s Entertainment Museum.”

The 57-year-old Geppi said the museum will open with a couple of VIP receptions on Sept. 6-7, then throw open the doors to the public on Sept. 8
“The Orioles are playing the Yankees Sept. 8-10, so it’s a good time to have a lot of people in town,” he continued. “There’s a comic book convention, Baltimore ComiCon that same weekend, there’s a huge golf tournament, The Celebrity Golf Tournament, that’s connected to Mark Belanger and raises money for the fight against lung cancer.

“Sept. 6 is kind of special for me, too, but it’s also an important night because it was the night Cal Ripken broke the consecutive game record (in 1995), a year later Eddie Murray hit his 500th home run on the same date, the Ravens played their first home game on Sept. 6, and as I like to joke to people, Sept. 6 was my anniversary date in 1969 when I was a mailman at the Post Office,” he said with a laugh.

“I am a numbers guy, so it worked perfectly on the schedule, it’s a Wednesday just after Labor Day.” Geppi said that originally they were going to open on July 4th, but then he thought better of it, realizing that everybody would be out of town for the holiday, including the Orioles.

“It all ties to the auction, all of my auction companies  (Morphy’s, Hake’s Americana & Collectibles, and GMRS) are having their auctions either just before or just after that weekend, so this brings a lot of attention to them as well. In this case, GMRS (Sept. 12-13) will just be three days later from the weekend opening.”

And the items from the auction will be on display at the museum. Geppi’s Entertainment Museum is a timeline of the last 130 years of the country as seen through the eyes of pop culture, with particular attention to the comic characters. The tagline is ‘Pop Culture With Character.’

“Throughout this museum you will see the finest collectibles representing the various periods,” said Geppi, adding that much of it is from his own collection.

“It’s really quite exciting, and we are using all the latest technologies. The kids will be able to make their own comic books, various treasures and things that they can do, and in today’s world, the word ‘edutainment’ is popular in teaching kids and making it fun, and that’s what we hope, for this to the ‘fun’ museum.’

“Knowing that I am a huge collector in the comic book world and a part-owner of the Orioles, people always say to me, ‘What’s your baseball collection like, what’s your sports collection like?’

“It’s kind of ironic that I have a lot of stuff, but it didn’t come to me in the same way that I collected comics, in buying things at auction and stuff like that. I was kind of accumulating things because I was involved in baseball, but I wasn’t one of your aggresive bidders at sports auctions as much as I was at comics auctions.”

Geppi noted that as time went on he started to realize he had a lot of stuff and started to pay attention more to the sports world. Being friends with a lot of the ballplayers and understanding some of the problems in the sports industry relating to authenticity, he thought, “Well, I am already in the auction business already through Hake’s Auction, where we do comics memorabilia and Russ Cochran with comic art, and so I thought this was a natural extension.

“And being in the auction business, it’s my goal to really be the place where you can go for all types of auctions, whether it be paintings, comic books, sports or whatever,” he added.

“I was bidding on the old Memorabilia Road Show hosted by Ed Kranepool, and in more of a curiousity kind of thing I was buying Orioles stuff, nothing real serious, but I guess somebody noticed I was bidding.

“The next thing I know, I was getting a phone call from the guy who owned Memorabilia Road Show and he talked to me about what their situation was. I ended up doing a deal, not to buy The Memorabilia Road Show, but to pick up some of the pieces that were scattered with the promise of a couple of collections that were being lined up.”

Those were the Bert Padell Collection and the Toby Weston Cone Collection that the company auctioned last October. “We formed a new company, Geppi’s Memorablia Road Show was formed as a new corporation and we had the first auction with those two collections.

“I am the kind of guy who if I am going to do something, I am going to do it right, so we’ve purposely kind of laid back for awhile and we haven’t had another auction since October, but we did come out and announce that we’ve gotten the Phil Rizzuto, and only recently we added the Rusty Staub Collection.”

As noted earlier, the dates of the auction are Sept. 12-13, and both of those collections will be in the sale, along with other material. Geppi explained that the premise of what they always tried to do was to get things that are strictly from the player or the player’s family to try to establish provenance more readily.

“We still go through all the normal authentication procedures, but with my connections in sports, being friendly with Cal Ripken and a number of other players, I know they all see the auction market as a place for revenue for them, but they are afraid of it because they keep hearing stories about how their buddies go burned.

“So I thought if I could bring some credibility to it, not being presumptuous about it, being a real legitimate enterprise, and maybe have more of a presence than perhaps somebody at a convention,” Geppi said. “So I started to build this infrastructure working behind the scenes getting the legitimate type of operation you need in order to function as an auction house.”

Geppi noted the two-day auction would likely be in the range of 600-1,000 items. “I am not a big fan of the auction where the auctioneer rapid-fires and machine guns through the items. And with the live component, we want it to be exciting. The preview would be i n the museum, but the auction itself at the facility here on the sixth floor.”

*  *  *  *

“I’ve always loved sports and I’ve been a baseball fan since I was a little boy. The first game I ever saw was on television: Don Larsen’s perfect game in the 1956 World Series, and I’ll never forget Yogi Berra running out and jumping into his arms.

“It wasn’t until 1993 when Peter Angelos bought the Orioles and I was part of that original group, but my link to the ballclub goes back even before that,” Geppi said proudly.

“In 1986, I discovered fantasy baseball and I started to go to the Oriole fantasy camps since then. And I’ve gone to those camps almost every year since I’ve been there, and in one of the years I missed I went to a Dodgers camp, because I am friends with Wes Parker and he talked me into going to his camp a couple of years. And other years I’ve gone to the Phillies camp and All-Star camp, so you can see I am kind of a frustrated old guy who wishes he could have played baseball.”

Geppi says the fantasy camp thing has become something of a monster, and he noted that the camps are held all over the world. He has had friends who went to camps in Russia and Japan.

“Anyway, since I had been going to the camps since 1986, by the time I became a part-owner in 1993, I already had relationships with all the old Orioles: Brooks, Frank, Boog and Elrod Hendricks. So when I became a part owner, it was an expansion of that original connection. so I went from being a little boy watching and rooting for Jim Gentile in 1961 when he hit his five grand slams, including two in one game, to having him become one of my best buddies, and someone who stays at my house when he comes to Baltimore. Talk about a dream for a little boy.

“Brooks Robinson is also a very dear friend of mine, and we had some of his stuff in our last auction and we’ll have some more pieces in this auction.” Always animated, Geppi reveals a special enthusiasm when talking about the Hall of Famer who has a special hold on Baltimore fans of all ages.

“I first met him at the fantasy camp in 1986, physically met him, though like everybody in Baltimore, we felt like we knew Brooks just because he was ours. There is no greater ambassador to baseball – or human being than Brooksie. It’s just an honor to know him, he’s such a gentleman. He’s as good as it gets.

“So all these guys are my friends, and now what’s happened in the last 13 years is I’ve become friends with quite a few of the newer Orioles.”

Geppi says that connection with the ballplayers helped to make him a likely candidate for his current role. “I was somebody who could come into the auction business who has some baseball affiliation already with the players, who comes already with an established business and who could take the bull by the horns and see if I can’t do what I did in the world of comics in the sports world.

“And I am not saying that to denigrate any of the competitors, because there are a number of very credible guys, and I do business with all of them. But there are some that aren’t, and the industry as a whole suffers from that perception that you can’t trust anybody.

“I decided to get it all done behind the scenes first with GMRS, so when you come out it will be a regular schedule not just a one-in-awhile schedule. I believe that you don’t get a second chance to make a good first impression.”

Geppi said that it can be argued that getting the Rizzuto and Staub collections can be traced back to Bert Padell, who was the batboy for the Yankees.

“Bert took a liking to me, and has tried to help us where he can to influence others to come to us to auction their material. And Bert is friends with Phil, and his being Italian it was a natural fit with me.”

Geppi talked about the misconception that auctioning material is somehow enhanced after the player’s passing, and suggested instead that there’s a real advantage to having the player on hand and helping to promote the live portion of the auction.

“Phil is the oldest member of the Hall of Fame and is very popular, and was a 40-year broadcaster for the Yankees as well, and everybody remembers Phil at one level or another.

“What we have going for us, Phil is very much beloved and very much alive, and he was one of the guys who was on all five of the teams from the consecutive run from 1949-53,” Geppi continued. “He has 11 World Series rings, including his 1953 ring that’s going into the auction. We have his 1950 MVP trophy, and a lot of great other stuff.”

Rusty Staub, known as “Le Grand Orange” when he was the marquee player of the brand-new Montreal Expos from 1969-71, is another interesting character. “He’s got a lot of great stuff from a lot of players besides himself. At some of auctions it’s just a hodgepodge of different players, but I like the idea of having the Phil Rizzuto Collection and the Rusty Staub Collection,” Geppi said.

“You don’t know how long you can continue that, because there’s a finite number of collections out there that are maintained by the original guys, but we’re optimistic we can do it for a good period. I am sure we’ll have to adapt and do specific types of auctions, and the hardest part is you just can’t find the stuff.”

Even in its original incarnation under Ed Kranepool’s name, the company had talked about having a significant live component to the auction, and Geppi noted that idea has hardly gone away.

“These auctions go online on our auction websites, culminating in what we call ‘eBay live,’ so we’re again working in that fashion, but we plan to have a live element at this September auction,” he continued, noting that so much of the material would be previewed at the opening of the new museum in the days before the auction.

“We are hoping that, as time goes on, we’ll do something similar to what my auction house in Pennsylvania does, where the stuff is essentially previewed in the showroom for months before the sale.

“With the museum, we’re hoping that it will double as a showroom for our auctions as well. You want to put people in the atmosphere where the material is being treated as valuable, given the prices that these items are bringing. We are selling packaging, too.”

*  *  *  *

“Not to steal from Lou Gehrig, but I consider myself the luckiest guy in the world,” Geppi said of his unique stature as a kind of an uber fan. “The downside is that I never got to finish school, because we were poor. I didn’t know I was poor when I was 8 years old. Later my father left and there was a necessity, and I went to work because that was what you did.

“In many ways I was lucky, I didn’t go to school, but I got a different education. I’ve made a lot of friends, and I like to prove things wrong, I like to prove you can be successful and people can like you, too. That’s what I’ve always tried to do,” he added.

“This is part of a bigger thing for me. I have done very well financially, lived a part of the American Dream, and it is really fun to give back to the community in one way, or go into an area where you already have interest, and you see some part of it that’s tarnishing it on some level, and you go in there and try to make a difference.

“If I can make this fun, the potential is limitless, because people really do want to own things from their favorite players or teams.
” Our National Pastime is something to be preserved.”

Certainly in the city of Baltimore and environs, it would seem to be in pretty good hands.”

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