A trip to Cleveland provided lasting memories

By Barry Blair

As I write this, I just got back from spending most of the last week in the Cleveland area and thought I would share with you a recap on all that I was able to take in.

ESPN’s Sal Paolantonio signs copies of his book at the Pro Football Hall of Fame. (Barry Blair photo)

It starts with an early Tuesday morning departure from my home in Jonesborough, Tennessee. The first stop on my excursion is six hours away by car, the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio. It is induction week, but the thing I most want to see is the Hunt/Casterline Football Card Exhibit that is currently on display there. It is said to be the most highly graded and valuable football card collection in the world. It is owned by Dan Hunt and Robert Casterline and is on loan to the Hall. Hunt is the son of Lamar Hunt, the founder of the old American Football League, the Kansas City Chiefs, and a member of the Hall of Fame.

Their collection contains the highest PSA graded rookie or first year cards known to exist for all Hall of Fame members, with the most famous being the 1965 Topps Joe Namath. Only four of these cards have ever received a grade as high as a 9, and they have one of them in their collection. They also have eight cards with a grade of 8. All nine are on display and the total value of them is said to be well over $800,000. To put that in perspective, these nine cards are worth twice as much as Namath’s initial contract of $400,000 from the New York Jets, at that time the highest amount ever given a professional football player.

There is also a complete set of the 1894 Mayo Cut Plug Set, the first to focus solely on football players. Only 15 complete sets of these cards are known to exist. They also have the 1935 National Chicle set, considered by many collectors as the “Holy Grail” of football sets. All of the 700 cards on display in the exhibit have been graded.

A personal highlight for me was getting to meet Michael Munoz, a former All-American offensive lineman for the University of Tennessee. He is currently the vice president of Character Development for the Hall and is the son of Hall of Famer Anthony Munoz, former star of the Cincinnati Bengals and the University of Southern California Trojans. 

There was plenty of pack busting taking place at this year’s National Sports Collectors Convention in Cleveland. (Barry Blair photo)

On Wednesday, it was on to Cleveland and the opening of the National Sports Collectors Convention at the I-X Center. It is an hour-long drive from Canton. The plan was to arrive in time for the Topps VIP Party that kicked things off. When I get there, the I-X Center Ballroom is packed and the lines to get autographs from former Indians manager Mike Hargrove and pitcher Luis Tiant are wrapped around the room. My guess is the odds of everyone waiting in line to get something signed in the allotted time is not going to happen. NBA Hall of Famer Calvin Murphy was there signing as well. Plenty of food and drinks were available and everyone seemed to be having a great time, plus they also got to enter the show before everyone else.

I had been to the show in Cleveland three years ago, and while I know the National doesn’t give out attendance figures, it seemed to me that this show was even bigger and better than it was the last time it was here. There were people stacked up and waiting their turn at tables all over the place, and the dealers that I talked with over the three days I was there, seemed very pleased with the business they were doing.

One of the first things I spotted at a booth for sale that jumped out at me was a stone marker that said, “Babe Ruth-The King of Baseball-Played On This Site- October 31, 1928.” When I asked the gentleman who had it what the history of it was, he told me that all he knew was that it was thought to have come from a field somewhere in Ohio or Pennsylvania on a barnstorming tour the Babe had put on. I’m guessing there is someone out there, with the date being available, who knows where this game was played. If you do, reach out to me, as it has my curiosity up. It certainly got my attention. I would think it would be a great conversation piece for someone’s sports bar.

An autographed Shohei Ohtani jersey was available at the National for $559. (Barry Blair photo)

One of the people I ran into on the floor was Rex Ryan, former coach of the New York Jets and the Buffalo Bills. I was not that surprised to see him, as Jeff Roberts, who runs the successful Nashville (Tennessee) shows, has told me before that he has been known to show up there. I asked him what he liked to collect and he did somewhat surprise me when he said “vintage baseball.” I figured it would be football. Here’s hoping he gets back into the game one day soon. He is on TV, but I think it is the NFL’s loss that he is not coaching somewhere.

I know that ESPN and Fox Sports like to go on and on with their coverage of NFL football and NBA basketball, but when it comes to collecting, baseball clearly rules. Football comes in second, and basketball a distant third.

I was surprised that in Cleveland, there really didn’t seem to be all that much available on LeBron and the Cavaliers. There was lots of stuff on the Indians and the Browns. One guy had programs from the Cleveland Browns’ inaugural season (the first time around) for sale. There were lots of Jim Brown football cards prominently displayed throughout the show. The last time here it was all about…oh yeah….Johnny Manziel. That didn’t work out too well.

On Friday, you could take a chance and buy unopened packs of 1955 Bowman baseball from VintageBreaks459 for $500 a pop. Chris Rothe of Baltimore did so, and when it was opened on the Mike Berkus Main Stage, out came a beautiful Mickey Mantle card. He had it graded by PSA and it came back a 9, only the eighth one they had ever recorded. It was reported that he had been offered $50,000 for it before the day was out. There were lots of Mantle cards all over the floor and they were fetching high prices. All the recent publicity about million-dollar sales on his ’52 Topps cards keep the Mick out front and still leading the way.

One of my favorite displays was a dealer who had a case with all of the Topps Living set cards that have been made available to this point. One of the most expensive was a Nick Markakis with a $400 asking price. Hey, Nick is having a great year for the Braves, but the price is being driven by the fact that the card was short printed and now everyone wants one. I would have thought Shohei Ohtani or Ronald Acuna, Jr. would bring the most. “Not so,” he said.

Dale Murphy signs an autograph for an Atlanta Braves fan. (Barry Blair photo)

As usual, the autograph lines at the TRISTAR Autograph Pavilion were a busy section of the floor. Early in the week it was mostly football guys who came in to sign before going on to Canton for the Hall of Fame Induction weekend. Then the baseball guys moved in. Pete Rose drew a huge crowd with people lining up early in anticipation of his appearance. For the guys I saw signing, I would give a thumbs up to former Redskins Joe Theismann, the Braves’ Dale Murphy, the Indians’ Mike Hargrove, the Red Sox’ Rico Petrocelli and NBA Hall of Famer Calvin Murphy, for their rapport with the fans.

One lady asked Theismann if he was excited to get on to Canton later that day for the HOF ceremonies. “Unfortunately,” he told her with a smile on his face, “I’m not in that select group.” He handled it well, without making her feel bad for asking.

The National is all things to all people. There are those in search of vintage cards. You see them all over the floor with their notebooks and wantlists, working to finish sets. The corporate booths draw huge crowds. Topps and Panini both had long lines throughout the day for their redemption programs. Lots and lots of boxes of cards were opened. The auction companies have lots of vintage memorabilia and cards on display for everyone to see, and they will give you their latest catalog.

Looking for pictures, bats, pennants, tickets, or programs? This is the place to find them. If autographed balls, baseball and football, are your thing, they are everywhere. The same with football helmets, both large and small. The younger crowd goes for the box breaks, which seem to keep growing in popularity every year.

Got cards you want graded? You can do that here and take ’em home with you when you leave.

Joe Theismann shows off his Super Bowl rings. (Barry Blair photo)

The TRISTAR Autograph Pavilion is always crowded. You know what you are getting as long as you don’t mind paying for it. The same is true for guys that are hard-to-get signers. Chances are they will be here at some point over the five days, and you can get them for a price. It is truly a collector’s paradise. I left the show with the feeling that the industry is thriving and growing. Next year’s show is in Chicago and the tables are already sold out.

On Friday night it was off to Progressive Field to watch the Cleveland Indians host the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim (I think they need to go back to being the California Angels, a much more realistic name). I got tickets in the bleachers, as close to centerfield as possible, so that I could watch Mike Trout up close and in person. Only one problem, when they gave the starting line-ups, he is nowhere to be found, out with a wrist injury.

Not all was lost though, as Shohei Ohtani put on a show by hitting two home runs off of Mike Clevinger. One to deep left field and one to deep right, there was no question they were gone when they left his bat. For everyone at the National selling Ohtani cards, this had to bring a smile to their faces. The Angels won 7 to 4. It was a beautiful night in a sold out beautiful ballpark. Not only that, it was dollar night on hot dogs, with a fireworks show after the game to boot. Downtown Cleveland was abuzz, all around the ballpark.

On Saturday, it was back to Canton for the Hall of Fame induction day. ESPN’s football reporter Sal Paolantonio was there selling and signing his new book, Philly Special, which covers the Eagles’ run to last year’s Super Bowl and their dramatic victory over the Patriots.

The fans, there by the thousands to see their favorite players go into the Hall, are amazing. The same can be said of the job done by the Canton community. One lady told me, “You should have been at our parade this morning. You know the only one bigger is Macy’s on Thanksgiving Day.” I had no reason to not believe her. 

Panini was there giving out packs of cards and selling a special set of cards of this year’s inductees. Wilson would make you your own personalized “The Duke” football as you waited, right there in a little red trailer they brought for the occasion. When I asked about the old-looking sewing machine they were using, their rep said, “Check us out on YouTube and you’ll see that is what we make all our footballs with.”

There was a huge crowd on Saturday at the “Gold Jacket Autograph Tent” as fans lined up to get to meet their favorite players and get items signed. From what I saw there, the NFL jersey business is thriving.

For me, it was special to see Jerry Kramer of the Packers finally get in. His wait was over 40 years. Why it took so long for him to be recognized is beyond me.

The same with Bobby Beathard, the former team executive who helped build Super Bowl teams for the Vikings, Dolphins, Redskins, and Chargers. He should have been in years ago as well. One thing I learned was that Beathard and John Madden were teammates in college. Madden donated his first “Maddencruiser” bus to the Hall and it was on display, with a long line of fans waiting to get in and check it out.

If one of your favorite players is being inducted in Canton, you should make every effort to go.

I returned home to Tennessee tired and happy. I can’t wait to go to Chicago next year. Hope to see you there. 

Barry Blair is an author/writer who lives in Jonesborough, Tennessee. He is a frequent contributor to Sports Collectors Digest and can be reached at barryblair54@gmail.com. You can also visit his website at www.rightfieldpress.com.

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