A big part of the National every year is returning to familiar-looking tables that dot the show floor, old friends, as it were, since that’s precisely what the people behind the tables represent.
There are always a number of tables largely dedicated to particular players – in Baltimore that’s spelled Cal Ripken – but few encapsulate that idea as well as Paul Kutch’s Clemente’s Clubhouse (www.clementesclubhouse.com). I had known Kutch and his sidekick Russell Parsons from a place called Stale Gum when the two were just teenagers in Newark, Del., in the 1980s when the hobby was smokin’ hot, so it’s fun to see them so many years later at the major regional shows and Nationals.
Dr. Jim Beckett was making the rounds once again, which is always a treat, in no small way because he remains one of the true giants in the hobby and a marvelous gentleman at the same time.
Another of my favorite folks, Pennsylvania dealer Dave Czuba, was offering something you occasionally see at auction but not so much for a flat sale price: a complete T206 set, including the variations. That’s pretty neat, even if the $48,500 asking price was way out of my league. More on the estimable Mr. Czuba later on.
While I didn’t see quite as much localized emphasis as I might in Chicago, where every third person is required to have on a Bears jersey, I did spot a wonderful framed Johnny Unitas photograph that would have handsomely complemented the Frederick Kail statue.
Steve Hart’s Baseball Card Exchange would always be an important stop, now made even more pressing with the staffing addition of Reed Kasaoka. Fortunately for me, I guess, by the time I visited they had already sold two 1959 Topps Cellos, which saved me from having to juggle buyer angst with all my regular SCD obligations at the show.
I was in time to catch Robb Ferguson, 37, of Northern Virginia, within moments of his having opened a pack of 1986-87 Fleer and pulling a Michael Jordan card out of the assembled pasteboards. It was his first trip to a National; he bought five of the packs and decided to open one at the show, making a pretty good afternoon from his $330 per-pack purchase price.
As always, the fun was not confined only to the Convention Center. Legendary Auctions annual live auction welcomed Baltimore’s favorite son, Brooks Robinson, as a kind of informal host of the sale Friday evening. In Chicago and Cleveland the high-end sale had been held at trendy locations like the ESPN Zone and the House of Blues; for Baltimore, it was the Maryland Science Center at the Inner Harbor.
The amiable Brooks took a few minutes prior to the auction to regale the assembled bidders and dignitaries – I make no pretense of fitting in either category; I was press – with some brief but funny anecdotes worthy of his iconic status.
As he looked around the crowd of so many of the hobby’s high rollers, he couldn’t help but comment gleefully that the demographic – agewise – was certainly to his liking. “The older the better,” said the Hall of Famer, who then delighted in telling stories about some younger fans and collectors.
“You used to play baseball and you’re in the Hall of Fame,” a young fan told him when Robinson asked him why he wanted an autograph. “Some day you’re going to be dead and this will be worth something,” said the youngster, clearly not on a fast track to a career as a diplomat.
That theme of looming mortality seems to stalk even the immortals. “This book is great,” another fan said cheerily at a book signing. “I thought you were dead.”
Brooks, arguably the game’s greatest ambassador even if everybody who comes up to visit can’t always lay claim to such finely honed diplomatic sensibilities, also recalled a young fan who asked him to sign a card. His request dutifully granted, the youngster then presented Brooks with 20 more of his cards and asked for him to sign all of them. “Why so many?” Robinson asked. “Because it takes 21 of your cards to get a Cal Ripken,” the young fan replied.
Let’s see him try that maneuver on Willie Mays and watch what happens.
Robinson added one more story, this time spreading the wealth to include some older fans as well. “I was visiting fans at a retirement home when I went up to a frail, elderly man and asked him, “Do you know me?”
The man replied, “No, but if you’ll go into that room there’s a lady who can tell you who you are.”
Even if that one bears the whiff of the apocryphal urban legend, just like the Yogi stuff, I don’t care.
And speaking of urban legends, how about this doozy that circulated with great gusto for much of the show’s five-day run. Right smack in the middle of the area where all the show’s hotels were located sat a, ahem, gentleman’s club, adroitly named The Goddess.
The story that was whizzing around the show floor virtually from the opening on Wednesday was that the building was the famous bar that had been operated by Babe Ruth’s father, you know, the one where there’s a remarkable 1915 photograph of Babe and his dad behind the massive bar (shown at top of page).
Well-known dealer Dave Czuba personally spent more than $800 in carefully folded $10 bills doing research on this vital question of baseball lore and legend, diligently spending most of his evening hours trying to determine the legitimacy of this claim.
By Sunday, the initial excitement seeming to link it to the historical site seemed to have subsided a bit, but not until after Czuba and another high-profile collector had even emerged from a visit with a couple of souvenir bricks said to have been from the original building.
Some debunking had already taken place at that point, with a prominent museum curator being paraphrased explaining that the actual site of the Ruth Senior bar would likely have been somewhere in the outfield at Camden Yards.
I don’t care; I vote for the corner of Eutaw and Lombard streets (The Goddess).
No word on whether Czuba is going to work up a scholarly paper for SABR documenting his efforts. I vote yes on that one, too.