Making the Hobby Rounds With DiMaggio, Thome, Payton and More

By Tom Talbot

I once worked with a guy named Bill who had an every-day routine that I still remember 20 years later.

Every day, I’d pull into the parking lot, get out of my car and make my way toward our office building’s rear entrance. And there would be Bill, hanging out by the back door, enjoying the morning air while, er, taking a drag on his ever-present cigarette. In a conversation we’d repeat every morning, I’d say, “Hey there Bill, what’s going on?” And he’d always say, “A little of this, a little of that.”

So, with fond memories of an old friend, I give you a “Classic Collectibles” column bearing “a little of this, a little of that.” (And because I’ve got the Beatles playing in the background, the “Fab Four” gets an assist with subtitles.)

Here comes the sun
What’s common knowledge to those of us who “live” in the sports memorabilia hobby can be surprising – even shocking – to those outside of it. I experienced just such a reminder at a local appraisal event recently. A woman brought in two Joe DiMaggio autographs – one on a baseball, one on a photograph – and wanted to know what the items are worth.
I took a look at the photo and it looked “right” to me; if I were correct, it would be a nice $250-$400 item. (A Hunt Auction sale in July had five DiMaggio-signed pieces: three photos that drew $300 each, another that brought $350, and a lithograph that fetched $400.)

But there was one little problem with this woman’s DiMaggio photo – a problem that many of you would have picked up sooner rather than later: The signature was a facsimile.
The woman had a copy of a signed photograph – albeit a really good copy. Her late husband had collected a number of autographs (we can assume he knew this a facsimile), but the woman didn’t have any experience with the hobby. So to her, the photo she brought in couldn’t have been anything but a good-looking DiMaggio signature in a frame behind glass. Alas, the “signed” photo has only decorative value, as they say, although I told her it would still look nice hanging on a wall.

The woman’s baseball was a different story. Her husband bought it at an autograph show in the 1990s; she remembers that he had DiMaggio sign it, and she showed me the certificate of authenticity issued to her husband. It came from a show promoter whose reputation is solid, so even though I wasn’t pretending to be PSA or SGC, I felt confident that this was an authentic DiMaggio baseball.

But (there’s that word again) there was one problem. The autograph was badly faded – really badly faded. I asked her if she has had it displayed in a sunny room. She verified, “Yes, it’s been on a shelf near a window for years.”

I showed her some photos of signed baseballs in a book so she could see how a well-preserved, generously inked autograph looks. In the case of the Joe D. ball her husband treasured, sadly, the sun had turned a once-bold signature into a whisper. Had it been protected from the elements, it might a $500-$800 item. But its condition makes it worth far less.

It’s not worthless, of course, because you can still make out DiMaggio’s signature. And she promised to keep it out of the light going forward to preserve what’s there. But she learned a hard lesson, even if she didn’t intend to sell the ball. I couldn’t help but feel bad for her – although we’ve all got our own “oops” stories, don’t we? (I’ll get to one of mine in a minute.)

Do you know a secret?
One more thought on Joe DiMaggio. Every time I talk about his collectibles or autographs with other baseball fans, collectors or readers, I think of a letter I got many years ago.

Back when I was editing Tuff Stuff magazine in the 1990s, we used to get tons of letters from readers asking us for an evaluation of an item. My favorite came from a reader who sent in a photocopy of a DiMaggio 8-by-10, with autograph, that he had recently bought from a dealer.

I took one look at the signature and instantly knew it was a fake. Again, I wasn’t trying to be PSA or SGC, but this one was too easy: The Yankee Clipper’s last name was inked as “DiMagio,” with only one “g.” How’s that for a careless forger? He misspelled his subject’s name! It sounds like it could have been a scene in Dumb and Dumber, doesn’t it?
That’s a true story – although I sure wish I had saved that letter!

I should have known better
The faded-baseball story that kicks off this column is the result of a woman who simply didn’t know any better. Sometimes, even those of us who do know better can screw up.
For example, I have hanging in my closet a T-shirt with a Chicago Bears graphic on it along with a signature inked by the great Walter Payton, who between 1975 and 1987 broke football’s all-time rushing record with 16,726 yards (surpassed since then only by Emmitt Smith).

Unfortunately, after relocating around 10 years ago, I left the T-shirt in a bin in our basement, which turned out to have quite a bit of dampness. When I unearthed the T-shirt a few years after moving, I found that Payton’s autograph “ran” just as hard as the man himself ran. It bled into one big blob of ink.

That’s the kind of error that has me kicking myself, because I should know better.

Hello goodbye
Jim Thome hasn’t announced whether he’ll return to the field next season or hang up his spikes. So while he weighs his decision and the baseball media speculates, it strikes me that he sure has been around a while. I remember picking up Thome in late 1992, my first year playing fantasy baseball in a league that’s still going strong.

Twenty years and 604 total home runs after he started, Thome is a Hall of Fame lock, a credit to the game and one of those increasingly rare role-model athletes. He’s also widely hailed as a genuinely nice guy. (Good read: the Sept. 27, 2010, issue of Sports Illustrated, which features a beautiful photograph of Thome in mid-swing, hitting a dramatic homer for the Twins.)

I got a first-hand example of Thome’s authenticity in 2003. I traveled to Florida that March with the great photographer Ozzie Sweet, who hadn’t done a tour of spring training camps in more than 15 years (although he did go to the Yankees’ camp in 1999 to photograph a trio of their stars).

Anyway, our plan was to fill a chapter in a book we were working on, The Boys of Spring, with images of contemporary players. Ozzie was 84 years old that spring and still traveled with the same high-end equipment he used to capture DiMaggio, Stengel, Mantle and Williams. Still, I didn’t know if the players I would be approaching would be cooperative or arrogant.

The very first camp we attended was in Kissimmee, Fla., where the Houston Astros trained. That day, they were playing the visiting Philadelphia Phillies, and Ozzie and I arrived as the Phils were loosening up.

During a short break in the action, I approached Thome and asked if he’d pose for a photograph. He listened politely to my pitch and even seemed flattered that Ozz would want to capture his image.  Then he said, “Can you and Mr. Sweet wait here for a minute? I’ve gotta get somebody . . .” Then he turned and jogged away. “Uh-oh,” I said to Ozz. “I wonder if that was a polite brush-off?”

But sure enough, Thome came jogging back with a young teammate, Jim Crowell.
“I’d like to get Jim here in the picture, too, if you don’t mind,” he said. So “Mr. Sweet” photographed the two of them together. And in The Boys of Spring, on p. 214, there’s a photo of a smiling Thome with his arm around Crowell, a 29-year-old career minor leaguer who started in the Indians’ chain in 1997 and ultimately would retire in 2007 with only 13 innings pitched in the big leagues. I’ve always thought that it was a nice gesture on Thome’s part – to share an informal portrait with a player who hadn’t experienced great success in the major leagues.

We’d love to see Thome get another 300 or so at-bats in 2012, but either way, his place in baseball history is secure. Although throughout the 1990s and 2000s, we watched a number of sluggers join the 500 and 600 Home Run Clubs, too many of them had ties to steroids. Fans – and, yes, collectors – generally look at the “exploits” of Manny Ramirez (555 homers), Rafael Palmeiro (569), Mark McGwire (583), Sammy Sosa (609) and Alex Rodriguez (629) with a certain consternation or great resentment. Or maybe just a shrug or a yawn. Ditto for the all-time home-run leader, Barry Bonds.

But Thome joined the 500 Home Run Club and – late in the 2011 season – the 600 Home Run Club without controversy and without raising suspicions. He truly has done things the right way. Thome reminds me of the late Harmon Killebrew – a quiet but powerful slugger not known for blowing his own horn. (Ozzie Sweet photographed Killebrew, too, back in the 1960s, and somehow I can imagine Harmon calling him “Mr. Sweet,” as well.)

Despite Thome’s success, he’s not one of those budget-busting names in the memorabilia world. You could build a nice stash of Thome collectibles, after all, without breaking the bank. An autographed Thome baseball can be had for $75-$100. You’ll also see examples offered at $200 and even more, but if you shop around, study his signature and deal with sellers you trust, you can stay at sub-$100 prices.

Thome cards, too, are plentiful and affordable. Key issues: his 1991 Bowman and Upper Deck cards; you’ll find top-condition examples of either card for less than $10 – sometimes for under $1! That said, either one can exceed $200 if graded at a 9 or 10, as proven by a BGS 10 Thome Upper Deck rookie that fetched $275 in October.

Look past his rookie issues and Thome card prices get really humble. On eBay this month, for example, an impressive lot of 900 Thome cards (including 456 different ones) issued between 1991 and 2003 sold for just $60. That’s $60 for 900 Thome cards! The seller noted that the cards have a combined book value of $584.

Tomorrow never knows
Finally, it doesn’t hurt to remind you from time to time of some classic hobby wisdom: collect what you like – or, to paraphrase, collect the players you like. When you focus your collection on phenoms who are “sure” to become megastars, well, you’re bound to swing and miss more than you connect.

To that end, I’m wondering what all those early-1990s speculators did with their stashes of David Nied cards. He was a sure-fire HOFer – based on his Double-A stats. He did go on to become a 17-game winner, but it took him his entire major league career (parts of five seasons) to get there. No offense to Nied; just getting to the big leagues is an accomplishment. But I remember how much of a buzz surrounded him in the early 1990s.

It was the same with names like Bob Hamelin (a Royals first baseman), Bill Pulsipher (Mets pitcher), Charles Johnson (Marlins catcher) and countless others. They illustrate that advance hype doesn’t always equal success – or merit a hoard of cards and collectibles.

For every Cal Ripken Jr. and Derek Jeter, there are dozens who don’t quite make it.
I also remember, back in my Tuff Stuff days, how much buzz surrounded Daryl Strawberry, Will Clark, Jose Canseco, Ryan Klesko and even my favorite player from the era, Don Mattingly. Collectors and hobby experts were absolutely positive that each of these players would be enshrined in Cooperstown one day. While they all had productive stretches and long careers, they fall short of “the hallowed halls.”

So be true to your team and your favorite players. If they don’t pan out, at least you’ll have spent your money on memorabilia you actually want.

Larry Canale is author of the book “Mickey Mantle: Memories & Memorabilia” (Krause, 2011) and editor-in-chief of “Antiques Roadshow Insider.” He also spent six years editing Tuff Stuff magazine and has authored two books with photographer Ozzie Sweet: “Mickey Mantle/The Yankee Years” (1998) and “The Boys of Spring” (2005). He can be reached at larrycanale@comcast.net.

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