By Doug Koztoski
Or how about the iconic letter signed by Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis, Major League Baseball’s first commissioner, in which he responded to “Shoeless” Joe Jackson’s inquiry about being reinstated into the big leagues after the Black Sox scandal of 1919? (Of course, we know that decision went against the legendary hitter.)
On the lighter side, there is Jose Canseco’s Texas Rangers hat – the same one he wore in 1993, when a ball hit by the Cleveland Indians’ Carlos Martinez bounced off Canseco’s head and landed in the stands for a home run.
All of these pieces – and a couple hundred more – have been in Seth Swirsky’s collection for several years. But that is about to change. On April 7, Heritage Auctions puts the core of these classics in the auction arena. Swirsky, an author and pop songwriter for artists including Taylor Dayne, Celine Dion and Al Green, is comfortable with the artifacts moving on to new owners.
“I’m a ‘manic-expressive,’ and I felt like I’ve kind of done it all with my collection,” said Swirsky. “Things are naturally over at some point, and I thought the items could be enjoyed by others. I absolutely loved the collection. It was just time, and I could sell the collection when I can see others enjoy it. I am not sad, and money is not the driving force.”
Chris Ivy, director of sports collectibles for Heritage, said this mini-museum of memorabilia generates sparks of enjoyment on several levels.
“The Swirsky Collection is a labor of love unlike any we’ve handled in the past,” said Ivy. “We want to make sure that our bidders are as excited as Seth was in its assembly, and as we are for the opportunity to bring it to market.”
A blast from the past
Swirsky purchased items in his collection from a galaxy of sources. He bought a few through Heritage, including the ball from Reggie Jackson’s highlight-reel homer off Dock Ellis in the 1971 All-Star game in Detroit.
“It hit the light pole, and studies have been done showing that it would have been the longest-hit baseball of all time if it hadn’t hit the pole – a massive blast that ‘announced’ Jackson’s arrival into the pantheon of greats,” said Swirsky.
Swirsky’s approach to collecting baseball memorabilia skews more toward “savor” than SABR, Ivy said.
“The collection covers many decades, many teams, many players, but there’s a common theme that runs through it all,” said Ivy. “Every piece has a distinctly human element. It’s no coincidence that Seth is an artist, a writer and musician. He’s not a stats guy; he’s a story guy.”
Swirsky, whose 1996 book Baseball Letters landed on the New York Times bestseller list, is a Mets fan of the highest order. He first collected baseball items in 1969, when he worked on the mainstream Topps set as a 9-year-old.
In fact, the Long Island, N.Y., native even went to one of the 1969 World Series games with his dad at Shea Stadium and watched the Mets on their way to upsetting the strongly-favored Baltimore Orioles. In 1994, Swirsky rejoined the hobby with a purchase of an autographed 1969 Mets team-signed ball. (He’s keeping this item).
Two items that will be in the auction are neck and neck for the honor of ultimate Mets memorabilia: a 1969 World Series game-worn jersey of Mets ace Tom Seaver, and the 1986 World Series Game 6 Bill Buckner/Mookie Wilson baseball.
Yes, included in the sale is the ball that squibbed off Wilson’s bat and trickled through Buckner’s legs as the New Yorkers clawed their way back from what looked like certain defeat to win the game and avoid elimination, leading to the Game 7 victory over Boston in the classic match-up.
“This ball has it all,” said Ivy. “The agony and the ecstasy, the Curse of the Bambino, arguably the most famous single play in modern baseball history.”
Swirsky said Mets’ fans voted the Buckner/Wilson moment “the most important play at Shea Stadium.” It’s hard to argue with that decision.
One, two, three, four!
In 1965, the Mets struggled to win a decent amount of regular season games, but at least the team’s stadium came through that year, as it hosted a Beatles concert for a record-setting 55,000 screaming fans. How does that relate to Swirsky’s auction? A ball signed by all four Beatles – John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Ringo Starr – on that raucous night is among the Swirsky-owned items included in the Heritage auction catalog.
A lifelong Beatles fan, Swirsky said the 1965 concert “changed the music business,” since bands had not played sports stadiums up until that point.
Shortly before the Swirsky Collection auction wraps up on April 27-28, another of Seth’s passions will become available, but on a different scale.
On April 23 in The Beatles’ hometown of Liverpool, England, as well as London and other sites in the country, Swirsky’s feature-length documentary film Beatles Stories will enjoy its world debut, helping to commemorate the 50th anniversary of The Beatles signing the group’s first official record deal in 1962.
With a little help from my friends
Swirsky’s decision to sell some of his collectibles comes at an ideal time, said Mike Gutierrez, a Heritage consignment director, who has known Swirsky for decades and played a large part in the collector obtaining “theme” baseballs.
“His material is really hot right now,” said Gutierrez. “The market is really strong for rare, high-profile and historic memorabilia. By the high-profile items doing well (in general), that helps the middle and lower-end pieces do well, and those hobby levels need that.”
Swirsky said his wife and kids backed his decision to sell his collection.
“They only care for my happiness,” he said. “My kids understand that life is like a book in that it has chapters to it. My collecting chapter, which I enjoyed immensely, is now over, and I am very much looking forward to whatever that next chapter will be.”
With Swirsky’s love of music, perhaps that next chapter will borrow its inspiration from some Beatles’ lyrics: “It calls me on and on across the universe.”
Doug Koztoski is a freelance contributor to SCD. Comments on this article are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org.