Nice digs: SportsFest and a Red Sox reunion to die

Mohegan.jpgI have been on a wonderful but exhausting road trip over the last couple of weeks that sent me to the Mohegan Sun Casino in Uncasville, Conn. (shown upper right), for Dick Gordon’s June 1-3 reunion of the 1967 Boston Red Sox, then on to New York City for the Sotheby’s with SCP auction that turned out to be the doozy you would expect (shown at right). Then it was back to the wilds of Wisconsin for a couple of days and down to Chicago Friday night (June 8) for our annual SportsFest show, this time relocated to the Renaissance Schaumburg Hotel (shown above) about 10 miles west of the former location in Rosemont, Ill.

First things first: the casino, touted as the largest in the world, is easily one of the most spectacular I’ve ever seen. It’s actually two casinos at opposite ends, with all the shops, restaurants and theatres you’d ever want sandwiched in between 6,000 slot machines and all the usual other games of chance, and some not so usual. “‘It was a thrill for Mike (Riccio) and I to bring these guys together,” said Gordon, who has been involved in a boatload of themed shows, including 1967 Red Sox reunions from 30, 35 and now 40 years. “One of the things that made this a little more special was that we worked in conjunction with the Red Sox, which honored the 1967 ballclub before the game at Fenway on Friday evening (June 1) and then had a dinner for them at Anthony’s Pier 4 before busing them to the hospitality suite at the casino.”

Mohegan2.jpgGordon also commented about the reception on Saturday evening that provided Mohegan Sun high rollers with the chance to schmooze with perhaps the most beloved team Red Sox history. As might have been expected, Carl Yastrzemski was the star of the show, but he also turned out to be intent on putting the focus of the weekend on the team as a whole, rather then on himself as the guy who had an absolutely unbelievable 10 days at the end of an equally unbelievable month, capping a year that was quite fairly dubbed “The Impossible Dream.”

Gordon has served for many years as the agent for Yaz when it comes to card shows and signing appearances, so this was maybe old hat, but still hardly routine. “Yaz signed for everybody who came, and he was overwhelmed and yet he still didn’t let one person go unsigned,” Gordon said, shaking his head in amazement. “That’s just the way he is.” Gordon added that the Hall of Famer ended up being an hour later for his dinner reservations, but wouldn’t leave the cocktail party until the very last person had gotten his signature and, in most cases, a photo with him. And this after a day-long session of hobnobbing with the hoi polloi in the main card show area.

I hope I didn’t repeat this to Yaz, who, no doubt has heard the same refrain a couple of zillion times, but I never saw any ballplayer have a stretch even remotely close to what he did at the close of the 1967 season. Coming at what was nearly the apex of a pitching-dominant era, his numbers in that Triple Crown season were stunning, but what he did that September defied simply being distilled and defined by mere numbers.

This was a time when you followed baseball in the newspaper; this was long before cable TV and ESPN, and there was one “national” game on network television every Saturday afternoon. Fans listened on radio and read gaudy, hyperbolic accounts in the newspaper, meaning the listener or reader supplied much of the imagination needed to fill out the picture. To me, a 17-year-old kid still mourning the premature retirement of Sandy Koufax at the end of 1966, it seemed like Yaz got a hit almost every time he stepped to the plate in that final stretch. At the very least, he seemed to come through every time the game hung in the balance.

Now, four decades (and several reunions) later, Yaz sits behind a table and dutifully signs for a dedicated legion of admirers, occasionally taking a drag on a politically incorrect Marlboro Red that he would rest at the edge of the tablecloth between signatures. As an ex-smoker, I closely scrutinize actors in the movies as they fake their way through inhaling; it rarely looks real, though I can hardly criticize an actor for wanting to protect a set of lungs. For Yastrzemski, the act of smoking seemed as natural as that magnificent swing of his, and besides, Yaz is New England royalty, and even if smoking was verboten in those conference rooms, who is going to call him on it?

Gordon, who orchestrated the reunion and the attendant activities along with another well-known East Coast show promoter, Mike Riccio, came up with a marvelous location for his event. I suspect the show area, with about 50 dealers and an area to the side for the player signings, was almost certainly one of the most elegant locations for a card show in a hobby/industry that traces its roots to your Uncle Ned’s garage or maybe a tiny room at a suburban Holiday Inn.

The Saturday night reception was held in one of the upper-level ballrooms where the players posed for pictures and signed stuff for nearly two hours, while all invited nibbled on high-end hors d’oeuvres like itty-bitty lamb chops and various and sundry things wrapped in bacon and such.

It was really interesting to watch such a monied lineup wade around in the world of sports memorabilia and autographs, but despite their collective unfamiliarity with it all, they adjusted pretty quickly and efficiently. Though they had all gotten e-mail invitations to the event, they still found themselves improvising when it came to finding things for the famous Soxers to sign.

The casino had arranged for a camerman to take pictures of the high rollers with the various players and then promptly develop the photos so they could get them signed by the players on the spot. The most innovative effort came when the assembled snagged every home plate that was part of the centerpieces on the tables, getting every player …. starting with, who else, Yaz … to sign the piece.

In the frenzy (dignified but, uh, energetic), one lady with a raspy voice who sounded as if she might have been cheering too enthusiastically from the bleachers thrust a souvenir program in front of my nose. “Are you a Red Sox player from way back?” she asked a bit frantically, not wanting to waste a lot of time and effort if it turned out I was a mere mortal. For a nanosecond I thought about telling her I was Pumpsie Green, but realized the gag might have missed its mark, so I politely explained that I was a lowly fourth estater. I wasn’t necessarily upset that she had lumped me into a group generally 10-plus years older than I am; I get the same treatment at the local grocery store here in Iola, with the teenagers according me the 10 percent senior citizens discount, even though I am still a couple of years away from the official status.

The use of the home plates gave me a chuckle because I found out from one of the waitresses (I love grilling the staff) that they were leftovers from a roast of Don Zimmer a couple of weeks earlier at the casino.
That same night, Rich Little was performing in the theatre at the casino, with Chicago not far behind. I just mention that to show that our hobby doesn’t exactly have a monopoly on the nostalgia thing.

* * * * *

I’ll skip over the middle leg of the odyssey – the Sotheby’s With SCP Auction in New York City – which I covered in my column in last week’s issue of SCD (June 29), and move right on to SportsFest.

The switch to the the brand spanking new Renaissance Convention Center in Schaumburg was a major shift for us this year in moving the show from Rosemont, where it had been held for seven years.
A combination of a pristine convention center, free parking and an elegant hotel left most attendees raving about the move. “We were delighted with the smooth transition to a new facility for SportsFest and buoyed by almost universal praise for the hotel and convention center,” said Jeff Pozorski, sports group publisher for F+W Publications, which owns the show.

“The venue is phenomenal, and I think there is a lot of future potential at this site,” said J.P. Cohen of Memory Lane. “The traffic was decent and we were real happy with the new location over Rosemont, by far.”

That was a sentiment reinforced by Mitch Adelstein, president of Mounted Memories, which brought in an autograph lineup that featured Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Joe Montana and Reggie Bush on Saturday. “I heard nothing but positive things from the dealers,” Adelstein said.

Saturday was their strongest day, with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar signing 250 pieces as he appeared alongside the likes of Reggie Bush and Joe Montana. Adelstein was also enthusiastic about the Customer Appreciation Night on Friday where attendees were able to get $10 autographs from eight different players, including four Hall of Famers, in most cases Chicago-area favorites that had customarily signed for $20-$35.

“I think that got SportsFest off on the right foot,” Adelstein added. “We tried something new with the wrestlers on Sunday, and they brought out a little bit of a unique crowd, but from what we heard from the room and from the dealers, they did pretty well.”

Alan “Mr. Mint” Rosen was effusive as ever, having spent $179,000 at the show, and describing the atmosphere as “just like the old days.” He listed the show as the fifth-highest buying total ever, adding that there was a lot of activity between the dealers. “Some people thought that because of the change in venue that it might hurt attendance, but that was not the case,” he added.

Rich Gove of Rich Gove Collectibles in Deer Park, Texas, thought attendance was a little off from last year. “It wasn’t bad, and the dealers I’ve talked to unanimously like the new venue better,” said Gove, citing the free parking as did so many other dealers and show attendees. “It was a very good experience and we’re hoping this is a sign of something bigger and better to come.”

After a Friday evening crowd that exceeded last year’s numbers, the Saturday session was highlighted by the special “What’s It Worth?” program that prompted nearly 100 collectors to have their items evaluated by F+W Publications experts. See adjacent story by Chris Nerat.
Upper Deck was navigating a busy scene at its corporate booth with its popular redemption program as it sold out within a couple of hours on both Saturday and Sunday. “It was a success; it’s always good to come to SportsFest and reconnect with our consumer base, and as the only card manufacturer here, it was also an opportunity to get a good sense of what’s going on in the hobby,” said Don Williams, Upper Deck’s public relations manager.

“It was a good show, with a steady crowd; it was never dead, but it was never so hectic that we couldn’t give good service,” said Dave Silver of Dave & Adam’s Card World in Amherst, N.Y. “And this facility is a great upgrade with an awesome hotel,” he added. “The customers liked the free parking and having the extra dollars to spend.”

There was a flurry of whooping and hollering on the show floor Friday with four dealers engaged in ‘Pack Wars” involving the hottest hockey product in the hobby and most expensive card in that offering: the 2005-06 Sidney Crosby The Cup rookie card. The four ponied up $2,000 in search of the card, which books at $10,000, and sure enough, California Card Shark’s Greg Lambert, in a shared deal with Mike Ruffalo, who sold the case, came up with the “winner take all” pasteboard.

“He made me go in with him, and when Greg opened it up, I didn’t believe it,” said Ruffalo about the limited-to-99 card. Coincidentally, Lambert had bought the hotly pursued Crosby card only days earlier, paying $7,500 for it, and had even brought it to the show.

That kind of modern-card hoopla is a nice component of the show, but for me it’s still going to be about seeing the vintage material. Even with one of my favorite dealers – Mike Mosier of Columbia City Collectibles – being absent, I still saw scads of cool stuff, from 1967 Stand-Ups and 1959 Fleer Ted Williams to Laughlin artwork, 1960s Topps inserts, 1968 Action All-Stars, Clemente oddball items and even ugly 1967 Punchout panels and a pile of Bazooka panels.

And speaking of panels, Huggins & Scott were displaying one of their own that figures to draw a good deal of attention in the company’s October auction: a 1953-54 Briggs Meats Walt Masterson and Jackie Jensen complete panel, which is touted as the only one known in the hobby.

Another well-known dealer, Louis Bollman of Waterloo, Ill., had a display loaded with Nellie Fox material that he picked up late last year from perhaps the most prolific Fox collector in the hobby. In keeping with the uncut panel theme, Bollman had Fox pieces from 1954 Bowman and Post Cereal, along with a huge array of stuff from the 1953 World Tour of Ed Lopat’s All-Stars, which yielded a spectacular team picture and a number of Japanese magazines featuring colorful covers with the likes of Eddie Mathews, shown on this week’s cover.

Oh, and a final word on panels. Wayne Varner of Shoebox Cards, a genuine hobby pioneer of the first order, noted that the recent SCD coverage of the famed Honus Wagner uncut card panel of five T206 cards fell a bit short in chronicling the entire lineage of the card. Varner noted that he originally picked up the strip on a buying trip in 1978, then sold the card to Barry Halper in 1980.

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