By Barry Blair
What’s the first thing that comes to mind when someone mentions Nashville? Music City, USA? One of America’s fastest growing cities? You would be right on both counts.
Add another – a booming sports town.
Football? How about sitting in the middle of SEC country with large alumni groups from all schools in the area, especially Tennessee, Vanderbilt, Kentucky, and Alabama. The NFL’s Tennessee Titans feature the last two Heisman winners taken in the draft with Marcus Marriota and Derrick Henry.
Baseball? How about a beautiful, brand new downtown ballpark for the AAA Nashville Sounds (the Oakland A’s affiliate). It attracts large crowds of young adults, business people, and families on a nightly basis. It has become the place to be and to be seen.
Nashville is the new home of the men’s SEC basketball tournament, and with its proximity to the bluegrass state of Kentucky and its crazed fans, you can only imagine how hot those tickets are.
Did I leave out hockey? The hottest of all tickets in town goes to the Predators, who play downtown to sold-out crowds in Bridgestone Arena. Last year they hosted the NHL All-Star Game.
So, naturally, sports cards and collectibles should be a big hit, and that they are.
Jeff Roberts is the promoter of the Nashville Sports Cards and Collectibles Shows, an endeavor he started a little over three years ago. Twice a month he hosts a local show, and twice a year, in September and February, he has his big shows, all at the Lighthouse Christian School.
The latest show was on Feb. 25 with special autograph guests NFL Hall of Famer Raymond Berry and baseball pitching legend Denny McLain. Beckett Grading Services was there to analyze and send off cards, and James Spence Authenticators (JSA) had representatives there as well. There were 120 tables available for the show and they were all sold out by the first of the year with 65 dealers represented at the show.
“I had 20 dealers on a waiting list, wanting in the show,” Roberts said. “We just didn’t have room for any more, as much as I wanted to accommodate them. One of the Beckett representatives told me late Saturday afternoon that this was the largest show he had seen in the mid-south area in many years, and for the fall show they would have to bring some more help. We had dealers here this time from Chicago to Orlando, and even New Jersey. It has been very exciting.”
The number of people through the door, and those working the show, was thought to be close to 1,000.
Roberts’ shows start early, going from 8 a.m. until 3 p.m. At 7 a.m. things were already happening as dealers traded and sold to each other in a beehive of activity. By mid-morning, the floor was packed with buyers and sellers.
“The turnout was amazing,” Roberts said.
The new 2017 Topps Baseball cards seemed to be a hot item. One thing this show had was a lot of kids roaming the floor looking for cards.
“The kids are all looking for Chicago Cubs cards, especially Kris Bryant, Anthony Rizzo, and Ben Zobrist, who is popular, as you know he lives here in the off season,” one dealer said.
It is good to see the influx of youngsters looking for baseball cards, energized by the Cubs’ World Series win.
Another hot item was the 2016 Bowman and Bowman Chrome Baseball Prospects, including the autographed cards. Older cards were prevalent as well. These larger shows always bring out buyers with their notebooks of wanted cards in hand.
Graded baseball cards also looked to be selling well.
Football cards seemed to be pretty prevalent; basketball not so much so. A lot of dealers had hockey cards, with many offering cards signed by different Nashville Predators, the most prominent being Pekka Rinne, Roman Josi, Filip Forsberg, and Mike Fisher (also known around town as the husband of country superstar Carrie Underwood), plus former Predators stars Jordan Tootoo and Shea Weber.
Denny McLain was early, arriving a little after 7 a.m. He stayed until the show was over, signing and chatting with the customers and posing for pictures if they asked. People had been commenting beforehand, wondering just what he would be like. His life story doesn’t bear repeating here, and for those of us who grew up in the ’60s, he was, for a few fleeting years, one of the biggest of baseball’s stars.
I know at the time I was captivated by him, wondering how he could drink 18 Pepsi-Colas a day as he once bragged. We were always told by our coaches that soft drinks took away your wind, so how could this be possible?
He is known as the last 30 game winner, and might go down in history as the last, considering the way the game is played now. Autograph seekers came with balls, jerseys, bats, helmets, old copies of Sports Illustrated magazines, baseball cards, and pictures. If you didn’t have anything to be signed, he had a table full of items for purchase. Detroit Tiger fans, some of the most loyal in all of baseball, were there in force, recognizable by the jerseys they wore. There were also copies of his book available.
When I gave him a copy of my baseball novel and told him the main character was a Yankees star, McLain joked about Mickey Mantle, a boyhood affection that we both held. It was McLain who famously gave up Mantle’s 535th home run, supposedly telling the catcher to tell him what was coming. I didn’t ask him if that story was really true.
The home run put Mick third on the all-time home run list at a time when his retirement was rapidly approaching. Did McLain really serve that pitch up? Some things are better left alone, I thought. I appreciated his kindness on this day as we briefly chatted before the show started. It has been said that sometimes you are better off not meeting your childhood idols in person, for your image of them may be forever changed. I left on this day not the least bit disappointed. My thought, after researching him before the show and then meeting him in person, was that someone should make a movie of his life.
Raymond Berry, one of the greatest receivers to ever play the game of football, and a coach who took the New England Patriots to a Super Bowl, was scheduled to appear from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. An hour before he was to appear, the line for him snaked from one end of the building to the other. He didn’t leave until after 3:30 p.m. when everyone who wanted something signed was taken care of.
I told him that the first football game I ever remember watching was the ’58 NFL Championship game between his Baltimore Colts and the New York Giants. On that day Berry caught 12 passes from John Unitas, one for a touchdown. The Colts won the game in overtime. It is the game that some call the “Greatest Game Ever Played,” and it was the start of the NFL being propelled to the enormous popularity it enjoys today. I was four years old and watched it in our living room on a brand new black and white television, I told him, and I was hooked on football for life.
“Do you know,” he told me, “that was the first football game ever shown on nationwide television?”
I’m not sure I have ever seen an athlete who was more polite and gracious to his fans than Berry was. One man drove twelve hours from his home in Texas to meet his childhood idol, and I can assure you he didn’t leave disappointed.
Barry Blair is an author who lives in Jonesborough, Tennessee. Visit his website at www.rightfieldpress.com or contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.