Classic Collectibles: Nosing Around the Hobby

By Larry Canale

Like all of you, I pay attention to all kinds of sports and all kinds of sports memorabilia. It’s a hobby, it’s entertaining and it’s a release. In contributing to Sports Collectors Digest, I enjoy sharing my findings, although there’s never enough space to capture all of it. Even so, I try – and sometimes the best approach is one that touches on a variety of different topics rather than “going deep” on one.

Road story
In my day job, I edit a newsletter licensed by Antiques Roadshow, the popular PBS appraisal series. Summertime means tour time, and the first Antiques Roadshow stop of 2012 was nearby (for me) in Boston. In covering the event, I hoped to see at least a few Red Sox rarities, and sure enough, I got a good look at a one-of-a-kind treasure early in the day.

Appraiser Mike Gutierrez of Heritage Auctions flagged me mid-morning at the June 9 event and said he had “a good one” that he was about to tape for TV: A 1915 baseball signed by Red Sox players – among them, as you might guess, a young pitcher named George Herman Ruth. The woman who brought in the baseball had inherited it from her father, whose father had it signed back in the day.

The baseball bears around two dozen well-preserved autographs, including four from future Hall of Famers:

  • Babe Ruth, who in 1915 was a 20-year-old left-handed pitcher having a breakout season. In 1914, he got into four games and had a 2-1 record. In 1915, he was 18-8 with a 2.44 ERA. He would play four more years with Boston before the Sox sold him to their hated rivals in New York, the Yankees.
  • Tris Speaker, who in 1915 was playing in his ninth and final year with the Red Sox. The center fielder hit .322 with 29 steals that season, then went on to play 11 years with the Indians and one each with the Washington Senators and Philadelphia Athletics. Speaker finished his career in 1928 with a lifetime average of .345.
  • Herb Pennock, who in 1915 came to the Red Sox from the Athletics and got into nine games. He would go on to become a star for Boston a couple years later, posting 16-8 and 16-13 records in 1919 and 1920. And then, of course, he followed Ruth to the Yankees, for whom he won 162 games (vs. 90 losses) over 11 seasons.
  • Harry Hooper, who in 1915 batted just .235, the lowest average in his 17-year career (which included 12 seasons in Boston and five with the White Sox). Overall, the right fielder hit .281 and stole 375 bases in his 17 seasons. He also piled up 344 assists, or more than 20 per season.

The presence of those Hall of Famers, along with the rarity of 1915 Red Sox signed baseballs, makes the object a rarity. Gutierrez examined it closely, considered the provenance and then told its owner, Alissa, that at auction, her Red Sox heirloom would sell for around $25,000. He also recommended that she insure it for at least $35,000.
Alissa told me she’d never thought about selling it. Somehow, though, a five-figure value can change one’s mind, so she’s at least considering the prospect now.

The hobby’s king
Speaking of Babe Ruth, there’s no doubt that he leads the way in the baseball memorabilia hobby. It’s always been that way, and always will be.

The circa 1920 Ruth jersey sold by SCP Auctions (to Leland’s) in April for an astounding $4.416 million is just one more reminder of “who’s the boss.” The jersey once hung at The Babe Ruth Birthplace Museum in Baltimore. I remember seeing it among all kinds of Ruth treasures during a visit there years ago, but I didn’t imagine that it would ever land in the marketplace – although if it did, I figured it would sell in the multiple millions of dollars. (Doesn’t take a genius, I know . . .)

Where does Ruth’s first Yankee jersey go from here? Leland’s told the media that it doesn’t plan to put the jersey up for auction, but that it may sell it privately. Michael Heffner, the company’s president, said this in a statement, “Such a spectacular piece will find a home with one of our private clients who truly appreciates its historic significance.”

Of course, those of us who don’t have millions lying around to buy such a worthy piece can always hope it winds up in the Baseball Hall of Fame, right?

Poster fun
If you grew up in the 1960s or 1970s, you might remember watching those old pro wrestling bouts on TV. The telecasts were known for low production quality, hokey announcing and a surprising number of flabby grapplers (as opposed to the muscle-bound wrestlers of today).

No matter, we watched more for the storylines: Good guys vs. the heels. And who was more of a good guy than Bruno Sammartino?

Search his name at eBay, and you’ll find that items like old magazine bearing his picture on the cover, trading cards and figures and 8-by-10 photos, most of which won’t bust your collecting budget. Recent sales on eBay include a 1972 Shea Stadium program from “The Wrestling Match of the Century,” Sammartino vs. Pedro Morales ($75); a 1982 Wrestling All Stars card graded PSA 8 ($51); and a 1985 WWF Wrestling Superstars LJN figure ($40).

Certain rarities that appeal to wrestling collectors can get surprisingly high. For example, a 1973 Wrestling Annual sold last month for $300, which was actually a bargain compared to its $400 price guide value. The value comes from sheets of 18 wrestler trading cards bound in.

Getting into higher bids are things like posters. One recent example from 1976 fetched $450, a price jacked up by the presence of Muhammad Ali. The poster promoted special boxer vs. wrestler matches in Japan, one of them pitting Ali against marshal arts expert and wrestler Antonio Inoki. (The controversial contest – was it real or scripted? – ended in a draw.) Sammartino’s match vs. Stan “The Man” Hansen was top billing on the poster. Other names included Andre the Giant, who went up against boxer Chuck Wepner, and Chief Jay Strongbow.

Another poster, this one promoting a 1969 event at the Long Island Irena, sold for $285. On the bill were Sammartino vs. Krippler Karl Kovacs, Victor Rivera vs. Professor Tanaka and the Mongols vs. Gorilla Monsoon and Mario Milano.

Signs of Piccolo
Sometimes you run into people who have true treasures but don’t know it. Such is the case with a woman who runs a business in a small Massachusetts town. Hanging on her wall, I recently discovered a group of items signed by Brian Piccolo, the ill-fated Chicago Bears running back whose career and life were cut short when he was only 26. (His life story, of course, was documented in the classic tearjerker Brian’s Song, a 1971 ABC Movie of the Week film starring James Caan.)

Piccolo’s career with the Bears lasted four seasons, 1966-69. He was known primarily as Gale Sayers’ backfield mate and lead blocker, but he could run, too. He gained 927 yards on 258 career carries, a 3.6-yard average, and also caught 58 passes for 537 yards. Piccolo became ill during the 1969 season, forcing him to retire. But treatments didn’t help, and he succumbed quickly (June 16, 1970).

As a result of his short life, Piccolo’s autograph is a scarce item. So I was surprised to walk into a local shop and see not one, not two, not three, but four items autographed by Piccolo hanging on the wall. I asked the owner where she got them; her father had them signed when he was younger, she said. There were two photos and two letters.
I mentioned the items to a couple of appraisers who said that if they’re legit, they could fetch $400-$800 at auction, and maybe more.

A check of auction results in recent years shows that a Piccolo signature on a page torn from an autograph album sold for $400 in May 2011 at Hunt’s Auctions. A Bears team-signed football from 1968, with Piccolo’s autograph included, brought $2,800 in 2008 at the same auction house. Quality Autographs lists a Piccolo signed 3-by-5 card at $1,495. Another seller, Sports Memorabilia.com, lists a Piccolo-signed program page at $1,410 and a 3-by-5 index card at $1,550 (both are PSA/DNA authenticated).

The woman I met isn’t interested in selling her four Piccolo sigs, but she also didn’t know they’re so valuable. So I gave her some free advice. She has her autographs displayed, correctly so, in frames with protective glass. But, alas, she also has them hanging near a huge front window that exposes the documents, photos and signatures to tons of daylight. I hope she has since moved them; I’m going back to check up on her today!

Play!
I love the NFL’s “Play 60” promotion – the movement to encourage kids to get active and to engage in sports or healthy physical activity for 60 minutes a day. You’ve no doubt seen the TV commercials a zillion times. Per a page at NFL.com: “The NFL ‘PLAY 60’ campaign is designed to tackle childhood obesity by getting kids active through in-school, after school and team-based programs, online child-targeted outreach on NFLRUSH.com, and many partnerships with like-minded organizations.”

Adults, too, should be on board with a “Play 60” campaign. Myself included. When you work in front of a computer screen much of the time, and when your hobbies involve browsing websites looking for items you collect, and when you find yourself doing most of your correspondence via e-mail, it’s not always easy to find those “60 minutes” to get active. But it’s worth the effort. Heck, even 30 minutes is better than none.

I value the times I get to the gym to work out, but it’s not often enough. In the summer, at least I’m getting outside for my favorite pastime: Coaching my daughters’ softball teams. I have a 12-year-old and a 9-year-old, and their spirited squads both made the playoffs before getting knocked off. As much as I love to win, girls’ softball is one place where you stress participation, learning and fundamentals ahead of victories. You get lots of satisfaction from stressing those goals. For example, I don’t know who enjoys the game more, my daughters or me. Look at the smile on 9-year-old Karsyn’s face as she slugs the ball in this photo. My smile was even bigger.

So enjoy the sports collectibles hobby, but don’t do too much of it in a sitting position. Go to more shows and walk circles around the dealers. You might find something cool your third time around!

And make time to keep active – play (and/or coach softball), golf, hit the batting cages or driving range, run, hike, join a gym, shoot some hoops, or at least take regular walks – it makes everything else better.

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.

One thought on “Classic Collectibles: Nosing Around the Hobby

Leave a Reply