It doesn’t get any better than The Big 3

The year is 2048, and here are your Sports Collectors Digest headlines for today:

– Topps announced a special new limited run of Brett Favre “beard” cards, offering collectors a chance to have a piece of cardboard featuring an authentic lock of Favre’s snow-white chin hair. The 79-year-old Favre recently played in his 902nd consecutive game, but he says he hasn’t made a decision yet about next season.

– Alex Rodriguez, the all-time home run king who retired as “the greatest living ballplayer” in 2017 after slugging 912 lifetime round-trippers, has agreed to sell the Yankees back to the Steinbrenner family.

– Hall of Famer Derek Jeter has announced he will seek a second term as governor of New York.

– Seventy-one-year-old Tiger Woods has confirmed he will kick off his Champions Tour schedule later this month, looking to add to his 21-year unbeaten streak on the senior tour and 149 career major championships.

– Former NBA phenom and 10-time MVP LeBron James has agreed to purchase an as-yet-unnamed planet, eclipsing the recent real estate deal engineered by Michael Jordan, who settled for the moon and several large asteroids.

And somewhere, in a cozy little shop in America, Joe Collector is delicately thumbing through the vintage cards at Hometown Sports Cards, trying to hide his excitement. He is ready to make one of his biggest hobby purchases of the year and wondering, “Mickey, Teddy Ballgame or Joe D.?”

Never mind that Mantle died way back on Aug. 13, 1995. And never mind that DiMaggio and Ted Williams have been gone for 49 and 46 years, respectively. Sure, there have been countless record-breakers, hall of famers, legends, mega-stars and mega-millionaires dotting the sports landscape since the postwar “Big Three” carried the sports collectibles hobby to new heights in the 1980s. There might never be another hobby icon – at least one that is living – to rival any member of the Mantle/DiMaggio/Williams power trio.

The more things change, the more they remain the same. At least when it comes to the evergreen popularity of Mantle, DiMaggio and Williams.

Flashback to 2008. Could it be that nobody has come along with the collector appeal, connection to the public, charisma, talent and playing resume of three baseball heroes that haven’t played in more than four decades? Isn’t there somebody out there that we can embrace the way we embraced the “Big Three.”

Don’t we at least have a reasonable heir apparent on the way?

“How do I say this? No, no, no and no. That’s how I answer that question,” snorted longtime dealer and collector Alan Rosen. “Mays and Aaron are close, but there’s nobody else out there like them. There is nobody else that does shows anymore . . .
“Michael Jordan and Muhammad Ali are up there. Ali is one of those god-like figures. It takes longevity to be in that category. Alex Rodriguez, maybe in 25 years when he retires with 988 home runs, maybe people can say, ‘Yeah, I saw him play,’ but it won’t be anything like watching Mantle or Williams.”

Indeed, it seems that for better or worse, baseball’s “Big Three” have continued to fend off all challenges to their shared throne as kings of collectibles. Certainly Ruth, Gehrig, Cobb, Shoeless Joe and a handful of other heroes from the early 20th century rival, and often eclipse, their more modern counterparts when it comes to price and demand for their collectibles. But there are scarce few humans left on the planet who actually saw Ruth play, and not many who can boast of having any true connection to him and his peers.

No, there is nobody filling the shoes yet of the guys who wore Nos. 5, 7 and 9. It seems to speak volumes that we have to look backward in time, rather than forward, to find somebody who is close enough to discuss.

“Baseball is much stronger than football and basketball. It’s still the strongest for collecting,” said Roger Cameron, director of auctions for Memory Lane. (Editor’s note: Cameron died on Jan. 14. His obituary appears on page 10 of this issue). “But the guys that have done it in baseball now are tainted – Bonds, McGwire, Clemens. There are some superstars on the horizon. You’ve got Rodriguez and Pujols. Jeter is going to be a classic some day, but you’re probably 25 years out before it ever gets to that point with him or these other young guys. I don’t see anybody ever challenging the Big Three, other than maybe the other ‘Big Three’ of Ruth, Gehrig and Cobb.”

So, why haven’t their been any new hobby saviors? Why are there so precious few living athletes that can even get mentioned in the same conversation as Mantle, Williams and DiMaggio? The simple answer, sadly, appears to be money.
Back in the “good old days,” even the biggest sports stars wouldn’t pass up the chance to make some cash on the weekends or in the offseason by signing autographs and rubbing elbows with their adoring public. After their playing days were over, ballplayers turned the banquet and show circuits into second careers.

Slowly, however, that business model has changed. Players now simply don’t need the relative pittance that autograph shows deliver them. Don’t hold your breath hoping that Dwyane Wade, Tom Brady, Manny Ramirez or Kobe Bryant will ever show up at your local shopping center or Holiday Inn to sign a few balls. It’s also not likely that Peyton Manning, Ryan Howard, Ken Griffey Jr. or Kevin Garnett will ever have to risk acute writers cramp from signing a stack of glossies to pay the mortgage.

No shows or appearances means little face time with collectors and fans. That translates into admiration from afar, rather than the personal memories and moments fans could enjoy when they actually got to see their idols close up while getting an autograph.

“It’s very impersonal and removed now,” said Larry Rosenbaum of EAC Gallery. “It’s very rare to see somebody like a Derek Jeter at a show. He does private signings for maybe a handful of people, but it’s not the same as standing in line and bringing a kid and saying, ‘This is Mickey Mantle!’ or ‘This is Ted Williams or Joe DiMaggio!’ It’s rare when you meet that athlete face to face. Now, you buy from a website.”

“It’s a bygone era. I don’t blame the athletes, with the salaries they are making. I just don’t think you could ever pay them enough to do a weekend show,” added Rosen. “You take Alex Rodriguez. I’m sure he’s not gonna do a show where he gets $200 for an autograph. He signs 80 autographs for $16,000? No way. He pisses on that.”

Rosenbaum agreed that mega-contracts are one of the worst things that could happen to collectors.

“How do you identify with someone who just signed a contract for $275 million?” he said. “It’s like the golden age of Hollywood. Their lifestyle is so different these days. They live in their mansions. They travel in their private jets. They are existing in a different world. It’s going to take an exceptional athlete to transcend that, and one that is willing to transcend that.”

It’s certainly not news that dealers and autograph show organizers don’t have the same access to the big stars that they used to. However, that doesn’t stop them from longing for the “good old days.”

“No doubt about it. You wish it would be like it used to be,” said Joe Esposito of B&E Collectibles in Thornwood, N.Y. “Unfortunately, it never will be. You can’t turn back time. Probably the only way you will be seeing some of these guys is at a charity event of some type – a friend of a friend type deal. They are certainly not going to be doing it for the money, because they are not going to need the money. That’s just the way it is.”

Veteran autograph dealer Bill Corcoran knows first-hand how powerful a one-on-one encounter with a true legend can be.
“In the old days, even guys like Mantle and Williams would come out and meet the fans on a regular basis,” he said. “As a kid, I grew up near Cooperstown, and I used to go down there for their (Hall of Fame) ceremonies. One day I turned a corner, and I ran into Joe DiMaggio – literally ran into. He was right there in front of me, Joe DiMaggio! Of course, I asked him for an autograph . . . I’ll never forget it.”

Mays, Stan Musial and Aaron are certainly among the closest living contemporaries of the Big Three, but somehow they are still a half a click below them in the eyes of collectors. Location probably had as much to do it as anything. Mays spent most of his career in San Francisco, before it was considered a “major city” in American sports. Ditto for Musial and Aaron, who didn’t get the same notice from the East Coast media centers while playing in St. Louis, Milwaukee and Atlanta.

They are collecting royalty, for sure, but not quite at the summit. There are not quite in the same penthouse as Mickey, Ted and Joe D.

“If Musial had played in Boston or New York, we’d be asking, ‘Who can we compare to these four?’ ” said Rosenbaum. “Aaron, he did it more on longevity . . . Mays, he left New York in 1957. Had he stayed there his whole career, I think it might have been different for him.”

So who is the closest among the under-50 crowd of athletes, either playing or recently retired? Who has the combination of fan friendliness, accessibility and that “it factor” that could eventually put them in the elite collecting class? Some dealers throw around the names of Cal Ripken Jr., who gets high marks for his willingness to mingle with the public, and Favre, who seems to have an “everyman” quality that endears him to the masses. Beyond that, the candidates are scarce.

Jordan seems far too rich and removed. Ditto for the reclusive Woods, who treasures his privacy and probably wouldn’t be caught dead at an autograph show. And of course, there’s Ali, possibly the greatest international sports icon ever and a “man of the people” if ever there was one, but whose health has limited his celebrity and accessibility for much of the past 20 years.
There’s Gretzky, Gordie Howe and Magic Johnson. Living legends all. On the same bus are Larry Bird, Reggie Jackson, Dick Butkus, Sandy Koufax, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Dr. J. and Lance Armstrong. Pete Rose, Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus are certainly in the neighborhood. They are all A-list stars.

None of them, though, make collectors quiver like Mantle, DiMaggio and Williams.

“On paper, there are a lot of guys who could get there,” said Corcoran. “A-Rod, Jeter, Jordan . . . other guys like a Greg Maddux, who is still going. On paper, there are guys who we should be able to look back on in 50 years and say, ‘Boy, these guys were everything to their sport,’ but I’m not sure that’s going to happen.

“In the old days you had a lot more dedication to the team, and players were on one team, often for their whole career. It’s just another era. I’m not sure the emotional attachment will be there like it was with the old-timers,” Corcoran continued. “There is no doubt that some guys, numbers-wise, will do as much or more (than Williams, Mantle and DiMaggio), but I think that emotional component will be lacking.

“The Big Three, demand was so strong for them when they were alive, and that kind of interest remains even now. There are times when one or two of those three has more interest than another one, but it all evens out over time.”
Bill Nathanson of Polo Grounds Vintage Baseball Cards and Memorablia in Plantation, Fla., long ago gave up waiting for the public’s love affair with the Big Three to fade.

“No matter what the price is, there are still collectors out there who want to own them,” he said. “That goes for almost all the 1950s and 1960s cards that I sell. The prices that I get are outrageous, but that’s because I have to pay outrageous prices to get them.”

Ultimately, it’s not that hard to fathom why the Big Three have managed to stay at the front of our collection consciousness. They were uncommon talents and larger-than-life personalities playing with great teams during a wonderful, nostalgic era for baseball. They had style, charisma and class to accompany their other-worldly physical abilities. They were each one-of-a-kind, and as a group have held together a hobby that seems to be at peace with the idea that they will never be replaced.

“Those Big Three played in such a glorious period for baseball,” concluded Corcoran. “They will always have a special place in people’s minds.

Rosen, who met Mantle as a kid and eventually became his friend and business associate, made up his mind on the subject years ago.

“Never in our lifetimes,” he said, “will we see the likes of the Big Three again.”

Brian Earnest is the editorial director for SCD. He can be reached by e-mail at: brian.earnest@fwpubs.com; or (715) 445-2214, ext. 616.

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