One of the major drawbacks of tossing around words like "pioneer" or "icon" is that you run the risk of watering down the impact of the designations if they wind up being doled out too liberally. So I am careful and judicious with such use.
That said, Barry Halper easily warranted both designations; he may in fact have been the overarching pioneer and icon for the memorabilia hobby. His role in the expansion of the memorabilia collecting hobby can hardly be overstated. His Dec. 18 passing from complications of diabetes marks a watershed moment for collectors; he was the "Babe Ruth of Collecting," as his good friend Yogi Berra referred to him, and given Halper's affection for The Bambino, it's hard to think of a more apt moniker.
I consider it one of the greatest thrills I've experienced in the hobby to have been able to visit his home in Livingston, N.J., when his incredible collection was still intact and - quite literally - crammed into every nook and cranny of available space in his lower level (nobody who had ever set foot there would use the word "basement" to describe those rooms). I also was able to visit him at his new home in New Vernon, N.J., in 2004, but I hadn't spoken to him for several months, until a November phone call stopped in its tracks when his wife, Sharon, told me how serious his condition was.
In the pages ahead, we'll let a handful of Barry's friends offer comments about the man and provide some of the countless stories that shape his legend; we have also reprinted condensed versions of the SCD feature about the 1996 trip to Livingston to view the collection and the October 1999 recap of the historic Sotheby's sale in New York City. We have also included a four-page, full-color special section that offers readers a rare glimpse at the greatest baseball memorabilia collection ever amassed.
Marty Appel, Barry's longtime friend, provided the information that follows about the Tuesday, Dec. 20 funeral service, where some 500 people crowded into Congregation B'Nai Jeshurun in Short Hills, N.J., to honor his memory and pay their respects to his family.
Among those in attendance were Phil and Cora Rizzuto, Yogi and Carmen Berra, Willie and Gretchen Randolph, Ralph and Ann Branca. Dick Gordon came up from Baltimore. GM Brian Cashman headed the Yankees' contingent that also included Yankee PR men Marty Appel (past) and Rick Cerrone (present).
Halper's three children spoke, as did Marvin Goldklang, Barry's long-time neighbor in Livingston, N.J., and his partner in the Yankees (he also owns a number of minor league teams).
Goldklang recalled moving onto Halper's block many years ago and going out onto his front lawn to have a catch with his young son. Across the street, Barry heard the sound of a baseball hitting leather mitts. After just four or five tosses, suddenly this large man comes running across the street, carrying his own mitt, and joining in the catch.
"Nothing bonds people like a catch," said Goldklang. "We were friend and business partners on a handshake from that day. It was all you needed with Barry."
Berra, who dubbed Halper "The Babe Ruth of Collecting," leads off the remembrances from the Yankees and their extended family. "Barry was a wonderful guy and a very good friend for a long time. Baseball and his family, those were always the greatest things to him," Berra said of the man who loved to tell Yogi stories among his seemingly infinite reservoir of baseball lore.
"I think he had more of my stuff than I had. Barry loved telling stories, and he really loved the Yankees," Berra continued. "He was always real generous to charities and helped out our Museum. What can I say, except he was a good man."
Appel, the author, SCD columnist and the dean of American sports publicists, delights in retelling Halper stories with a Halper-like enthusiasm. "For 20 years in a row, Barry, Bill Madden of the Daily News, Moss Klein of the Star Ledger, and I, would meet for an annual 'Hot Stove League' dinner to review the season. It was grand occasion for all of us - friendship, sharing of tales and rumors, and just talking baseball on into the night.
Barry would always bring interesting old documents he'd uncovered just for dinner conversation. He didn't make it this year, the first he'd ever missed, but we dedicated the evening to him," Appel said.
Like so many of Halper's friends, Appel stressed that the famed collector enjoyed the hunt as much as the acquisition. "They gave him his stories to work with. I once did a book on all the Baseball Hall of Famers, and he read it and saw that Roger Connor, the 19th-century star, had been honored in his hometown of Waterbury, Conn., with a baseball bat weather vane," Appel related. "Barry figured that the weather vane must still be mounted - no one ever takes one down - so he drove to Waterbury and went up and down the old streets looking at every rooftop until he saw it. What a moment for him. He pretty much knocked on the door and bought it on the spot, then put it on his house in Livingston."
And Appel recalled that most of the elite players of our lifetime visited Halper's home over the years. "But none was as close a friend as the most elite of all, Joe DiMaggio," said Appel. "Joe would escape there to just hang out and watch ballgames on TV. And he loved Barry's collection. It broke Barry's heart that Joe ended the relationship over a ridiculous matter. Barry had been a part-owner of Score trading cards. They had a contest and the winner got to tour Barry's collection in the company of Joe. Perfect. When Joe arrived, there was a photographer there for a hobby magazine, and Joe went nuts. 'I told you no press!' It was a bad scene, and Joe never visited Barry again. It crushed him. They had a small reconciliation before Joe died, but it was never the same."
Appel's former boss, George Steinbrenner, offered this about Halper: "Barry was a dear friend, a valued partner for many years, and a decent, genuine person. What a great baseball fan he was. I'll miss him dearly."
Dick Gordon is well-known to hobbyists after a quarter-century of doing card shows as a dealer and promoter, along with working as an agent for many of the greats of the game. "Barry was my friend and my mentor. When I first met him, I was overwhelmed by his collection and his passion for the hobby. He got me started in collecting, and I am proud to say that Barry Halper was responsible for whatever success I've achieved," said Gordon.
"I was able to secure some neat items from him, namely the Ruth lounging robe, the Norman Rockwell original of Joe DiMaggio that hangs at the Hall of Fame and the George Brett pine tar bat. Money was never a consideration; instead, Barry would send me items from his collection."
Rob Lifson, president of Robert Edward Auctions, was the senior consultant for Sotheby's for the Halper Collection Auction in 1999. "His enthusiasm for the hobby and the game of baseball was contagious, and he had time for everyone, including all of the people who couldn't possibly do anything for him in return," said Lifson. "People wanted so much of his time, and he was always happy to give it. He was a celebrity, but he would take anybody's call."
Lifson pointed out that it was actually Halper who helped to launch the in-person signing phenomenon when he arranged for DiMaggio to appear at some early shows, and cited a similar contribution from Halper in the development off collecting "niches" like the 500 Home Run and 3,000 Hit clubs. "He was the first guy to collect the way he did, throwing all the preconceived notions out the window. In those days there was so little attention paid to uniforms, but he loved them and he didn't care that others didn't seem to share that view. He made memorabilia collecting popular," Lifson added.
Halper's pal, Bill Madden of the Daily News, used to drive to Cooperstown with Halper every year, including one memorable trip when the great DiMaggio was along for the ride. Madden had made an appointment to visit Halper on Tuesday, the same day of his funeral, and had been at Halper's 65th birthday party last year at the collector's new home in New Vernon. The guest list included, among others, Appel, Berra, Phil Rizzuto, Ralph Branca and Bobby Murcer.
"Barry was one of my dearest friends. We had an awful lot of fun together," said Madden. It was a 30-year friendship dating back to the early 1970s when Madden wrote a column about collecting for The Sporting News, and Halper called him and suggested he stop by and take a look at his collection. "He told me about some of the things he had, and I found it hard to believe that he could have a collection that extensive. But I figured I should check it out, and it turned out to be everything he said it was and more."
Like so many, Madden called Halper a "giant" in the hobby. "When Barry wanted something, he didn't care what it cost and what lengths he had to go to get it. And that's really why he was able to put together the collection that he did. There will never be another one like him. And he was generous to a fault. If you were his friend, there is nothing he wouldn't do for you."
In the absolute heyday of the parade of hundreds of visitors to the Halper "museum," the collector befriended Bobby Murcer as the All-Star outfielder finished out his 17-year career with a second stop in the Bronx.
"He was very dear friend of mine for many, many years. Our friendship began with his association with the Yankees, since he was a part owner," said Murcer, who would visit Halper at his home and have dinner with Halper and his wife, Sharon. "I can't tell you how many times I was at his house, and I never did get to see everything that he had."
They had a "day" for Murcer at Yankee Stadium in 1983, and Barry invited the ballplayer and his family for a special reception at Halper's house after the ceremony. "And we always laughed about it because I had this large contingent from Oklahoma, and I had rented a bus.
"And we arrived at his home in Livingston, and when we all came piling out of the bus, Barry told me, 'I wish I had a camera when all you "Okies" started spilling out of the bus in front of my house," Halper laughed.
"There was so much history there, and any time I had a question about baseball history, Barry was the first person I would call to get something confirmed," Murcer continued. "He knew just about everything I ever asked him, and he would often add that he had this or that piece that was related to the question and I should stop by and see it."
Murcer added one final observation about the famed collector that was frequently put forth by those who knew him. "I considered him a man of great integrity, and extremely honest and fair with everybody. He loved baseball and he loved baseball history, and he loved collecting things related to baseball. And he turned out to be the best in the world at it."
Bill Mastro, CEO of the auction giant MastroNet, remarked how Halper was "bigger that life and had a genuine presence" in the hobby. "He was a pioneer in the truest sense of the word, responsible for changing the face of the hobby, and we are doing what we are doing today because of the things he did," said Mastro.
"The importance of Barry Halper was that he almost single-handedly made it respectable for the rest of us to collect as adults. I thought he was great for the hobby."
Well-known dealer Alan Rosen said that meeting Barry Halper was "like meeting the greatest athlete in the world."
Rosen, who over the years sold hundreds of items to the famed collector, recalled going to Halper's offices at Halper's printing company in New Jersey, with another legendary collector, Tom Collier, driving a van filled with memorabilia. "Barry would buy everything in the van, sight unseen," Rosen recalled.
"I was one of the lucky people who was invited to his home, where he would let me go through his albums from Ruth, Joe Jackson, Ty Cobb and the rest. I learned a lot at Barry's house. It was better than going to Yankee Stadium. Barry had it all."
Frank Barning was another name from the early days of the hobby, a dealer and hobby publisher who, like so many, remembered Halper as a friend and mentor.
"He was generous in sharing his knowledge and his love of baseball. No one did more for promoting baseball memorabilia collecting than Barry. He had contacts at the highest level of national media and he was regarded as the expert, so he was often quoted, always putting a positive spin on collecting," said Barning. "While most in the hobby knew that Barry was the greatest of all collectors, most did not know that his knowledge of baseball was virtually without equal."
Lelia Dunbar of Sotheby's offered a remembrance of the man who had liquidated much of his collection in the historic live auction in October of 1999:
"Barry was the first great collector, the first to go directly to the Ruth and Gehrig families, the first to approach DiMaggio and Mantle, as he appreciated what their contributions meant to the fabric of American sport. His love of the game and the objects that have represented its greatest players and moments will never be forgotten," said Dunbar.
"It was a privilege for Sotheby's to offer the greatest collection of baseball memorabilia ever built. Barry did it one piece at a time, with both affection and purpose," she noted, adding that many collectors point to the Halper Collection as the turning point in the public's recognition of sports memorabilia as important objects to be revered and studied."