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MEARS views on SportsFest - 'a class show'

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One constant that the Internet onslaught has failed to replace is the age-old industry trade/card/autograph show. The interaction of dealers, buyers and sports figures coming together at a quality show simply can not be replicated by virtual reality. And that is how it should be, not that there is anything wrong with an online venue for collectors and dealers, just that the personal interaction should be a vital component to the collectors' world.


And to that end, I spent a weekend at the annual SportsFest in Chicago that was held in the newly-built and ultra-modern Renaissance Hotel and Convention Center in Schaumburg, Ill.

It was a class show from beginning to end starting with the location. It had the usual great lineup of autograph guests such as Johnny Bench, Joe Montana, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Gale Sayers, Bob Gibson, Fergie Jenkins, Dale Murphy and scores of others, but what I found the most interesting and enjoyable were the special guests, the fan favorites that aren't found in the Hall of Fame or whose autographs don't carry price tags exceeding a full tank of premium gasoline. On Friday night, for a mere $10, a fan could meet, greet and get an autograph from the likes of Stan Bahnsen, Bill Madlock, Bill Lee, Johnny Podres or Al Oliver. For that same ten spot, you could also get signatures of HOF'ers Monte Irvin, Raymond Berry or Bob Feller.

Now, I am not a collector of autographs, but have always enjoyed some light conversation with former ballplayers, especially the players who seem to take the time to chat with the fans.

I had a 1980 Ted Simmons game bat that I figured I might as well get signed since he was at the show on Saturday. I chatted with him on his selection of Adirondack bats over the more commonly found Louisville Slugger models and showed him the knob markings and explained the batch and year codes and he seem genuinely interested. He relayed as to how he chose the Adirondack bats. He was a teammate of Joe Torre and Joe's brother, Frank, was a Rawlings rep at the time so he signed with Frank.

And speaking of Frank Torre, I have had the pleasure and privilege of getting to know Frank, a great guy in every respect and a fan favorite anywhere he goes. Frank and I played in a card game together last year and he was so impressed with my poker prowess that he signed his gamer to an "Ace poker player," probably hoping it would help convince me to play another match. That gamer now rests in the Wisconsin Historical Museum where it will remain forever. Ted sent his best wishes to Torre, now recovering from a kidney transplant.

Billy Staples was also there with his new book entitled Before the Glory, which gives some great stories of 20 baseball heroes as they were growing up. There is a great story in there by Whitey Ford where he relates playing in a New York high school game against the Torre's crosstown rivals. I got a copy of the book with some get-well wishes from Billy along with Ron LaFlore who were in the booth and will be forwarding the same to Torre this week.

I saw some decade-old friends as well as met many others whom I've had contact with but never face-to-face. I always enjoy this aspect of the live shows. I had some lively conversation with several dealers and collectors. Most of the dealers I talked with had a great weekend. Al Rosen told me he spent over $140,000 and I saw him buy a nice Ruth/Gehrig signed ball and a 1934 Tour of Japan signed ball, in addition to the array of cards he seems to always be buying.

I managed to find some great bats: Mantle, Hornsby, Al Dark, Edd Roush, including a set of original photographs of Red Grange in his last college game along with a two single photos of Grange and George Halas in uniform. I also picked up a minty Mego Ali doll in the deluxe stage box, a Nellie Fox Chewing Tobacco die-cut store display with two original bags of chew, a minty autographed 1950-51 Bobby Thomson store-model bat and a nice Steelers pennant. And you know, there is nothing better than walking a show and finding some killer merchandise for your collection or inventory.

SCD's Chris Nerat and Bob Lemke ran an appraisal fair on Saturday from 1 to 5p.m. that had a line the entire day. Some of the items I saw walk in included a 1908-10 Cubs panoramic photo, a silver-plated Joe DiMaggio pro model bat, a complete 1954 Spic and Span Braves premium set, along with a mint (original key on back) gambling punch board that featured images of Ruth and Gehrig and a minty Ruth signature on the side panel. These appraisal fairs are always a hit and the line that never seemed to diminish was a testament to that.

Walking around, I saw a 1936 Indy 500 program, mint-in-box Hartlands that included Maris, MIB Bobbin' heads including Mantle and Maris, an incredible Nellie Fox collection, a collection of 1930-40's minty White Sox programs, along with vintage pennants, a Jackie Robinson "Oscar" statue MIB with comic book and enough vintage cards and autographs to keep any collector happy.

Several auction houses had preview items on display for their upcoming auctions. Hunt Auctions had a 1955 Ted Williams jersey, a Boston Garter card of Cobb and 11, yes 11, 1914 Cracker Jack Ty Cobb cards and a minty Lou Gehrig single-signed official Harridge ball.

Mastro Auctions showcased a 1911 C55 complete tobacco hockey card set, a 1933 Lajoie, some rare Pirate cigarette cards and the ultimate baseball card, a T206 Honus Wagner.

Mile High had an incredible collection of pre-1970 unopened material along with Ruth's 1927 HR No. 36 ball and a nice Ruth/Gehrig dual-signed ball. I saw a Joe Jackson/Buck Weaver dual-signed ball along with a never-seen 1953-54 Briggs Meats Jensen/Masterson panel and a Hack Wilson D&M endorsement contract at Huggins and Scott.

Game-Used Universe had some nice jerseys for its upcoming auction, including a 1974 Yogi Berra home, a 1991 Robin Yount road, a 1987 Reggie Jackson A's, a local favorite Harold Baines 1987 home and a University of Michigan Anthony Carter jersey.

American Memorabilia also had a few great jerseys on display such as a Johnny Unitas, a 1970 Mays, a 1979 Brock and a game-worn Mickey Mantle Yankees hat.

Premier was also there handing out catalogs for its future auction that shows a nice Mays game-used bat, an Ed Charles 1967 A's vest, a killer autographed 1936 PCL photograph and a Dick Schofield Cardinals road jersey.

All in all, a great show and a great venue that should be on everyone's show calendar. The crowd was large and enthusiastic buyers roamed the floors the entire show. The hotel was one of the nicest I've ever seen and the food was also top notch and even housed a Starbucks and free parking. Until then, will see you all at the National in Cleveland.