The collecting of game-used uniforms and equipment is a glorious endeavor for sports memorabilia votaries. Of course, I am biased, but in my view, there is no finer collectible than these jerseys, helmets, bats and gear. Because game-used uniforms have become so popular in recent years and because they are valuable commodities, two sinister phrases have become a part of the game-used lexicon. Those two damnable nouns are greed and fraud.
In my seven years as a dealer of game-used jerseys and equipment I have been subjected to many offerings from unconscionable individuals. There isn't enough space in this article to illustrate every one, so I will spell out those situations that are the most edifying and perhaps the most entertaining. My hope is that the following litany will be instructive to you the honest collector.
A few years ago, I visited a certain sports memorabilia shop in western New York. After perusing the lower level of the store, I began ascending the stairway that led to the upper display area. Along that stairway and also at the top of it were hung many jerseys of prominent late-1990s NFL players. Without having to look too closely, I spotted obvious signs of game use on most of these jerseys. Needless to say, I was excited.
The majority of these were Puma jerseys, the company which at that time supplied a number of NFL teams with game uniforms. Puma game jerseys were year tagged, either inside the cowl or on the tail, depending on the team. I was chagrined to note that despite the obvious game wear and proper sleeve tailoring on many of these Puma jerseys, none were year tagged - things that make you go "hmmm." It was at this time that the proprietor of the establishment came hurriedly up the stairs with a somewhat nervous sounding "Can I help you?" I asked Mr. Proprietor if the jerseys that populated this impressive display were game worn. He replied that yes, they were and that I could have them for $400 each, as he just wanted to "get rid of them." He was also quick to point out that another high-profile dealer, whose name I won't mention, was interested in purchasing the jerseys.
That $400 per jersey price would have been a great deal for me, since there were names like Marvin Harrison, Doug Flutie, Ricky Williams, Steve McNair, Eddie George and a whole host of late 1990s All-Pro NFL players, all of which would have enabled me to profit handsomely on my investment. I told the merchant that these jerseys should have had tagging designating the year and size inside of the cowl. I asked him why this tagging was absent. His response was that the jerseys all came from a friend that worked for a specific NFL team and that the friend removed the year/size cowl tagging so no one would be able to trace the jerseys back to him. That response sounded like a blatant lie and a poor one at that.
I told the merchant who I was and what business I was in. I also remarked that it was too bad that the jerseys were missing this all-important tagging, as I would have been very interested in purchasing them. Now the seller was becoming noticeably uncomfortable and had beads of sweat on his forehead. I began to look even more carefully at the jerseys and that was when I began to notice some peculiar traits. All of the jerseys showed considerable wear, regardless of the player or his position.
Most showed plenty of repairs along with multicolored paint marks scattered all over. The "paint" marks struck me as odd as they were so diverse in color that the jerseys resembled Christmas trees. I began to sense that the game wear was faked and when combined with the lack of proper year tagging, I was convinced that these jerseys were no good.
As I headed back down the stairs, I looked more carefully at the Ricky Williams New Orleans Saints jersey and noticed that the Puma size flag tag on the tail was black and not the proper white. I also noticed that there was a cloth backing behind the numbers inside of the jersey. This jersey was an authentic replica that had been tailored and doctored to look game worn. I then surmised that most, if not all of the others were doctored authentic-replicas as well.
Needless to say I was disappointed. Still, I browsed around the lower level of the shop for a few minutes longer, asking the proprietor about some of the other fascinating wares he was offering. He was visibly agitated and I could tell he just wanted me to leave. There was a young boy who was hanging around the shop in what appeared to be a semiofficial manner. He followed my wife and me out the door when we departed the establishment and gave our vehicle the once-over as we climbed in.
It is my sincere hope that none of the described jerseys ever made it into the hobby as game-worn, however I fear that some probably did. Regarding the other dealer who may have been interested in purchasing them, I am confident that when he saw the jerseys he would have had the same reaction as I did.
In late 2004, I was contacted by an individual with whom I had conducted business several times before. He had six Philadelphia Eagles star player jerseys, all dating from 1996-98. He stated in his e-mail sales pitch that I needed these jerseys in order to spice up what in his opinion was my rarely changed inventory. My response to his somewhat heavy-handed overture was that I would give the jerseys some thought. He replied that we had done business before and that he always came to me first with his "good stuff." He pointed out that I would be making a mistake if I didn't buy the six jerseys. At this point, he was coming off as a desperate used-car salesman who needed to bone-up on his interpersonal skills. Still, I bought the jerseys.
To make a much longer story very short, after much scrutiny I determined that these jerseys were team-issued pieces that had been heavily soiled in order to appear game-worn, perhaps only once, and not laundered afterward. Five of the six jerseys were white. The dirt was on the body of the jerseys where it would show the best and not on the green numbers where it would be more difficult to see. On the one green jersey the majority of the dirt was on the white numbers where it would show up better.
Because I became suspicious of the wear, the jerseys were washed in cold water, gentle cycle with no detergent. Every bit of the loosely applied dirt came out, leaving the jerseys completely mint. If the jerseys had actually been game-worn, a cold-water, gentle cycle wash with no detergent would have left in some of the ground-in soil.
I believe that the seller of the Eagles jerseys acted pushy and desperate because he knew he had a bill of goods he needed to move. The problem with this particular seller is that I had acquired perfectly legitimate game-worn jerseys from him prior to this incident. However, because of his desperate aggressiveness added to the fact that the Eagles jerseys were at best suspect, I will never trust this individual enough to buy from him again.
There are other tales with similar themes that I could regale you with, but time does not allow. The point of sharing these two stories with you is to reinforce the importance of buying game-used uniforms and equipment from trusted sellers with proven track records of legitimacy. Because these uniforms are coveted collectibles of value, there will be those individuals with nebulous hearts who will attempt to cash in on the craze.
It is equally as important for you the collector of modern game-used uniforms to learn all you can about how the particular genre of items you collect should be tagged and tailored. Watch the games on TV. Ask more-experienced collectors or dealers if you are stuck on the finer points. If you get a bad vibe from a seller, trust your intuition and don't buy from them.
There are some terrific people associated with this hobby and business who are trustworthy buyers and sellers and friendly sources of information. Unfortunately, there are also those who would sell their mother's soul if they believed they could make a few bucks. In these ways, the game-used uniforms business is the same as any other. It's a matter of finding those individuals who have a conscience and a sense of right and wrong. Those are the people that you should choose to conduct business with.