By Ross Forman
George Johnson is pushing 30 years in the sports collectibles industry, including 24 years running shows in the Chicagoland area. He built the twice-a-year Chicago Sun-Times Show into a must-attend, star-studded, collector-filled, three-day extravaganza.
Without question, Johnson is one of the best regional show promoters in hobby history.
“George Johnson ran the most consistently good sports card and memorabilia shows in the Midwest. His Sun-Times shows always drew big crowds, and we met many collectors there who became regular customers of our auctions,” said longtime dealer Kevin Savage, the president/COO of Kevin Savage Cards, based in Maumee, Ohio. “His two shows a year helped us build our business and were always well worth the booth fees; you can’t always say that about (all) card shows.
“George was a pleasure to work with – a stand-up guy.”
Now 54 and living in Scottsdale, Ariz., Johnson is still hooked on the hobby, anchored around the show side of the business.
Johnson has run more than 1,500 shows. After all, he promoted two shows per weekend for 15 years.
The list of autograph guests who have appeared at Johnson-run shows range from Muhammad Ali and Joe DiMaggio to Willie Mays, Joe Namath and literally hundreds, if not thousands, of others.
“It was a great time. We saw the hobby, particularly the show market, go to its highest peak – and we kept it there for a long time; that was exciting,” Johnson said. “There was a lot of (card) product out and a lot of dealers were doing the shows; unfortunately, that’s not really the case now.”
The 1980s and ’90s certainly were the hey-day of card shows, and many will agree that Chicago was the capital of the industry. Johnson was one of the main reasons.
“Collectors flocked to shows to buy cards, autographs and more,” Johnson said. “The shows were packed; every show was busy, with collectors buying, selling and trading. Autograph guests were selling 500 to 900 autograph tickets; it was crazy. Today, they sell 100 (autograph tickets), maybe. Most of the autograph guests were priced at $10 to $20 (per signature); now there are so many over $100.”
Through the years
Johnson ran his first show at the Marriott Hotel in Oak Brook, Ill., featuring autograph appearances by Jeremy Roenick, Eddie Belfour and Chris Chelios. Johnson doesn’t recall the exact year, but proudly boasts, “The place was packed, an absolute mob scene.”
After all, the three signers were popular superstars for the mega-popular Chicago Blackhawks.
Johnson-run shows have, without question, featured a who’s who of sporting stars. Just consider:
• Toni Kukoc: “We almost had a riot when he appeared. Fans came with flags (from Kukoc’s native Croatia) and were waving them, asking him for money. He didn’t give them any money, but that definitely was a memory.”
• Joe Namath: He stood up during his entire signing session, and Johnson noted how professional the former quarterback was. Plus, “he let collectors try on his Super Bowl ring. I remember that.”
• Hank Aaron: He walked out on about 40 people, claiming he had to get to the airport for a flight. “That was a nightmare,” Johnson said.
• Mike Ditka: His personality and interaction with Bears fans.
• Muhammad Ali: “His interaction with other athletes and people in the back was so memorable,” Johnson said.
• Joe DiMaggio: Dealing with his personality and the chore of limiting collectors from snapping pictures of the former New York Yankee superstar.
• Harmon Killebrew: “Always was a really nice guest,” Johnson said.
• Dick Butkus: “Always drew big crowds, always was nice. And he still draws big crowds.”
• Willie Mays: “Was pretty nice to everyone, including myself in the back,” Johnson said. “He was hanging with Ernie Banks in the back. I was not expecting his pleasant personality, based on what I had heard about him.”
• Tony Esposito: The guest Johnson has had appear at the most shows. “He’s just a nice guy who treats everyone with respect.”
• Mickey Mantle, Michael Jordan and Larry Bird: Three stars who never appeared at a Johnson show, and the three he always wanted to have appear.
“The shows were so complex; they were not easy to run,” Johnson said. “There was a lot of pressure running the shows back in the day. You had to book all of the dealers, you had to draw the collectors, you also had to book all of the players and you had to make sure all of the players appeared. And, of course, you also had to sell tickets. It’s still complex today.”
Johnson also had to battle Mother Nature over the years, such as the time there was a flood in Rosemont, impacting the venue. “That was a nightmare,” he said.
Johnson said the Chicago Bulls’ six championship run without a doubt had a major impact on the show market, certainly locally, but nationally as well.
“People were flocking to shows because of the Michael Jordan era,” he said.
Johnson never tried to get Jordan to appear at a show, mostly because of his ties with Upper Deck and the price/risk it would be.
ohnson has been running two shows annually in Minneapolis for the past five years.
“It’s a great baseball market,” he said. “I set up at TwinsFest a few times and saw how many thousands of collectors attended; that’s what gave me the idea to start promoting card shows in that market . . . and it worked.”
Johnson is now promoting his first-ever show in Scottsdale, Ariz. The Cactus League Sports - Sports Card, Memorabilia, and Autograph Convention will be Jan. 23-25, with autograph appearances by Ozzie Smith, Robin Yount, Mark Grace, Fred Biletnikoff and others. There will be 80 dealers from across the U.S. hawking their goods, and Johnson said the show will be held annually.
All Johnson shows will feature eight to 15 guests, not the mega-shows of nowadays with 50-plus signers. “That many signers really impacts the cash-flow in the showroom,” he said.
So how can the show market be improved?
Johnson offered a few tips: Cut back the number of autograph guests appearing, lower the autograph fees and offer free admission.
Johnson opened his first-ever memorabilia store, Cactus League Sports, in early 2014. The high-end 1,400 square-foot store features thousands of autographs, most obtained at past shows and many framed, plus collectibles and memorabilia galore, as well as licensed sports novelties and gifts and more. He has very limited new card releases for sale, but there are vintage cards available.
“The market is different in Arizona than Chicago,” he said. “It’s not like just one or two teams locally that people cheer for, such as the ’Hawks, Bears, Bulls, Cubs and White Sox in Chicago. Here, everyone is from somewhere else originally, so the main teams that people here seem to cheer for and support are the New York Yankees, Boston Red Sox, San Francisco 49ers and Seattle Seahawks.
“I think that’s good for the local sports memorabilia market.”
For more information about Johnson’s store and the Jan. 23-25 Cactus League Sports - Sports Card, Memorabilia and Autograph Convention, including dealer table and autograph ticket information, call (480) 998-2061.
Ross Forman is a freelance contributor to SCD. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.