By Ross Forman
It all started with a personalized baseball from Hank Aaron, signed in 1973 for Grant DePorter, who was 9 years old at the time and living in San Francisco.
He still has that Aaron-signed ball 40-plus years later, particularly for its “big time” sentimental value.
DePorter is now the president of Harry Caray’s Restaurant Group – and a sports memorabilia collector as big and passionate about the hobby as Caray’s fabled, oversized, black-rimmed glasses.
DePorter is, of course, the one who purchased – and then blew up – the infamous Steve Bartman ball from the 2003 National League playoffs.
DePorter has also purchased the 2005 World Series “last out” bat, which gave the Chicago White Sox its first championship in 88 years, Elvis Presley’s sunglasses and Sammy Sosa’s corked bat. And DePorter offered a $50,000 reward for the missing 2010 Chicago Blackhawks Stanley Cup winning puck. The FBI aided DePorter in the hunt for the puck, and it later was determined that NHL linesman Steve Miller picked up the puck, though Miller, in an ESPN interview, denied ever seeing or touching the puck. Miller has declined all press interviews, and the NHL has stated the matter is closed.
From the Blackhawks’ 2013 Stanley Cup, DePorter purchased Andrew Shaw’s stitches. Yes – the facial stitches following a vicious-looking puck to the face. In August 2013, Shaw auctioned the stitches for $6,500 and donated the money to The V Foundation for Cancer Research.
DePorter has acquired, or received, literally thousands – more like tens of thousands – of pieces of sports memorabilia over the past 30-plus years. Most of it is signed; lots of it are game-worn or game-used.
And now, lots of those relics are on display – in awesome fashion.
The restaurant chain opened the Chicago Sports Museum this spring adjacent to the new Harry Caray’s 7th Inning Stretch Restaurant, located on the seventh floor at Water Tower Place in downtown Chicago. Located in an 8,000 sq.-ft. space, the museum is a tribute to Chicago sports history: From Michael Jordan and Walter Payton to Ryne Sandberg to Carlton Fisk. So many greats before and after those four sporting icons shine inside the museum.
The museum also features relics from the Chicago Sky, Chicago Sting, Chicago Fire and other lesser-known local teams.
“The restaurant (chain) has been around almost 27 years, and we’ve just been collecting things,” DePorter said. “Plus, fans are always calling to display their memorabilia at the restaurants. I just thought, why not do something on a large scale?”
The Chicago Sports Museum is a must-see for locals and a fun tourist stop for visitors who have watched Bobby Hull shoot the puck, Ernie Banks smack home runs at Wrigley Field, “The Fridge,” William Perry in wonderment and so many others who have built a lasting legacy in the Windy City.
The Harry Caray’s 7th Inning Stretch Restaurant and the Chicago Sports Museum fill 23,000 square feet, and the glitzy mall attracts more than 13 million annual visitors. Restaurant patrons get into the Chicago Sports Museum for free. Others pay $6.
“It’s funny, after people go through (the museum) and then ask me what their favorite part was, I always guess wrong,” he said, laughing. “Plus, there’s not one aspect/part of the museum that always is everyone’s favorite, which is a great part of the overall museum.”
It’s not surprising since the Chicago Sports Museum is a mix of rare, signed, game-worn sports memorabilia with high-tech interactive elements and plenty “wow” factor, such as the Forensics section to the superstitions of sporting stars and so much more.
The museum is ever-changing, ever-expanding. DePorter said exhibits will be changed regularly.
A collecting kid
DePorter grew up in the collectibles world … sort of.
His dad, Don, who passed away in 1996 at age 54, worked for Hyatt Hotels – and many sports teams stayed in hotels that the elder DePorter was running. The NBA even held its annual awards banquets at a Hyatt Regency Hotel in Chicago – and both father and son often attended.
Don also was friends with Ken Kaiser, a former American League umpire who worked the American League circuit from 1977-99. Kaiser often hosted father and son DePorter to White Sox games, and through Kaiser, Grant was able to acquire rare sports memorabilia, such as game-used bats from Chet Lemon, one of his favorite former players.
Don also was a part-owner of the Oakland Stompers, a team that competed in the North American Soccer League (NASL) in 1978, featuring superstar goalie Shep Messing. Co-owners John Brodie and Ben Davidson were his partners.
The sporting life and the sports memorabilia that seemingly followed suit for DePorter, was and always has been fun, he said.
Never more fun, and no doubt nerve-racking and pricey, among other terms, than a December night in 2003 – when DePorter stayed up into the wee hours of the morning and ultimately paid $113,824 for the Cubs foul ball from the 2003 playoffs. This was the “Bartman Ball.”
Cubs fan Steve Bartman touched the ball from the stands during a fateful 2003 playoff game, preventing Cubs left fielder Moises Alou from catching a foul ball for an out.
Of course, the Cubs lost that game and the series, and Bartman hasn’t been seen in public since.
DePorter, who used a fake name to bid, won the ball in an Internet auction, beating out Todd McFarlane for the right to the dubious ball.
“I think I just psyched (McFarlane) out,” DePorter said. “He didn’t know who he was bidding against, and every time he bid, I countered immediately.” (In most online auctions, there is a 15-minute waiting period to get bids in before a lot closes in the extended-bidding format.)
McFarlane, meanwhile, waited nearly the whole 15 minutes he could every time before bidding.
“I wasn’t planning on going higher than $30,000, but I went insane,” DePorter said, laughing. “My wife was screaming at me; she wanted me to stop bidding at $40,000.”
DePorter didn’t know who he was bidding against. In fact, he thought he was bidding against some Florida Marlins fans, or the team itself, thinking they would want the ball as a favorable part of team history.
“My plan always was to destroy it because I thought, ‘What would Harry do?’ And that’s what I thought Harry would do,” he said.
The starting price for the ball was $5,000.
When DePorter claimed the ball, he was immediately flooded with reactions from the Cubs faithful. The worldwide reaction came quickly; he received more than 20,000 letters from Cubs fans within a week.
On Feb. 26, 2004, about two months after purchasing the ball, and with a live, worldwide TV audience watching via CNN, ESPN and MSNBC, the ball was blown up.
The blown-up-ball was front-page news in The New York Times, Los Angeles Times, USA TODAY and countless other mainstream newspapers. Talk about an amazing publicity stunt.
“It was two months of craziness,” DePorter said, “and people still talk about it every day.”
The ball’s remnants are featured.
“A lot of people want to see that (ball),” said DePorter, who received a call at home almost immediately after the 2003 purchase from The Today Show – as he was asked to fly, with the ball, to New York to be interviewed.
DePorter, though, refused – fearing he might lose the ball. Instead, The Today Show aired from Chicago.
DePorter also appeared on ESPN, the BBC and countless other high-profile media outlets.
DePorter’s connection to newspapers dates back to the 1800s. “I think I have the largest newspaper collection in Chicago,” he said. “Every major sports moment in Chicago, I have on the walls (at one of the restaurants or in the museum – in print).”
Examples include the first Blackhawks game from 1926 and the first Cubs game in 1876. DePorter acquired the papers from a former airline pilot’s collection.
DePorter’s hunt for rare, one-of-a-kind sports relics is never-ending, but his list of wanted items is kept quiet, mostly so the price won’t be pushed higher by the publicity.
DePorter said the museum will remain Chicago-focused. One exception is Marv Levy’s AFC Championship ring from the Buffalo Bills. It’s housed in the museum because Levy is a Chicago native who still calls the Windy City home.
One of the first autographs DePorter ever got – and still has – is from Minnesota Fats in the late-1960s, on a letter written by the legendary billiards star to Don, asking about Grant.
“That’s probably my first piece of sports memorabilia,” he said.
He also has an extensive supply of autographs from members of the now-defunct Oakland Stompers soccer team.
But there is no Michael Jordan autograph … well, perhaps on one vintage item.
“I always thought I had a ball signed by Michael Jordan (and others, signed during his playing days),” DePorter said of the ball that was supposedly signed during an event at the Hyatt Regency in Chicago.
All of the NBA stars that were being honored that night, such as Jordan, were on the dais.
“The ball would start at one end and then make its way down (the dais), and all of the players had a Sharpie to sign the ball,” DePorter said. “It wasn’t until this year that I confirmed it wasn’t Jordan’s signature, though I don’t even know how that’s possible.
The ‘M’ in Michael of his autograph is very recognizable; this one, though, looks a lot different. Hey, maybe he did sign it and who knows, maybe he was just tired.”
As for DePorter’s autograph, he does not mind signing and is regularly asked.
“Sometimes they get confused and think I’m someone else,” he admitted.
Fans of the Cubs often ask for his autograph.
And yes, he does receive fan mail, though often it’s from fans wanting to discuss memorabilia, he said.
“I definitely love sports memorabilia,” he said. “And if I don’t know an answer to a question, I can find an expert rather quickly.”
DePorter has attended card shows in the past, such as the National Sports Collectors Convention.
“For me, sports is like my church … and sports memorabilia items are the holy relics; they are so precious,” DePorter said.
Ross Forman is a freelance contributor to SCD. He can be reached at email@example.com.