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Sports Treasures at the Roadshow

Columnist Larry Canale takes a look inside America's attics and closets in search of sports collectibles as part of "Antiques Roadshow" events across the country. Some of the pieces – and people bringing them in – are recognizable.
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One thing about your hobby that should make you feel good is your knowledge of the topic. Judging by SCD readers I’ve met through letters, e-mails and at shows, you know your stuff – especially within the subcategory you pursue the hardest, whether it’s autographs, vintage cards, uniforms, equipment, advertising pieces or publications. Plus, most of you constantly add to your knowledge by browsing shows, shops, websites and, of course, by reading hobby publications.

Because of your knowledge of sports collectibles, I thought about you while on the road this summer. For those who don’t know, I work in my “day job” as editor-in-chief of a monthly publication called Antiques Roadshow Insider. The position takes me to anywhere from two-to-four of the show’s half-dozen appraisal fairs every summer.

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Antiques Roadshow attendees have a huge range of interests reflected in the categories at each event: Asian Arts, Books, Furniture, Folk Art, Glass, Jewelry, Metalwork, Paintings, Pottery, Prints and Toys, among others. But you won’t be surprised to know that I keep an especially close look at the items that land at the table identified as Sports Memorabilia.

Most folks who bring sports items to Antiques Roadshow, I should point out, don’t “live” in this hobby. In other words, they haven’t spent a lifetime collecting the stuff that most of us here love. Believe it or not, there are people who don’t get excited at the sight of a vintage baseball glove, a Nolan Ryan rookie card or an 8-by-10 photograph signed by Ted Williams.

Even without a stake in our hobby, the folks I meet at Antiques Roadshow events are curious about the kinds of things we collect. They’re also astute enough to realize that the stray tobacco card or baseball jersey or set of antique golf clubs they found in the attic could possibly have value. That’s why they’ve brought it to the appraisal event.

Sometimes, they experience the thrill of a big-dollar appraisal and walk away from the show feeling like they’ve won the lottery. And sometimes, they find their item is only marginally valuable, even if it’s rich in family history.

Either way, the process of getting an appraisal results in a sense of discovery for show attendees and also for the appraisers – and for me, too. Consider some of the items I admired first-hand over the summer.

Pirate booty
In Pittsburgh on Aug. 13, I told appraiser Mike Gutierrez early in the day that I’d love to put together a mini-feature on Roberto Clemente items, so could he call me if he saw anything good? Within 15 minutes, he beckoned me and, smiling, held up a baseball brought in by a local woman. Her mother – who was with her at the event – once worked as a school crossing guard not far from the office of a back specialist that Clemente frequently visited. (Remember that Roberto struggled with back pain, especially in the latter part of his career.)

Knowing that the Pirates star might show up one day, she kept a new baseball in her purse. It paid off, because she eventually managed to get Clemente’s signature. He personalized the ball, dated it (“June 1971”) and signed a beautiful autograph in that distinctive script of his. The only negative is that the woman’s baseball was a Little League model, not an Official National League ball. Nevertheless, appraiser Gutierrez was wowed by the piece, as I was. The ball was clean and unscuffed, and the signature remains bold and dark.

Now it was time for the woman and her mom to get wowed: Gutierrez told them that their Clemente-signed ball would sell for around $11,000 – and possibly more – in today’s market. He pointed out that Heritage Auctions had recently sold a Clemente-signed ball for $18,000, so he was being conservative with his estimate.

Shortly after the Clemente ball showed up, another guest brought in a baseball from 1972 that included a wonderful Clemente autograph as well as signatures from third baseman Richie Hebner and manager Bill Virdon. The woman who owns the ball was around 5 years old when her dad had it signed by the trio of Pirates. Today, it would sell at auction for “$1,500, possibly $2,000,” Gutierrez said. If it had included only Clemente’s signature, he added, it might be an $8,000-$10,000 piece.

Later in the day, a man brought in a “Momen” Clemente game-used bat. The lumber’s label and markings pinpoint it to a shipment of four bats received by Clemente before the 1960 World Series. The guest got the bat from his grandfather, who used to run the Allegheny County Fair in Pittsburgh, so it’s got great sentimental value. It also has healthy financial value: Around $25,000, Gutierrez said during a taped appraisal.

The name “Momen,” by the way, refers to a nickname Clemente had as a youngster. A passage in Heritage Auctions’ August catalog describes the history of the name:

“As a child, the pensive young Roberto had earned the nickname ‘Momen,’ a playful teasing of his habit of avoiding distraction by answering “momentito” (meaning just a moment, in Spanish) when interrupted by his family. Rookie-era bats are particularly prized for this variation in the facsimile barrel signature. This October 1960 order proved to be the last ‘Momen’ shipment. As a World Champion, Clemente apparently decided it was time to put away childish things.”

Packer gold

In Minneapolis on July 9, appraiser Simeon Lipman called me over to his table because he knows I’m a longtime Packers fan. A guest had brought in a small collection of old Green Bay game programs from the 1940s and 1950s. His father-in-law had purchased the publications at games he attended in Milwaukee and Green Bay over a span of years.

All of us know how hard it is to keep a game program in Mint condition when you’re sitting in a stadium seat for four quarters of football. These examples, though, remain in superb condition, making them extra desirable to Packers fans. Not only do they feature golden-age gridiron illustrations on their covers, but they contain collectible ads on the inside, including one in which future Hall of Famer Don Hutson served as a spokesman for the dairy industry.

The programs also serve as a record of the games witnessed by their original owner. On Oct. 17, 1943, for example, he saw Washington upend the Packers, 33-7 behind four touchdown passes by Redskins great Sammy Baugh. On Oct. 21, 1945, he saw the Packers crush the Boston Yanks 38-14, with Hutson accounting for six catches, 169 yards and two touchdowns. Jumping ahead, the guest’s father-in-law saw Bart Starr throw his very first NFL touchdown pass in a 17-16 loss to San Francisco on Nov. 18, 1956.

Justice is served
Perhaps the most surprising sports-related “find” of the 2011 tour wasn’t an object at all; it was a person. NFL Hall of Famer Alan Page, who since 1993 has served as a justice on the Minnesota Supreme Court, showed up with an item, waited in line like everyone else and ultimately got an expert’s estimate.
What did Page bring in? A 7-foot-tall, two-sided sign made to pay tribute to Abraham Lincoln at his funeral in 1865. The appraiser, Wes Cowan, instantly recognized it as an important historical piece and gave it an estimate of $15,000- $25,000. Page has long been a collector of Black Americana, and this sign – a gift from his wife Diane Sims Page – is one of the centerpieces.

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Seeing Page’s rare sign was a thrill, and so was the chance to meet the man himself while gathering a few words from him about his collection. In the process, I couldn’t resist telling him that when I was a kid, well, I despised him (and Carl Eller, and Jim Marshall . . .) because he and his cohorts beat up my Packers twice a year. He gave a quick smile, then got whisked away for another interview.

I didn’t get the chance to catch up with him again that afternoon, but I have no doubt that Page – a highly respected and popular figure in the Twin Cities – inked a few autographs on the way out. Now there’s something to bring to an appraisal event: An Alan Page autograph signed at Antiques Roadshow.

Looking back over the years
Over the years, countless other sports items have caught my eye at Antiques Roadshow events. Let’s take a look at a few among many that deserve ink.
Mickey, Roger & the Babe. Normally, a single-signed Babe Ruth baseball is preferable to one that also bears other autographs. But in Dallas in 2008, I saw an exception to that rule – a guest brought in a baseball signed by Ruth, Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris.

The guest told appraiser Leila Dunbar, as I eavesdropped, that on his 13th birthday, his great-uncle presented to him the prized Ruth-signed baseball he had acquired as a kid in the early 1930s.

The guest’s 13th birthday, he said, happened to be in 1961, the year Mantle and Maris staged their great home run race. So it happened that on Aug. 27 of that unforgettable summer, he went to see the Yankees play the Athletics in Kansas City. He brought his Ruth-signed ball with him and, as luck would have it, got both Mantle and Maris to sign the treasure.

There likely are very few (if any) baseballs bearing the autographs of Ruth, Mantle and Maris, making this one a real rarity. Dunbar estimated it would bring between $30,000-$50,000 at auction. She also delivered a great line to the guest: “What’d you get for your 14th birthday?” (He didn’t remember.)

Johnny’s Jacket. In Baltimore in 2007, a local man brought in a one-of-a-kind item that had every old Colts fan in attendance salivating: Johnny Unitas’ 1958 NFL Championship jacket. Johnny U. was a friend of the guest’s family and had given it to him when he was around 10 or 11.

“When you pulled the jacket out,” Lipman said to the guest, “I was like, ‘Wow, that’s a championship jacket! How great is that?’ When you showed me Johnny Unitas’ name (stitched inside), I almost fell on the floor.”

The jacket, presented to Unitas after he quarterbacked the Colts to a win in the NFL’s “Greatest Game Ever Played,” is a true prize. Today, it would bring $40,000-$60,000 at auction, Lipman told the surprised owner.

Say-Hey! An important Willie Mays game-worn item – his 1951 minor-league Minneapolis Millers jersey – turned up in St. Paul, Minn., in 2004 and drew an estimate of $60,000- $80,000 from Lipman. The guest had picked it up at a charity event in the mid-1980s for a mere $50.

The uniform’s number – 28 instead of the 24 for which Mays would become known in the majors – may have thrown off other prospective buyers in the past. In fact, the guest didn’t realize it was Mays’ jersey until later. His research produced a close-up photo of the outfielder wearing the exact same jersey, and a telltale bit of hand-stitched repair verified its identity.

“The” Card. The most valuable piece of sports memorabilia I’ve ever seen at an Antiques Roadshow event showed up, like the Unitas jacket above, in Baltimore in 2007. The item? A T206 card of – you guessed it – Honus Wagner.

This T206 wasn’t in quite the remarkable condition of the widely publicized “Gretzky” Wagner, which made news in 1991 when hockey great Wayne Gretzky bought it for $451,000. (In 2007, after the card had changed hands several times for rapidly rising prices, it sold for $2.8 million.) However, the Baltimore T206 Wagner was in good enough shape that appraiser Lipman said it would draw $500,000–$1 million at auction.

I’ve gotta say, the owner of the card was happy but hardly astonished. He knew he had a Holy Grail – one that gets “Holier” every year. As for me, it was nice just to hold onto such a rare collectible for a few minutes.

Larry Canale is author of the book “Mickey Mantle: Memories & Memorabilia” (Krause, 2011) and editor-in-chief of “Antiques Roadshow Insider.” He also spent six years editing Tuff Stuff magazine and has authored two books with photographer Ozzie Sweet: “Mickey Mantle/The Yankee Years” (1998) and “The Boys of Spring” (2005).

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