By Ross Forman
The National Sports Collectors Convention returns to the friendly confines this summer: the Donald E. Stephens Convention Center in Rosemont, Illinois.
This suburban Chicago facility, located 10-minutes from O’Hare International Airport, is the most-used location for the Super Bowl of Sports Memorabilia, as The National has become known. The National has been held in Rosemont every other year since 2011, and 11 times overall since 1998. The National has been held in three other Chicago locations too, dating back to 1983.
Overall, The National has been held 13 times in Chicago, which is more than in any other city. And the annual summertime showcase of cards, autographs, memories and more returns to Rosemont in 2021 and 2023, organizers have already announced.
“Chicago is such a strong sports (memorabilia) market (and) the city itself has such a strong sports history,” said longtime collector Chad King, who lives in Frisco, Texas. “The fact that 75 percent of the U.S. population can get to Chicago in five hours or less makes it an ideal location for the National Sports Collectors Convention. The location is fantastic and Chicago is a city that draws well because there are so many things the city offers people from all over in regards to sports, shopping, museums, art ... and let’s not forget about the fantastic food all across the city of Chicago.”
That certainly includes Rosemont. Any night during The National, the top area restaurants are packed with people who, hours earlier, were talking memorabilia. Be it Gibson’s Steakhouse across the street from the venue or at Capital Grille just down the street, National attendees certainly eat well in Rosemont.
Be sure to check out Harry Caray’s Italian Steakhouse in Rosemont, a five-minute drive from the convention center, for a five-star meal amidst a throng of sporting photos and more. The restaurant’s CEO, Grant DePorter, has a long history in the collectibles game and likely can be seen walking through The National. Hey, this is the man who, in 2004, paid $113,824 for the “Bartman Ball” from the 2003 National League Championship Series. He ultimately had the ball destroyed in a nationally-televised stunt in an attempt to end the “Curse of the Billy Goat,” which supposedly had prevented the Cubs from winning the National League since 1945.
“Chicago is, and has been, the biggest market for The National,” said Lisa Stellato of Never Enough Cards., Inc., who will be in her 29th consecutive year setting up at The National. She has been in the sports cards business for 36 years, dating back to 1983, and owned a brick and mortar sports memorabilia store for more than 27 years until recently closing shop, literally.
“Chicago ranks high in participation in professional sports, and because of that, I feel it is a very strong collectors market. It also offers a lot of other activities for families to explore while in the city, she said. “Chicago is an amazing place with lots to do and see. It also makes it easier for all attendees to travel to a place in the middle of the country. There is so much sports history in Chicago, which makes it a great choice for The National.”
Stellato said her favorite National memory from a Chicago show is just the pure enjoyment among collectors.
“The excitement on the faces of young collectors and the feel-good atmosphere that is present with all,” she said. “Whether it is a promotion at one of the manufacturers’ booths, looking at the unbelievable memorabilia from the likes of Babe Ruth, Mickey Mantle and Ty Cobb, the race around the room to buy hot rookies, or the faces of young collectors looking through boxes of cards or opening packs. ...Chicago makes The National worth all the work it takes to get there. This is what our industry should be all about.”
Mike Vettraino, a New Jersey-based memorabilia enthusiast, echoed Stellato.
“The Chicago market for sports memorabilia shows is, hands down, the best in the county,” he said. “I don’t think (The) National works in Boston, New York or even California like it did in the 1990s and that’s probably why you haven’t seen one in those cities in recent memory.
“Chicago’s proximity to so many other iconic sports towns, (such as) Milwaukee, St. Louis, Detroit and Green Bay, also makes The National a winner every time it comes to Rosemont.”
Brian Schwartz, CEO/President of Schwartz Sports Memorabilia, Inc., noted that the success of the Blackhawks, Bears and Cubs certainly helps drive the popularity of the current, local players.
“Every (local) team has won a championship since 1985, so the players (from those winning teams) have multiple generations of fans who still desire their autographs,” said Schwartz, who tagged his favorite memory from a Chicago National was more than 15 years ago – when he met Andre Dawson for the first time (in a one-on-one setting), as Dawson is his all-time favorite player.
“I think the guys who have not appeared here before, or at least haven’t been to Chicago in a while, will fare better, as fans are always requesting fresh names,” Schwartz said. “Likewise, some of the popular local favorites still draw well, particularly Moises Alou, Greg Maddux and Mike Ditka.”
Stellato is primarily geared to sell cards and more to player and set collectors.
“We bring a lot of boxes, sorted by player in all four sports,” she said. “We also have been very successful and become well-known (for) bringing in more than 200,000 bargain cards for 10-cents each. We have a lot of collectors spend hours, sometimes days, going through the bargains in stars and rookies. We bring many boxes of numbered cards and Refractors for 25-cents, as well as a nice selection of game-used and autograph cards. We also have been known to showcase some very cool and rare cards. We try to cater to all collectors.
“Our goals for this year’s National are pretty much the same as every year. We bring a lot of diversity in cards for all collectors’ budgets, come prepared and organized, and watch the fun all the collectors have at our booth.”
In addition, for the past eight years, Stellato’s company has had giveaways for attendees, particularly kids.
“This year, we will be giving away to all kids a free Lego Mini-figure pack, or a Pokémon Ball filled with toys,” she said. “We also will be giving out a limited-edition card we had made for the 40th National Sports Collectors Convention.”(Stellato and Never Enough Cards will be at booth numbers 847, 851, 748 and 750.)
“The National is the largest gathering of all aspects (of) our industry, including manufacturers, auction houses, distributors, licensors, leagues, case breakers, table-holders and collectors,” Stellato said. “To be able to come to the show and see so many items from the past, (such as) uniforms and bats, (plus having the chance to meet) great athletes. ...The National is a five-day collector’s dream. There is something here for everyone. We look forward and prepare for well over a month for this exciting event.”
King, the collector from near-Dallas, added: “There is something magical how sports fans are able to link moments in sports history to our personal lives. We remember watching games with family members and friends, and for those rare moments, we can often place exactly where we were when history was made. That is something very unique about collecting sports memorabilia. For many of us, watching sports was something we did with not only our parents but our grandparents and favorite uncles and aunts. Acquiring autographs from players in multiple generations stirs emotional connections to the sports we love as well as the people we enjoy/enjoyed watching those sports with.”
Houston-based TRISTAR Productions is, once again, running the autograph pavilion at the 2019 National – and as expected, the lineup of about 130 signers is wide-ranging and diverse, with multiple Hall of Famers from all four major team sports, not to mention WWE Hall of Famer Hulk Hogan.
“One of the truly great things about The National is the opportunity people have to meet and receive an autograph from some of their sports heroes,” said King, who tagged former New York Yankees relief pitcher Mariano Rivera as the National signer he is most excited to meet. “The TRISTAR Autograph Pavilion will be filled, day after day, with legends from baseball, football, basketball, hockey, wrestling and women’s soccer. It is the best place to meet sports heroes from many sports in one place.”
Karen Murphy, who has been collecting cards since age 9 and autographs since age 15, has been coming to The National from her home near Kansas City since the mid-1990s.
“This year’s TRISTAR Autograph Pavilion at The National is more about newer and bigger names than in the past,” said Murphy, who also has signed some autographs herself at The National in recent years.
After all, she was inducted into the Midwest USSSA Softball Hall Of Fame in 2017.
“I was approached at the last Nationals by little girls who wanted to see my Hall Of Fame ring,” Murphy said. “After a few minutes, they came back and said they wanted an autograph (from) a Hall Of Famer. I was so humbled and honored to sign a ball for them.”
King’s collection of National memories are endless, such as the time Bob Feller and Tom Seaver were having an in-depth discussion about pitching.
“You cannot put a price on such an experience,” he said.
Longtime Michigan-based dealer Mark Dehem will be making the journey around Lake Michigan to attend yet another National. Chicago, he said, is the industry-standard for The National.
“Chicago continues to be the place for The National, (delivering) huge attendance and major signers (inside a) great facility,” Dehem said. “I’ve been at every Chicago National and look forward to being there this year. Chicago doesn’t disappoint – you see things you never see at any other show, incredible unique memorabilia and collectibles.”
Chicago has been a solid, strong sports collectibles market since the early-1970s. Legendary hobby names such as Bruce Paynter and Jeff Blatt ran the old Chicagoland Sports Collectors Association (CSCA) and the Hillside Holiday Inn was an early local venue for regular shows.
George Johnson built the Chicago Sun-Times Shows into monster shows that offered annual, three-day weekend extravaganzas in March and November, with amazing autograph-signing lineups and some of the nation’s best, most well-known dealers.
Nowadays, it’s the Chicago Sports Spectacular that twice-a-year rocks the city’s sports memorabilia foundation.
“Chicago ranks as the best location for The National, with Cleveland a close second,” Dehem said. “My favorite memory of a Chicago National was in 1983, when I was fortunate enough to have tickets for the 50th Major League Baseball All-Star Game in Chicago the same week as The National. Being at the National and All-Star Game in the same week … what more could you ask for.”
Ross Forman is a freelance contributor to Sports Collectors Digest. He can be reached at Rossco814@aol.com.