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Collecting and the Law: Q&A with Jock Smith

A pioneering African-American lawyer shares the collecting link to his father. His collection boasts some of the best jerseys on the world.

As I waited in line to get Jim Taylor’s signature at the 2008 National Convention in Chicago, I couldn’t help but notice a man who stood next to me who had his hands full of memorabilia to get signed and a smile on his face from ear to ear.

To me, he looked like your everyday, average collector who is thrilled to meet some of his heroes at a card show. But what you couldn’t tell from looking at Jock Smith is that he was one of our nation’s most successful lawyers, and a man who started collecting about 25 years ago. In that time, he had amassed one of the largest and most significant game-used jersey collections in the hobby.

Below is Smith’s story in the form of a question-and-answer interview that I conducted in the summer of this year.

Sports Collectors Digest (SCD): When did you start collecting?
Jock Smith (JS): It happened later in life. In 1982, I somehow met Darrell O’Mary. Darrell and I became very good friends. He had the most beautiful sets of baseball cards I’ve seen since my childhood. Keep in mind, I grew up in New York City, so the first baseball cards I remember collecting in a strong sense was 1956 Topps. He had the most beautiful set of 1956 Topps. I bought the set of cards from him.
After that, I started collecting all the other cards from my childhood, and I put together all the other sets from Topps and Bowman. But what I noticed when people would come over to the house, I’d show them the cards, but they didn’t seem to share the excitement that I had in them.

What I did was pick up a copy of Baseball Hobby News. Ken Schroeder had an advertisement in there with California Numismatics featuring game-worn uniforms. He had a list of uniforms he was selling. I gave him a shout, and he ended up selling me a 1972 home New York Mets Willie Mays for $1,600. That started the bug.

Shortly after that, I got my first football jersey. It was a green Joe Namath Jets jersey. Before I knew it, I had traded or sold every card and turned the cash into uniforms.

SCD: Your father was a very prominent lawyer during your childhood. Could you tell me about him and the link he formed with your love for collecting?
JS: My father, Jacob Smith, who was assassinated in his law office when I was 8 years old, was a pioneer lawyer. Daddy took me to the ballpark. We would go to Ebbets Field and see Campy and the Duke and Jackie. We’d take the subway over to the Polo Grounds over at Coogan’s Bluff and go see Hank Thompson, Willie Mays, Monte Irvin, all the boys over there. And we lived in those ballparks and in his law office. When I started collecting, I was really bringing back a closeness with my father. I collected out of the passion and love for the game that he helped me develop as a kid in those ball yards.

He was the first black lawyer to have an office in downtown Manhattan. He represented the NAACP. Count Basie was his client, along with other prominent celebrities. He lost his life for the battle of justice. Someone just came in and opened fire. I wrote a book about it called Climbing Jacob’s Ladder. It’s on and is still hot.

When I bought my 1957 New York Giants road Willie Mays shirt, it brought tears to my eyes because that was his favorite ballplayer. I then set on a journey to collect as many jerseys of ballplayers that my father and I saw play.

My collection of uniforms grows for my passion and love of the game, my appreciation for the history of the games of professional football and baseball.

SCD: Did you always want to be a lawyer?
JS: I took a public-speaking course when I was in the 11th grade. The teacher in that class, who was white, called me to the back of the class. I thought I was in trouble or something. Teacher said, “You have a gift, you’ve got a gift, son.” And that opened up a door of hope, eight years after my father’s death. That hope manifested itself in my college career and my law career.

I wanted to be the trial lawyer my father was. I think my ability to speak has carried me financially. It has helped me to purchase the collection, to help others and to tell stories.

SCD: Tell us about your law career?
JS: Johnnie Cochran was my partner. We met in November 1996 when I was his escort for a book signing in Montgomery, and the rest is history. We formed a sports agency company, Cochran Sports Management in 1997 and then formed a national law firm for civil justice in 1998 – Cochran, Cherry, Givens and Smith. We put up 17 law offices all over the U.S. before his untimely demise.

After he passed away, I assumed the role of the presidency of the Cochran firm. And now there’s 20-some offices around the country. What I primarily do by day is I’m a trial lawyer and a motivational speaker. I’ve been fortunate to have a great legal career. In 2004, I got a verdict for $1.6 billion, the largest verdict in the nation for that year. It was the largest verdict that an African-American lawyer ever got in the history of this nation.

Most of the people who know me in the collecting world do not know about my legal stuff. They don’t know all about what my career has brought on. Richie Russek, over at Grey Flannel, got me a gig three years ago to speak at the Basketball Hall of Fame each year before the induction ceremony. What was really touching was last year they gave me an award called the VIP of Character Award. I’m the only person that got that award who’s not a former player.

SCD: That’s got to be something special for a collector.
JS: Oh, yes. I get to go to all the private parties and get a bunch of signatures. The stuff that I’ve experienced in this, after my father’s tragic death, has brought on a life of blessing.

SCD: What’s your goal when you go to a show such as the National?
JS: I have two goals. One is just to fraternize with people who I’ve met over the years, have dinner with them and have a good time. I have several dealers, particularly auction houses, who I know.

Then I try to determine if there’s anything there to purchase.

SCD: Did you purchase any cool items at the National this year?
JS: I picked up a beautiful pair of Thomas “Hitman” Hearns trunks and a pair of Riddick Bowe trunks, both from Scott Welkowsky. I also picked up a great Gerald Ford item. What happened was Gerald Ford just assumed his duties as president, and he was writing the Cincinnati Reds’ top executive on White House letterhead.

Basically, the essence of the letter says, “Thank you for a the opportunity to get together with you, I really enjoyed it.” And then he said, “The highlight of my day was sitting alongside you and watching Hank Aaron hit No. 714 when he tied Babe Ruth. Now I’m going to assume my duties as President of the United States as I lead this Nation.”

And he signed it “Jerry Ford,” not Gerald.

SCD: Are you mainly a collector of players who played on the East Coast?
JS: I collect just about anything, but I primarily collect Hall of Famers or great New York players or even common players that played on New York teams that I loved who were accessories to championship teams.

SCD: Where is your collection displayed?
JS: I have a museum on the second floor of one of my homes. I’m also built a home that is almost done in Atlanta, and some my stuff is going to go on a very large floor of the new house. I probably have the largest collection of uniforms ever. I have over 1,200 uniforms.

SCD: Is there any uniform that you’re still looking for?
JS: In boxing, I still need a Joe Frazier robe and trunks. I still need a George Foreman robe and trunks.

You know what, there’s probably several I really want, but Andy Robustelli . . . Not only do I not own an Andy Robustelli jersey, I have never laid eyes on one. Nor has football guru Lou Lampson.

SCD: So, does one exist?
JS: Well, let’s put it like this. If it does, we don’t know where it is. Andy Robustelli is still living, but I don’t think anybody has ever called him about it. Certain people, it’s like they went away. It’s sort of like the old Simon and Garfunkle song, “Where have you gone, Joe DiMaggio? The nation turned his lonely eyes to you. Hey, hey, hey.”

Who else would I like? I’d love to have some jerseys that probably don’t exist. Paul Hornung, Notre Dame – love to have one. John Huarte, Notre Dame – don’t know if one’s even in existence. There’s always pieces I would like.

I’m just a fanatic about Namath and Muhammad Ali. I have nine Namath game-worn uniforms. I have four pair of Ali fight trunks. I have robes, you name it.

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SCD: Is there a piece that’s your favorite item, one that stands out?
JS: I have a green Durene Joe Namath that Lou (Lampson) says is the only one in existence. There are white ones, but this is the only green. That would have to be right at the top.

I also have a home Babe Ruth jersey. Even though there are five or fewer Ruths in existence, at least two have no number on them. Mine is all original, has the number on the back and also something to note – Ruth was such a meticulous dresser that he had a drawstring that he had professionally manufactured into the front of the jersey because he didn’t want wrinkles in his jersey or anything. There’s no question mine is the best Ruth jersey in existence.

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