By Tom Bartsch
Nestled in the middle of hundreds of other booths during the 2015 National Sports Collectors Convention in the Donald E. Stephens Convention Center in Rosemont, Ill., was a dealer who can boast something many others in the room could not.
Rick Romito of Romito Sports Figures out of Virginia was (and continues to do so) celebrating 25 years dealing in sports figurines and bobble heads. This was Rick's 20th National Convention appearance, as well, and I don't think there was a happier man in the room.
Joining Rick on the third day of The National when I visited with him was his son Peter, 17, who was on his eighth National visit himself. Not only was Rick dealing with something he loves as a side gig when he’s not teaching high school students, but he’s continued to make the venture a family affair, now spending time on the road with his son, following in the footsteps of Rick’s brother, David, and father, Richard, who have been involved in the business in the past, as well.
“It feels like I just got started,” Rick said about celebrating his 25th year in the business.
You might say the figurines hobby got started in 1988, with the introduction of Starting Lineups (SLUs). Romito jumped into the game in 1990 and has seen the market shift from SLUs to Gartlan and Salvino figures to McFarlane’s Sports Picks.
“(In 1988), that was the first time modern era figurines became collectibles,” Rick said. “There was a collectibles demand for them.”
Rick dabbled in cards before then, especially involving his beloved Pittsburgh sports teams, but the late 1980s and early 1990s were the “Golden Age of Collecting,” as he put it, when every town had a show and sports memorabilia store. But Rick noticed something in those stores and at those shows. No one was specifically dealing in figurines. So he started buying and attending 30-40 shows a year. He went in at the right time, as there were even magazines devoted to SLUs, like Tuff Stuff’s Guide to Starting Lineups magazine.
Rick could relate to sports fans and he knew what they were looking for. He expanded his inventory, adding Gartlan, Salvino, SAM Bobbing Heads, Hartlands, etc. In the mid-1990s, he got a big break and was issued an MLB license to create his own figures, starting with his favorite player, Roberto Clemente.
For 10 years he created his own figures, stockpiling a healthy lineup of stars and Hall of Famers, offering them to collectors as cold-cast resin signed versions. You can still pick up examples of these from Rick, ranging from Don Mattingly and Bob Feller to Rollie Fingers and Mike Schmidt, among others.
The thrill of the chase was a big draw for Romito early on with the SLUs and continues to this day with variations in McFarlane’s line and snaring the latest team stadium giveaways. He can still recall the days of the SLU conventions when 4,000-5,000 attendees would walk through the door simply to buy figures!
You can re-create such a feeling by looking through Rick’s inventory. He offers thousands of figures, by companies such as Sports Impressions, Hallmark, Bradford Exchange, Upper Deck, Hartland and Danbury Mint, in addition to the companies listed previously.
Rick said he enjoys figures because you get a likeness of the player right in front of you, evoking immediate memories. Plus, it’s always been a family business.
“I’ve made a lot of friends and great people doing this,” Romito said. “I hope to be doing this for 25 more years.”
Added his son Peter, “It’s very special to spend this time with my dad, I love helping.”
I asked Peter if many of his friends are into collecting, and he said most prefer to play video games. However, he said he tries to educate his buddies on figures and has managed to convert some into collectors.
If Peter’s friends have any questions, they have a good source in the Romitos. Rick said the Pittsburgh Pirates have bought his custom figures, he has sold his wares at ballparks and estimates he’s been to more than 500 shows all across the country during his 25-year run.
“It’s a niche and one I’ve become an expert in,” Rick said. “And I’m the only company featured in a Baseball Hall of Fame display, featuring my Romito figures in the early 2000s.”
You can find Romito Sports Figures on eBay in the eBay store dubbed Romito Sports Figures and Bobbers, along with his Amazon store, Romito Sports Figures. His usual website, www.romito.com is currently going through a web host change and update and will be back up and running soon. For further information on Rick and his business, call (703) 728-8881 or e-mail email@example.com.