There are the legends on the field, court and ice that make sports what they are. Their achievements are etched in the minds of fans around the world and passed down from generation to generation, almost to the point of immortality.
From game-used jerseys and balls to autographed memorabilia and trading cards, the hobby of sports collecting has been a cornerstone of that fanhood.
The great thing about collecting is that its sentiment lies in the eyes of the beholder. You make it what you want and you take it to the extreme you wish to immerse yourself.
Tim Gallagher has collected autographs for more than half a century and has owned as many as 25,000 at his peak. And for Gallagher, it’s not just a game of accumulation. He has obtained autographs from some of the biggest stars of the last century, often chasing them down in person.
“A nicely done autograph that adds a personal, aesthetic connection to the collector is a lost art,” he says. “Mickey Mantle had those certain loops in his M’s. Players took pride because it was part of their brand, like the signers of the Declaration of Independence.”
Over the past two years, Gallagher — a walking encyclopedia in the sports autograph world, particularly vintage basketball — has been a prominent fixture in the hobby. He made headlines in 2020 when he auctioned a pair of signed Michael Jordan rookie cards from his personal collection at a time when basketball cards — and Jordan in particular — were the hottest cards in the hobby.
But while millions would label themselves collectors in one form or another, very few have the opportunity to turn their passion into a career. For Gallagher, that aspiration has become a reality.
In September, Robert Edward Auctions, one the world’s largest specialty auction houses devoted to sports trading cards and memorabilia, appointed Gallagher to serve as the company’s West Coast Consignment Director. Based in Southern California, Gallagher had previously served in the same capacity for two years at a smaller auction house.
His presence in California reestablishes REA’s footprint on the West Coast and adds to the company’s growing remote acquisitions team, which currently employs full-time consignment specialists in Southern California, Dallas and Chicago in addition to their Chester, N.J.-based staff.
Gallagher traces his love for sports memorabilia to when he was 8 years old and nabbed the signature of his hometown basketball hero, Don May, in Dayton, Ohio. May, who won an Ohio high school basketball state title in 1964 and led the University of Dayton to the NCAA National Championship game against Lew Alcindor’s UCLA Bruins three years later, went on to play seven seasons in the NBA, where he won a championship as part of the 1970 New York Knicks.
In 1969, Gallagher wrote to Cincinnati Bengals running back Paul Robinson for an autographed photo. When one appeared in Gallagher’s mailbox a week later, he was hooked on the hobby for good.
Pretty soon, he and his father were taking regular trips to nearby Cincinnati. At the time, the NBA’s Cincinnati Royals featured future Hall of Famer Oscar Robertson while the Bengals were led by franchise co-founder and head coach Paul Brown, who would be inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1967.
His treks into Cincinnati eventually yielded autographs from both legends, which he still has to this day.
“But baseball was still king,” he recalls. “The Reds had [Pete] Rose, [Tony] Perez and [Johnny] Bench and were on the cusp of back-to-back World Series titles in 1975 and ’76 as the Big Red Machine. You’d go down by the dugout and try to figure out the details of the players’ cars in the parking lots so you could catch them for autographs after games.
“We also frequented Cincinnati’s Netherland Hilton, with its grand stairway and its big chandelier in the front lobby. We could often catch visiting teams on their way out of the hotel. In fact, from ages 10 to 16, I remember getting Willie Mays, Tom Seaver, Ernie Banks and so many others in that hotel lobby.”
What makes Gallagher’s autographs special — he has roughly 15,000 left since auctioning off all of his baseball and football collection in 2015 — is that he collected the majority of them face to face. This presented opportunities to not only expand his collection but meet some of sports most iconic faces.
From meeting Wilt Chamberlain as the coach of the ABA’s San Diego Conquistadors during a game in Cincinnati to chatting with Villanova’s Jay Wright, Randy Foye and Allen Ray before a game at The Palestra in Philadelphia, his passion has taken him to some of the most historic facilities in sports history.
He brought with him cards, magazine covers, media guides, tear-outs from publications, index cards —you name it. Whether it was in hotel lobbies or outside locker rooms, by the 1970s, his collection was headlined by autographs that included the likes of Chamberlain, “Pistol” Pete Maravich and John Havlicek.
On Dec. 5, 1986, while living in Phoenix, Gallagher knew the hotel the Bulls were staying at when in town to play the Suns. He caught second-year guard Michael Jordan and several Bulls players in the lobby before they boarded the team bus. Gallagher pulled his Jordan Fleer rookie card straight from the pack for him to autograph.
“It was so much fun,” Gallagher recalls. “There was no security. And you have to remember back then that [Larry] Bird, Magic [Johnson], Dominique [Wilkins], Isiah [Thomas] and [Hakeem] Olajuwon were in the same category. Michael was a star but he had not become a rock star yet.”
Fast forward 36 years and Gallagher is now leveraging his decades of experience as a collector and autograph vigilante with his unwavering passion for the hobby to advise other fellow hobbyists. On a recent Monday morning, Gallagher was following up on several consignment leads he had received over the weekend. Part of the job is sometimes having to break the news gently to prospective consignors that the item they believe to be rare and valuable is unfortunately not.
For example, while they had beautiful signatures and remain two of baseball’s greatest players, Stan Musial and Bob Feller signed so prolifically during their lifetimes that their signatures do not bring as much value as most would believe.
Currently, Gallagher is juggling a number of active leads from novices and veteran collectors alike, including someone managing a family estate that consigned a 1951 Brooklyn Dodgers team-signed ball with autographs from Jackie Robinson and Roy Campanella, as well as a consignor that needed guidance downsizing and divesting his 30-year collection.
Gallagher is able to offer assistance and expertise with all facets of the process, from shipping, tracking, insurance and authentication to save consignors worry and unnecessary expenses. If an item or a collection is really special, Gallagher will even sometimes fly it back himself to REA’s home office in New Jersey.
“I’m able to offer personal pick-up for the right consignments so that I can take the stress out of the process for our clients,” he says. “Several times in the past I have traveled from California with a locking briefcase. Being a collector and being so passionate about it, I recognize that this is precious cargo and that collectors are very proud of their collections.”
You can reach Gallagher at email@example.com.