Treasures Of Our National Pastime
Frank Ceresi and Carol McMains, formerly of the National Sports Gallery in Washington, D.C., currently run FC Associates, a museum consultation and sports appraisal business. They have also lectured, appeared on television, authored many articles on sports history and studied countless sports artifacts that can only be described as "national treasures".
Baseball Almanac is pleased and honored to present an insightful column written by the former curator of the National Sports Gallery and current president of FC Associates.
"What will it (Cartwright's baseball from the first official game) go for at the auction? I don't know, but I believe it is priceless." - Barry Halper
|by Frank Ceresi
MCI National Sports Gallery
As Curator of the
MCI National Sports Gallery, our nation's first all sports museum, I have come to study, learn, and appreciate how sports artifacts can serve as educational tools to teach people about the history and significance of sports in our country. Of all the many items that I gaze at daily, my personal favorites are baseball related so I am pleased to be able to write an occasional column for this great web site and share with our readers some of the wonderful baseball artifacts that can only be described as "national treasures." For my first column, what better way to introduce this new feature than to write a column about our nation's premier baseball memorabilia collector -- Barry Halper. By the time you read this, you will have probably not only read about the auction at
but you might have thought wistfully about what an incredible collection Barry amassed during his lifetime. I first met Barry some time ago, became friendly, and most recently talked to him a few days ago as he prepared to part with his world famous collection.
Barry Halper and His Collection
Three years ago Barry graciously agreed to host my father and I when we visited his home with some baseball memorabilia that we felt might find a home in Barry's collection. There are two things that I clearly remember about the visit. First, upon entering what I can only describe as a "baseball cathedral" it became apparent to me that Barry had amassed the most extensive private collection of unique baseball artifacts ever assembled. It was truly a breathtaking experience! Barry's home rivaled the collection in Cooperstown. Second, and just as important, was the way that Barry conducted himself to two individuals who were not much more than strangers to him but who shared with him a passion for the game of baseball. He was considerate, professional and especially solicitous to my elderly father -- clearly a testament to the character of the man. In short, I liked him a lot!
Last week Barry took time from his busy schedule to chat, become reacquainted and share insights on his collection. I learned that Barry's interest in collecting predated by decades the "recent" boom in baseball memorabilia. In fact, from the early 50's, Barry as a young teenager developed his passion for collecting when he grew up as an avid New York Yankees fan and attended ball games to see the Yanks and the Newark Bears. With dogged determination that would make Sherlock Holmes proud, as the years went by, Barry began to collect baseball uniforms, programs, cards, autographed balls and photos, and any other thing that he found "unique and interesting" as long as it had ties to our national pastime. Eventually, his passion produced a collection that boasted hundreds of game worn uniforms, hundreds of thousands of baseball cards, and unique, one-of-a-kind memorabilia such as Christy Mathewson's
own checkerboard, Ty Cobb's
dentures, and Babe Ruth's
personal hair brush, shoe brush, and as incredible as it seems, the Babe's own personal smoking jacket!
Though we could have talked for hours, I asked Barry to relate for our readers two or three items that he considered his favorites. Barry is a man who enjoys "the chase" of collecting and, in particular, the discovery of items of supreme historical import. Thus, it was not surprising to learn that the first item Barry mentioned in answer to my question not only represented a very dramatic historical piece but also gave validation to Alexander Cartwright, one of his favorite individuals. For years Barry has passionately argued, with apologies to Abner Doubleday, that everyone should recognize Alexander Cartwright as the "one and only" originator of the game we know today as baseball. True, baseball has roots in the English game of rounders and even the Egyptians played catch with a ball, but it was Cartwright who did more to formulate the American game of baseball than anyone.
The artifact Barry mentioned is quite simply an extremely worn handmade baseball rediscovered only two years ago by a member of the Cartwright family. The ball was found in an end table and had been untouched since it was wrapped in a newspaper that bears the date of 1923. Through careful reconstruction of Cartwright's own words from a diary that he kept in the late 1840's, Barry related that the rather plain looking worn handmade baseball is probably the original baseball from Cartwright's New York Knickerbockers, a team of men who played the first American "baseball" game in 1846. The historical significance of that artifact cannot be overstated. "What will it go for at the auction? I don't know, but I believe it is priceless."
The second relic that Barry talked about is also extraordinary and quite interesting. It is a beautiful trophy ball whose importance can only be related by putting it into historical context. The game of baseball became a favorite form of "leisurely play" even before the Civil War. Eventually it would evolve into organized, scheduled sporting events. Barely ten years after poet Walt Whitman wrote that "Baseball is our game, it's America's game" the National Association of Base Ball Players met for the first time in 1859.
To commemorate that historical meeting, the Excelsior Club was given an impressive trophy ball that is inside of a sealed bottle, suspended from a short chain that hangs from the bottom of the wooden top. This lemon peel-style ball is inscribed and dated "March of 1859." Like the Cartwright baseball, the Excelsior commemorative trophy baseball is interesting because it tells a story and is of the utmost historical importance to the development of our national pastime.
Barry and I talked of other items he collected representing the careers of greats such as Ted Williams, Babe Ruth, Ty Cobb
and others. I must say that I was amazed that a man who has collected seriously and extensively for decades still has passion in his voice as he continued to tick off the great stories behind the great artifacts. I, of course, could have kept Barry talking for hours but I began to feel like I should let the poor man alone for a while! Finally, I asked the question that I had been thinking about for some time: "Barry, after decades of putting together such a fantastic collection, what is the legacy that you believe you and your collection have left for our country?" Barry thought for a minute and answered with pride that he believes his legacy will remain with the hundreds of thousands of collectors who will now be able to share in his personal treasures but also the millions of others who will visit the "Barry Halper Wing" at the
Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York and view a few of the more significant artifacts that even the Hall couldn't do without! What more tribute could there possibly be for a man who loved and continues to love the game of baseball than to have his name emblazoned in the
Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown?
After talking to Barry, I decided that I would go to
and enjoy what will be perhaps the most exciting sports auction ever! Since I'll be interested in some of Barry's favorites, as well as my own, I'll be able to report to all of you, via
Baseball Almanac, some of the auction highlights. Gee, I wonder what Babe Ruth's
1933 Yankee contract will go for? What about his handprint, dutifully signed by the Bambino, which was found barely four years ago in the vaults of
right here in Washington D.C.? Check back in a couple of days... you'll know before the morning papers!
That's it for now. Remember, I will occasionally write a column that you can catch on this web site. Next time, just to get you thinking, I will write about a baseball, recently uncovered, that represents perhaps the first great home run chase. Can you think of who might have created national excitement while closing in on, and ultimately breaking, the major league home run record? Tune in for my second column.
|by Frank Ceresi
MCI National Sports Gallery
PRICES EXPLODE AT THE
HALPER COLLECTION AUCTION
A combination of excitement and uncertainty hung in the air at
on 72nd Street in New York City last Thursday afternoon as the time drew near for what was the biggest and most elaborate sale of fine baseball memorabilia ever. The crowd brimmed with anticipation as men and women sipped champagne, exchanged stories of their own collections, and eagerly awaited the 6:00 p.m. auction start time. As the clock ticked down, the buzz in the room subsided and at the stroke of the hour the auctioneer exclaimed, "It's time to play ball," and the party began!
I was present for the first few days and kept close tabs as the festivities continued for a week, and I can say with certainty that the auction was everything it was billed to be. Prices were consistently high and at times staggering. The following is just a sampling of the kinds of numbers that were bandied about:
A complete ticket from the 1903 World Series, a series considered the first of the modern times - $23,000, nearly double the estimate
1869 Cincinnati Red Stocking Trade Card - $10,000 for baseball's first professional team
A letter signed by Rube Foster, the man known as the father of Negro League baseball - $13,000
Shoeless Joe Jackson
T210 Old Mill Rookie Card -- $11,000
A Babe Ruth Handprint, signed by the Bambino himself, originally found in a filing cabinet in Washington, D.C. four years ago - $40,000, nearly triple the pre-sale estimate
The signed Ruth photo shown in my earlier column - $41,500. I am told that this photo was purchased for a "famous athlete" who wishes to remain anonymous.
The actual baseball bat held by the Babe at his final appearance at Yankee Stadium - $107,000
The Babe's 1933 original contract - $35,000
The Babe's 1921 game-worn glove - $96,000, purchased by former Yankee star David Wells
A baseball signed by Marilyn Monroe and Joe DiMaggio
first professional contract - $26,000
baseball glove - $71,000
A 1912 Joe Jackson
signed photograph - $43,000
1928 Philadelphia Athletics jersey, signed in the inside collar - $332,500
1927 signed road Yankee pinstripe jersey - $305,000
A one-of-a-kind T206 Honus Wagner
proof strip from 1910 - $85,000
1914 "rookie card" from the Babe's Baltimore playing days - $79,500
Dell Webb's collection of Yankees World Series and American League Championship rings from 1947 through 1964 - $310,500
1956 Triple Crown award - $211,000
1933 San Francisco Seals signed Pacific Coast League "rookie" jersey - $51,750
Chicago White Stockings home jersey - $36,800
1903-1998 World Series ticket collection - $140,000
Long time collectors and dealers were stunned as the prices realized on almost every item not only exceeded pre-sale estimates but were beyond most people's wildest dreams! After talking to many long time collectors and dealers who were present at the sale, I can report that several common themes ran throughout the week. First, the auction showed that the demand for high quality and vintage sports memorabilia is extremely strong and will probably remain strong. The caveat, of course, is that the exceedingly high prices will probably continue for only for those very scarce artifacts in nice condition as opposed to common mass-produced items. Second, vintage items commemorating Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Ty Cobb, Joe DiMaggio, Mickey Mantle, Ted Williams
and baseball's few other "superstars" are at a premium and will probably remain so. Third, the
auction clearly attracted what long time dealers refer to as "new money" which hopefully will translate into a vibrant sports memorabilia market for the foreseeable future. "How long will it last?" was a common refrain. Who really knows? Last, but not least, everyone agreed that the Barry Halper auction will undoubtedly be known as the most impressive auction of fine sports memorabilia ever.
What about some of Barry's favorite items . . . the ones he selected as his personal "national treasures" when I talked to him before the auction as related in my last column? Remember the 1859 Excelsior Commemorative Trophy Baseball in the bottle? It was purchased for $39,000, triple the pre-sale estimate. What about Barry's favorite, Alexander Cartwright's own baseball and related documents from the first "professional" game over 150 years ago? The estimate was at most up to $25,000. It sold for $129,000!
On a personal note, I must tell you folks that for someone like myself the pure fun of being able to see historic early baseball artifacts be enjoyed by so many is truly something else. As I left, I had a chance to visit with Barry Halper, several of the winners of some of the more extraordinary items and many others who simply were present at
to witness the spectacle. People were excited and they alternately shook their heads in bewilderment at the prices or, at times, with bemusement at the scene itself. Can you imagine seeing Billy Crystal plunk down $239,000 for a 1960 Mickey Mantle
game-worn glove? As the auctioneer said when the hammer crashed down, "That was simply mahvelous!" You'd smile, too!
For those of you who couldn't go to the auction but are visiting our Nation's Capital, you will definitely want to stop by the
MCI National Sports Gallery
and gaze at some equally impressive artifacts from our national pastime. You will be able to see items such as an 1869 Red Stocking Trade Card similar to the one sold at Sotheby's, the Rube Foster letter that is actually a counter piece to the one sold last week, and many outstanding vintage items commemorating Babe Ruth, Ty Cobb
and others. In fact, I am arranging for several of the great items from Barry's collection to be placed on loan in our museum and I will keep you posted on that. But in the meantime . . . we don't have Shoeless Joe's rookie card yet . . . but we do have a signed baseball from Joe Jackson as well as his baseball bat he used as a rookie in 1910. It is also signed and, incidentally, he hit .408 as a rookie! How about the very baseball Mickey Mantle hit for his first major league home run in 1951 on Mother's Day of that year . . . well, the list goes on so come by for a visit! If you have any questions or comments, or would like to see your "national treasures" displayed, please do not hesitate to e-mail, call or write.