Categories: Sports

Collecting Our National Pastime

-By Kenneth Gloss

Since the incredible World Series win of 2004 by the Boston Red Sox, interest in all sports has increased and over the past 25 years, interest in sports collectibles has continued to skyrocket. Baseball has been particularly popular – it is the epitome of America. There is a little bit of baseball woven throughout much of the American story, and there are books to collect for every era, every team, every league and every standout player in the history of the game.

One of the first recorded references to baseball appeared in a Civil War soldier’s diary that I once had. The writer described a baseball game he played while behind the front lines, enjoying a reprieve from the action. He writes about being hit by a baseball, then running around the bases and jamming his leg while sliding. He wrote, “I’ve had more injuries in this one day of baseball than in all my days in the Civil War.” Because it is one of the earliest references to baseball, it is worth thousands of dollars.
Mementos of baseball from the 19th century and the World War I era are rare and highly valued, even though the players then aren’t as well known as those from other times. Unlike today, souvenirs weren’t produced to be future collector items, but they have continued to increase as evidenced by their value in the today’s market.

Baseball became segregated after the turn of the century and many collectors concentrate on material from the Negro leagues. They are very rare because they were produced in smaller quantities than items for the major leagues as fewer people attended Negro league games and they had less money to promote their teams.

Moe Berg, a Jewish player on the Red Sox team, used to come into our store when I was a boy. Besides playing baseball, he was a linguist and during World War II he had been a spy. He traveled to Japan with the All-Star Team, including Babe Ruth and the game was broadcast in Japanese. He also went to the top floor of his hotel and took pictures of Tokyo. At one point, he was flown behind German lines to gather information on Germany’s progress towards building an atomic bomb. Back then he wasn’t well known, but today anything to do with Moe Berg is very collectible.

Some collect only team histories of their favorite club. The first book to detail the history of a particular baseball team was The History of the Red Stockings, the precursor of today’s Red Sox squad. This book is now very rare and worth up to $3,000. One of their stars was King Kelly. Kelly traded himself from team to team – once for the hefty sum of $10,000.  It is one of baseball’s earliest examples of high stakes contract peddling.

As much as baseball has changed over the years, some things have stayed the same. One baseball collectible I treasure is a program from the 1912 Red Sox versus New York Giants World Series. Not only did the Red Sox win that series, but it also was the first year that Fenway Park was open.

An original program such as this one isn’t found very often and is worth $3,000 or more.
Not all collectors focus on the historical aspect of baseball. One of my customers has defined his own collecting niche that other people hadn’t thought of before. He likes fiction and sports, particularly baseball so he collects novels that have baseball as a theme or that have a good baseball scene in them. There are countless books that fit that description.

This is a fascinating collection to have, and is really pioneering in that few, if any, other collectors are hunting the same set of books. For most collectors there are set parameters – book lists, prices, etc. and a collector has only to hunt down particular items. For him, it is all “new,” and he never knows when or where a perfect addition to his collection will turn up. His collection serves as the list for other collectors who decide to venture into this area.
Unfortunately, fakes and forgeries abound in sports collectibles and baseball is no exception. You must be cautious about whom you deal with and what you buy.

One thing that should raise a red flag is a big certificate of authenticity because sellers who try too hard to prove authenticity may be trying to convince you a fake is the real thing. Be especially wary of autographed material, unless you are able to authenticate the autograph.

There are so many books about baseball that many can be picked up inexpensively, while others sell for thousands of dollars. Ironically, some of the more modern pieces are often more expensive than the earlier examples. People’s memories are short and many collectors are only willing to pay high prices for modern celebrities of the sport or for the true legends. Babe Ruth, Ted Williams, and Mickey Mantle are always in the higher price range. Some of the best selling issues of our large collection of Life magazines are the ones that show their faces on the cover.

Twenty-five years ago, everyone was collecting movie star memorabilia. Today, sports collectibles, especially from baseball, are the hottest items. With a wealth of material available, baseball memorabilia is fun to collect, whether your collection is an historical aspect of the game, a hometown team, a favorite player, or some unique criteria based on your own personal interests.

The Back Bay Sun Staff: