Sports Relics of Rare Essence

From New York Mets pitcher Tom Seaver’s toothpick to Muhammad Ali’s boxing gloves, sports memorabilia keep fans’ hearts—and competitive nature—in the game
lifestyle, history, culture
Written By Lindsay Baslock

As a kid, announcers painted a play-by-play picture in the minds of those who aspired to be just like their sports heroes. Backyards transformed into sports fields, neighborhood kids teamed up to face one another, and dreams were fostered through the admiration of professional athletes.

For sports fans, part of the beauty of growing up is having the financial resources to collect memorabilia that helps keep those dreams alive. The desire to be the sole owner of a coveted sports item has long driven those who take up the collecting pursuit.

Judging from the fanfare, there are plenty of sports buffs willing to spend millions of dollars—be it a Babe Ruth jersey, Muhammad Ali boxing gloves or even a clipped Andre Agassi ponytail—for anything that helps them connect with the game or player they love.

One common thread for most collectors is the desire to own a piece of elusive history. But what differentiates many buyers are the reasons why they spend whatever it takes to be the exclusive owner of a yearned-for treasure. Some see the purchase as a tangible investment, some want to expand their private home gallery and others simply want to relive their childhood.

“You can’t look at these items as just an investment,” says Mike Heffner, president of Lelands Auctions. “You have to love them.”

History Changing Hands

Image Courtesy Of SCP Auctions, Inc.

The passion for collecting dates back to Roman times when people would auction off coins, food and livestock. Those early auctions evolved into elite businesses such as Sotheby’s and Christie’s. It was not until 1969 that Lelands became the first sports memorabilia-only auction house in the world.

Lelands has handled landmark collections such as the Boston Garden Auction, following the closing of the Celtics’ stadium, which generated US$2 million in sales. The company also has conducted large charity auctions for the Jackie Robinson Foundation and Major League Baseball.

Heffner explains that over the last 50 years the demand for sports items has been higher than the available supply. Novice collectors are drawn to the big-name items, like Babe Ruth’s 1920 New York Yankees jersey, which tends to drive up the price.

Baseball in the 1920s was very different than it is today, and only four other Ruth jerseys are known to exist. Players were lucky to get two home jerseys and two road jerseys. Especially during the Depression era, minor league players would wear the hand-me-downs of their major league affiliates. After that, the jerseys would get so worn that very few survived.

Partly based on scarcity, in addition to fame, Ruth’s grey wool road jersey made history again in May when a bidder paid US$4.4 million for the shirt, the most expensive sports artifact ever sold at auction.

When a collector or appraiser inspects an item, a few key aspects help determine the value. They examine the authentication and condition. For instance, Lelands’ Ruth jersey has a big rip in the side, which caused some depreciation.

“You don’t want to see pristine because it likely didn’t touch the player’s back,” says Heffner. He adds that buyers want the item to have some game wear and tear, but not any damage caused by off-the-field carelessness.

Trading cards, though, are expected to be in mint condition. Appraisers look for the edges to have four sharp corners and the image to be centered properly.

Another aspect of collecting is the story behind the item. Some collectibles have been a part of momentous plays that are retold years after they happened. For instance, Muhammad Ali and Sonny Liston’s 1965 boxing rematch is one of those noteworthy events. Ali knocked out Liston in the first round with a blow dubbed the “Phantom Punch.”

"You can’t look at these items as just an investment,” says Mike Heffner, president of Lelands Auctions. “You have to love them."

The fight’s significance lives on today, and in 2015 both pairs of gloves were sold to an anonymous buyer for nearly US$1 million, almost twice their estimate.

Over time different professional athletes manifest into the spotlight and the value of their archives goes up. An autographed original Michael Jordan rookie trading card goes for over US$37,000, Sam Snead’s 1946 British Open Claret Jug was sold in 2013 for US$262,900 and James Naismith’s founding rules of basketball was sold for US$4.3 million in 2010.

But players with household-name status, like Ali, have a greater impact on the market. The craving to own something from them is desirable at any point in time.

“Ali was a very obliging and prolific signer of autographs before he was diagnosed with Parkinson’s,” says Heffner. Although supply might still exceed demand, Ali’s autographs and other memorabilia are certain to increase due to the champ’s death in June.

Far Beyond the Pitch

Sometimes the most unthinkable items find a buyer. A toothpick from New York Mets pitcher Tom Seaver was bought for US$440 in 1992. He had used the toothpick 23 years earlier and found it in one of his warm-up jackets.

When tennis star Andre Agassi cut off his famous blond-highlighted ponytail in 1990, Robert Earl, founder and CEO of Planet Hollywood, later bought the clippings. The price was undisclosed but the locks were on display in the Official All-Star Café in Times Square.

As strange as some of the auctioned items may be, some players’ famous relics rekindle a magical feeling. “Pelé: The Collection” was auctioned off this summer in London.

Julien’s Auctions, a record-setting auction house for the entertainment industry, coordinated the event. In December 2015, Pelé’s management team made initial contact with Julien’s when it handled the Ringo Starr auction. Pelé’s event featured over 2,000 items from awards and personal property to iconic items from his entire career.

Martin Nolan, executive director at Julien’s, was especially excited to help lead such an extraordinary event.

“When you come into the gallery with pictures on display, green AstroTurf on the floor, you reminisce about all the soccer stadiums he played in all over the world. People are curious and blown away by what they see, then you think about what country or soccer club owns all of these items and you realize it’s just one man. And that man is Pelé,” says Nolan.

Pelé’s Jules Rimet replica trophy was a top seller. He was given the trophy after becoming the first player to win three World Cups. Swiss watchmaker Hublot acquired the trophy for just over US$571,000.

The forward’s first World Cup victory medal from 1958 went for more than US$289,000 and his second World Cup medal from 1962 for over US$202,500.

Pelé’s collection became the most lucrative sale of football memorabilia in history. One hundred percent of the lot was sold and totaled over US$5.1 million. Much like other athletes, Pelé donated portions of the proceeds to charity, in this case to the city of Santos and Pequeno Principe, Brazil’s largest pediatric hospital.

Exceptional moments come along when pieces of the player’s past become available to the public. Recent players who have retired from their sport like Kobe Bryant and Peyton Manning may be the future of the collecting market. Their names are universal, and their elusive remnants will be coveted by collectors for years to come.

Offbeat Trinkets

Apparel and equipment may be the top sellers in many buyers’ eyes but more obscure items often fetch a pretty penny, too.

Ty Cobb’s Dentures
A memorabilia dealer sold the notoriously ill-tempered baseball great’s false teeth for US$7,475 in 1999—38 years after his death. The Baseball Hall of Fame accepted the dentures and briefly displayed them in 2001.

Robert Griffin III’s Ankle Cast
The NFL quarterback auctioned off the cast he had worn on a dislocated ankle to help raise money for his Family of 3 Foundation. A second-year podiatry student bought the dressing for US$1,522.

Luis Gonzalez’s Chewing Gum
The maker of Quench gum paid US$10,000 for the former baseball star’s game-used gum. The money was donated to the athletic programs of a Minnesota high school.

David Ortiz’s Beard Clippings
The baseball slugger sold his beard clippings, a razor and an autograph for almost US$11,000 in 2013. The proceeds went toward cancer research and awareness.

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