Own a Piece of History
Photo: Nat Fein
I was born in Brooklyn, N.Y., and grew up in the 1950s as a worshipful Dodgers fan.

The Brooklyn Dodgers roster included Hall of Fame legends Jackie Robinson, Pee Wee Reese and Duke Snider. The Dodger's home, Ebbets Field, was small enough so fans were all right near the action. The Dodgers Sym-phony paraded around the field before games, and no other ballpark could boast of the sign under the right field scoreboard reading, "Hit Sign, Win Suit."

It was always "wait till next year" for my beloved Bums, until 1955, when Brooklyn won its only World Championship. Then, before the start of 1958 season, they abandoned Brooklyn for Los Angeles.

Like other Dodger fans, I never fully recovered from that magical time, but collecting team memorabilia brings back memories -- these inanimate objects conjure up a time when tickets were affordable, autographs were free and players were fans' next-door neighbors.

You can turn those years of collecting memorabilia into cold, hard cash if you play your cards right.

And don't just think of baseball cards -- between autographed balls, game-used uniforms and World Series pins, there are plenty of collectibles out there.

The baseball Barry Bonds just hit for his record 756th home run, for instance, could sell for about $500,000 -- half what it would have fetched without the steroids allegations surrounding the San Francisco Giants outfielder, according to sports memorabilia sellers. "It should be a million-dollar baseball," says Mike Heffner, president of Leland's Sports Auction House in Seaford, N.Y.

Baseball Cards

Cards' wide range is appealing to many: You can build a collection for relatively little money or spend big bucks to own some of the greats. A 1914 Baltimore News Babe Ruth rookie card fetched $200,000 at auction in April 2007. A collection of 403 1886-89 Old Judge tobacco cards (early cards were promotional items from tobacco companies) sold at the same auction for $111,625.

Baseball cards began to be produced on a regular basis after WWII, first with Bowman in 1948 and then with Topps ( TOPP) in 1951. Fleer, Donruss and Upper Deck entered the market in 1989. Since the late 1980s, there has been an explosion of card sets, putting a damper on collecting.

There are several different types to look out for:
  • Rookie cards. Between the 1940s and the '50s, there was one rookie card of a player produced each year. After that, multiple cards were produced, and the value of those cards varies based on scarcity and quality. But beware -- modern rookie cards are extremely volatile and can lose or gain a high percentage of value in an extremely short time.
  • Inserts. These limited-edition cards sometimes contain player signatures or pieces of jerseys, bats or gloves. These cards can sell for thousands of dollars, so if you're lucky to find one in an unopened pack, you've spent a minimal amount for a big payoff.

  • Complete sets. Easy to collect before 1981, it's more difficult today due to the explosion of the number of sets. Older sets can still bring amazing values; a 1953 Bowman set sold at auction in 2007 for $94,800.
  • Unopened packs. New packs were once relatively cheap, but today, because of inserts in packs, they can cost as much as $100. Vintage unopened packs from the 1950s and earlier can still go for thousands of dollars.

But what determines why a card is valuable?

First and foremost, it's the player on the card and his current status. But condition and quantity of the card are also important.

What will fetch top price, due to its rarity, are old cards in good condition and newer cards in perfect condition (they're graded on a scale from poor to gem mint by independent organizations such as PSA/DNA Authentication Services).

The T-206 Honus Wagner tobacco card, which was withdrawn from production, is currently the most valuable baseball card at $2.35 million. It's estimated that only 50 to 60 of these cards exist.

And modern card companies have taken scarcity to a new level for future collectors with limited-edition insert cards; sometimes only five or fewer are produced.

Batter Up

Leila Dunbar, director of the collectibles department at Sotheby's ( BID), has some valuable suggestions to avoid striking out in the field of other baseball collectibles.

"The bigger the moment, the pricier," Dunbar says -- Mark McGuire's record 70th home run ball sold for $3 million. Look for less dramatic items, too: a piece of paper that L.A. Dodger's pitcher Don Drysdale used as a pitching crib sheet in the 1965 World Series is worth about $1,500.

Accordingly, Dunbar adds that players are more valued dead than when alive. Billy Crystal paid $225,000 for a game-used Mickey Mantle glove, the value of which soared even higher after Mantle's death.

As Dunbar points out, the holy trinity of baseball collectibles are items from Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig and Ty Cobb. A1933 Babe Ruth All-Star Game jersey sold for $657,250; Lou Gehrig's game-worn jersey from his final appearance on April 30, 1939, sold for $389,500; Ty Cobb's 1928 signed Philadelphia Athletics jersey sold for $332,500.

Signatures from Hall of Famers who died before the advent of card shows are valuable because their autographs are rare. A signed Walter Johnson ball can bring $4,000; one signed by Christy Mathewson can sell for $15,000.

Do note, however, that today's players are prolific signers of anything and everything.

Steiner Sports Marketing, in fact, just sued Red Sox star David Ortiz for not fulfilling his contract to sign 13,000 items! It claimed he also provided at least four other companies with autographed baseball memorabilia.

If you love Ortiz or the Red Sox, these authenticated items may look great on a shelf, but I believe future appreciation is nonexistent.

Dunbar also points out that the older the item, the better. When collecting mementos of the past, look for early dates.

Lucky Strike trolley cards from the 1920s featuring players like Lloyd Warner can cost $4,000; World Series programs from the early 1920s and 1930s are worth about $3,000; those from the early 1900s are worth up to $20,000.

Finally, Dunbar advises to look for black baseball memorabilia. Negro League ballplayers' items are rapidly appreciating through signed baseballs, programs, pennants and equipment.

A ball signed by Josh Gibson -- one of the best players to have ever donned a baseball uniform -- can sell for as much as $7,000.

Enjoy the Good Life? Email us with what you'd like to see in future articles.

Malcolm Katt is owner of Millwood Gallery in Millwood, N.Y., which specializes in militaria collectibles. He also is co-author of the second edition of The Complete Idiot's Guide to Starting an eBay Business.

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