10 Crazy Prices Paid for Sports Memorabilia

PORTLAND, Ore. ( TheStreet) -- In this year's World Series, there's going to be a pivotal moment that shifts the momentum and makes an entire region and generation of sports fans extremely happy.

For that reason, the items from that moment will be highly valuable for anyone lucky enough to get their mitts on them.

That's driving a $12 billion licensed sports merchandise business and a $1.5 billion autograph market, according to SportsMemorabilia.com. Baseball alone accounts for 26% of all memorabilia sales, but still ranks a close second to the 34% of revenue generated by National Football League ephemera. That hasn't exactly discounted baseball's nostalgia market, as autographs from Cal Ripken Jr. and Willie Mays at memorabilia conventions can cost $150 to $300 apiece.

And that's for the signature of living legends marking up keepsakes right in front of your face and living post-sports lives that could alter the monetary -- if not sentimental -- value of those signatures with even a minor misstep. It's a lucrative prospect on the former players' end, with stars such ad former Pittsburgh Pirates slugger Bill Mazeroski selling off items tied to his World Series-winning home run against the New York Yankees in 1960 at an auction in November.

But it can be a dicey proposition for buyers who not only have to deal with a market that's volatile under the best of circumstances, but with shady dealers facing federal investigation for rigging auctions, bidding up their own items and tampering with collectibles without disclosing changes. Fraud is so common in the memorabilia world that Peter J. Nash, known to older hip-hop heads as Pete Nice from late-'80s, early '90s group 3rd Bass, has dedicated an entire second career to it on his blog, Hauls Of Shame.

A combination of nostalgia, a growing buyer base, those bidders' increasing expendable income and a little market chicanery is driving prices for the most sought-after items into the millions, with even slightly lesser pieces regularly fetching six figures. If you think the stakes are high when the games are being played, just wait about 40 years or so until the fans in the stands run companies and think nothing of throwing a few million at a ball, jersey or trading card.

To give you just an idea how much cash is rounding the bases of the collectibles market these days, we've found 10 items that helped set the standard for what starry-eyed fans will have to pay for their piece of sports history.

Dr. J's Virginia Squires Jersey
Selling price: $190,414

Without Julius Erving, the National Basketball Association arguably would be a clinic in touch passing, sound fundamental layups and jump shots. Yes, it would be as bland as a stale saltine and several times as boring. Players dunked before Dr. J, but Erving turned dunking, no-look passes and ankle-breaking crossover dribbles into vital elements of the game.

So when a game-worn jersey from Erving's early days as a pro came on the market, the price got out of hand quickly. Just for perspective, Erving last played with the Squires in 1973. Both the Squires and their American Basketball Association ceased to exist in 1976, when the ABA merged with the NBA.

That puts a crimp in supply, which gave Erving's jersey unprecedented demand when it sold at a Grey Flannel Auctions event in 2011. It fetched a higher price than a staff jacket worn by UCLA coach John Wooden throughout his career ($183,500) and a playoff-game-worn Los Angeles Lakers jersey worn by Wilt Chamberlain at the end of the 1968-69 season ($73,409).

Sam Snead's 1946 British Open Claret Jug
Selling price: $262,900

Just how good was Sam Snead? The golf great died in 2002 with the most career wins in PGA Tour history (82) and his record still hasn't been matched. That will likely change in the near future, with Tiger Woods earning his 79th PGA win this year, but during the 1940s and 1950s, Snead basically was Tiger Woods.

When Sam Snead took this particular British Open title, however, he did so in the first Open Championship since the start of World War II in 1939. He was the first American to win it since 1933 and took home the Claret Jug and roughly $600 for his trouble. That jug's value appreciated so significantly that it beat the $191,200 selling price of Snead's 1954 Masters trophy and the $179,250 received for his 1959 Ryder Cup trophy -- all sold at the same Heritage Auctions event in Illinois this summer.

Bill Buckner's misplayed 1986 World Series ball
Selling price: $418,250

All is forgiven in Boston now, but with Boston clinging to a one-run lead in Game 6 of the 1986 World Series and one New York Mets out away from its first World Series title since 1918, things got ominous when a wild pitch went all the way to the backstop, allowing the Mets' Kevin Mitchell to tie things up. We'll let announcing legend Vin Scully explain how the Mets' Mookie Wilson avoided disaster and Ray Knight found his way home:

So the winning run is at second base, with two outs, three and two to Mookie Wilson. A little roller up along first ... behind the bag! It gets through Buckner! Here comes Knight, and the Mets win it!

Though some Bostonians will point to some polite applause Buckner received when he came back to the Red Sox for a cup of coffee as a free agent in 1990, Buckner held pariah status in that town until 2004, when the Sox finally won their first World Series title. In fact, the Red Sox didn't bring Buckner back to Fenway Park until Opening Day 2008, when they'd just put a second World Series win between their organization and Buckner's misplay.

Never mind that those 1986 Red Sox still had a full Game 7 to redeem themselves, only to blow it. Pre-2004 Boston has crystal-clear memories of Game 6 events -- think Carlton Fisk's 10th inning home run in Game 6 of the 1975 World Series -- but little memory of the Game 7 (a 4-3 loss to the Reds in 1975) that follows. Never mind that that it wasn't Buckner who got Mitchell home on a wild pitch or blew a two-run lead earlier that inning or couldn't get that out the Sox needed for several batters before Wilson. Buckner was doomed to life as a scapegoat because blaming one guy is easy.

This works out particularly well for memorabilia collectors, however, as that one iconic moment basically became the 1986 World Series. After the ball rolled through Buckner's legs, it was picked up by right field umpire Ed Montague, who put a tiny ''x'' near a seam to mark it. Montague then gave the ball to Mets executive Arthur Richman, Wilson signed it to Richman, writing: ''To Arthur, the ball won it for us, Mookie Wilson, 10/25/86.'' Someone in the Mets dugout even left a tobacco-juice stain on the ball after kissing it.

The ball started its journey outside the Mets organization in 1992, when Charlie Sheen bought it for more than $93,000. It diminished in value a bit by the time songwriter Seth Swirsky bought it for nearly $64,000 in 2000, but found new life at Heritage Auctions in Dallas last year. The new owner remains anonymous, but the change in the Red Sox fortunes since 1986 cost him or her a huge price for a ball Buckner likely wanted destroyed.

Mike Eruzione's "Miracle On Ice" uniform from the 1980 Winter Olympics
Selling price: $657,000

Trying to explain the Miracle On Ice to post-Cold War kids is basically like speaking an alien language.

You spend a lot of time explaining that the Soviets sent the equivalent of professional hockey players to the Olympics while the United States sent college kids. If the kid is somewhat sports-savvy, you get the inevitable questions about why everybody sends pros to the Olympics now. Then you have to explain that no, beating the Soviet Union didn't give the U.S. the gold medal -- they still had to play Finland in the final game of the round-robin medal round. Then you have to explain why they had a round-robin format.

If you're lucky, that kid is enough of a hockey fan to give you a pass or is at least old enough to remember the 1980 Team USA lighting the Olympic torch in Salt Lake City back in 2002 or that Kurt Russell movie from 2004. If not, just go back to YouTube and watch Eruzione's game-winning goal, listen to Al Michaels' Do You Believe In Miracles call again and remember that those fading memories and the continued loss of context is the reason that a hockey uniform sold for a price almost five times greater than the average price of an existing home in this country.

Barry Bonds' 756th Home Run Ball
Selling price: $752,467

There are rare instances in which the sale of a piece of memorabilia to the highest bidder is perhaps the worst thing an athlete can ask for.

When Barry Bonds hit his 756th career home run on Aug. 7, 2007, it broke Hank Aaron's major league record just months before Bonds was indicted on four counts of perjury and one count of obstruction of justice related to testimony about his use of performance enhancing drugs during the Bay Area Laboratory Co-operative scandal. It also came after investigative journalists Lance Williams and Mark Fainaru-Wada released their book Game Of Shadows that alleged Bonds used a wide variety of steroids.

By the time that 756th home run ball went up for auction online, public opinion was not on Bonds' side. Fashion designer Marc Ecko won the auction and used an online poll to ask fans what to do with the ball. The overwhelming response was to emblazon it with an asterisk as a mark against Bonds' credibility. Ecko did just that and the ball was then loaned -- asterisk and all -- to the Baseball Hall of Fame.

Say what you will about Ecko's use of his own money, but what he did was fair game once he bought the ball. Much as former Yankees pitcher David Wells bought a cap worn by Babe Ruth for $35,000 and wore it during a game in 1997 -- only to sell it for $537,000 last year. A memorabilia owner can preserve or defile their newfound possession in whatever manner he or she choses. If it's to send a message, so be it.

Muhammad Ali's boxing gloves
Selling price: $1.1 million

Throw a charity into the mix, and a sports memorabilia auction can get out of hand in a hurry.

Just last year, casino owner and Ultimate Fighting Championship head Lorenzo Feritta celebrated Muhammad Ali's 70th birthday by dropping seven figures on a pair of gloves Ali used to defeat Floyd Patterson in 1965. That bid proved too much for Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones, who offered $1 million for them the same night.

The auction was part of a gala to raise money for research to treat Alzheimer's, Huntington's, ALS, Multiple Sclerosis and Parkinson's syndrome, which Ali has suffered since 1984. The Greatest Of All Time hasn't fought in roughly 30 years, but demand for pieces of his legacy is just reaching its prime.

T206 1909-11 Honus Wagner card
Selling price: $2.1 million

Legend has it that only about 200 of the cards bearing the Pittsburgh Pirates Hall of Fame shortstop's face were made. Wagner says it's because the company that made them, American Tobacco, was sending a bad message to kids about smoking that he wanted no part of. Historians, however say Wagner smoked and endorsed cigars and was likely more irate about not being paid.

This particular Wagner, known as the "Jumbo" because it is bigger than others in the series, was sold by Goldin Auctions in April. Its $2.1 million price tag isn't even the highest for a card of its kind, though. That honor belongs a version once owned by hockey star Wayne Gretzky that was sold to Arizona Diamondbacks owner Ken Kendrick in 2007 for $2.8 million. That particular card was featured in an ESPN documentary and is at the center of a federal case that alleges the broker who sold the card to Kendrick cut the sides to improve its condition. The owners of the company named in the indictment, Mastro Auctions, have since pleaded guilty to fraud and other charges.

It's referred to as the "holy grail" of baseball cards, but there's a whole lot of sin going on around it.

Mark McGwire 70th home run ball
Selling price: $3 million

Unfettered conspicuous spending and tacit approval of performance-enhancing drugs in sports: The '90s were a far different time.

Back when Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa were chasing Roger Maris' single-season home run record, it was largely viewed as a renaissance for Major League Baseball and the closing of a sad chapter that included the loss of the 1994 World Series to a labor dispute. Did fans know that, years later, both McGwire and Sosa would be hauled in front of Congressional committees and grilled about steroid use? Maybe, but they weren't saying so when McGwire and Sosa were trading shots.

Comic book creator Todd McFarlane showed particular interest, buying nine of McGwire and Sosa's home run balls and paying a whopping $3 million for McGwire's 70th in 1999. McGwire's record wouldn't stand long, as Barry Bonds would hit 70 home runs during the 2001 season.

McFarlane bought Bonds' ball, too, but by then the tide had started to turn against steroids. In 2003, McFarlane paid $450,000 for the Bonds ball and watched the steroid era unravel. Jose Canseco started writing tell-all books, 11 ballplayers testified before Congress in 2005 and, ultimately, McGwire flat-out admitted to steroid use in 2010 -- acknowledging he'd used them during the 1998 season specifically. He's since started a career as a hitting coach with the St. Louis Cardinals and Los Angeles Dodgers and coached the Cardinals lineup that won the 2011 World Series.

McGwire is successfully rebuilding his image, but only history can decide if that 70th home run ball will ever return to its original $3 million value.

The "Basketball Bible"
Selling price: $4.3 million

Do you know how often historians argue about the origins of baseball? All the time? Who wrote up the rules? We don't know. Where was the first game played? There's still no consensus. Recently, there's a school of thought that says the nation's national pastime didn't even start in this nation, but in England. Blasphemy!

Basketball doesn't have these issues. Dr. James Naismith came up with the rules in 1891 and played the first game in Springfield, Mass. How do we know this? Documentation, which is now owned by two rich Kansas University Jayhawks fans. David and Suzanne Booth took Naismith's two 10-by-8-inch pages of "The Founding Rules Of Basket Ball" home from a Sotheby's auction in 2010 with the tape marks from Naismith's original preservation efforts still attached. The 13 original rules were so coveted that they outsold Robert Kennedy's copy of the Emancipation Proclamation ($3.8 million) at the same event.

Babe Ruth's jersey
Selling price: $4,415,658

Meet the single most expensive piece of sports memorabilia ever.

This circa-1920 road jersey was worn by the Sultan of Swat during his first year with the New York Yankees after coming over from the Boston Red Sox and sold with a heap of other Ruth items at a SCP Auctions event last year.

At the same event, Ruth's hat that was worn by David Wells went for $537,278 and one of his game-used bats fetched $591,007. In fairness, Babe Ruth is a memorabilia industry unto itself, with his bats fetching upward of $1 million and even his used pants bringing in six figures.

Nobody under the age of 65 has seen Babe Ruth alive and nobody younger than 78 has seen the man play ball. Even the original Yankee Stadium, the house legend says he built, is gone. As a result, a legend that was big enough when people had firsthand knowledge of it has only grown in the absence of eyewitness accounts. Expect a buy-in price of no less than the cost of the last house you or one of your home's previous owners built.

-- Written by Jason Notte in Portland, Ore.

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Jason Notte is a reporter for TheStreet. His writing has appeared in The New York Times, The Huffington Post, Esquire.com, Time Out New York, the Boston Herald, the Boston Phoenix, the Metro newspaper and the Colorado Springs Independent. He previously served as the political and global affairs editor for Metro U.S., layout editor for Boston Now, assistant news editor for the Herald News of West Paterson, N.J., editor of Go Out! Magazine in Hoboken, N.J., and copy editor and lifestyle editor at the Jersey Journal in Jersey City, N.J.

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