From home runs to whores, Babe Ruth put up some prodigious numbers in his day – and nearly 64 years after his demise, he continues to do so. In May, sports memorabilia auction house Lelands.com paid over $4.4 million for a 1920 New York Yankees road jersey worn by the Bambino during his first season with the Yanks, making the item the most expensive piece of sports memorabilia in history. Even in these deeply troubled economic times, it seems, the baseball memorabilia market continues to thrive, with game-worn uniforms of Hall of Famers fetching especially big bucks.
Dave Grob, Senior Uniform Consultant for the Wisconsin-based Memorabilia Evaluation and Rating Services (MEARS), is the man who authenticated the Ruth jersey. Rolling Stone asked him why collectors are willing to shell out so much green for jerseys these days. “Uniforms are experiencing a resurgence in desirability and pricing based on a realization on the part of buyers that they exist in far fewer number than autographs, bats and cards,” he says. “The visual appeal and personal connection to the player or team in question is much stronger than with the other items. The standards I have set for authentication/evaluation with respect to process and leveraging of references and technology lead to increased confidence [in the items].”
But even though most of us baseball fans can’t afford to play at that financial level, pretty much all of us own a piece of baseball memorabilia that we feel a special connection with, even if it’s just a game program or an unsigned card of a favorite player. For Grob, it’s a pair of rare satin “night game” jerseys – a 1945 Brooklyn Dodgers road one worn by Art Herring and a 1948 Boston Braves home top worn by Alvin Dark. “Satin jerseys are just plain tough [to find] to begin with,” he says, “but the color contrast between these two when seen side-by-side is through the roof. These unis also take me back to the days of only eight teams in each league and when night baseball was still something of novelty.”
For this reporter, it’s a toss-up between a ball signed by the entire 1948 Brooklyn Dodgers squad and a square chunk of artificial turf retrieved from the Comiskey Park infield on a spring day in 1976, when White Sox owner Bill Veeck invited Chicagoans to come down and help themselves to the venerable ballpark’s fake infield sod so that it could be replaced with real grass. The ball was given to me by my father, who got it at Ebbets Field when he was 10; the turf was given to me by a fan of my book on Seventies baseball, who actually helped rip up the Comiskey infield that day and thought I would appreciate having a little “plastic grass” of my own. The two items sit side-by-side on my office bookshelf. Nostalgia, history and father-son bonding mingling with artifice, whimsy and ridiculousness – in other words, all the essential elements of baseball.
Since our esteemed panel of rock & roll seamheads have surely amassed some interesting artifacts over the years, this week we’re asking: What’s the most prized piece of baseball memorabilia in your collection?
“For my birthday a few years ago, my sister got a ball signed by Willie McCovey for me. My goal is to also get it signed by Mays and Marichal. Beyond that, I guess I got mighty excited when I got my first-ever foul ball during an MLB game. It was at the Metrodome, and I had to take out a crippled little kid to get it. Hurt my knee scrambling over the seats in the upper deck. Celebrated after the game at Nye’s Polonaise Room. Unfortunately, the ball was hit by Mike Lamb. Still…”
“A pair of seats from ‘Old’ Yankee Stadium, a Christmas gift from my wife [Allison Moorer], sitting in the den right in front of the TV in our house in Woodstock. There’s even a big chunk of bubblegum stuck under one of them. Allison wanted to scrape it off. I had to stand my ground.”
“I have an autographed Nolan Ryan baseball. It sits on my mantle in my game room, and I love to show off this prize possession from ‘The Ryan Express!'”
“That’s a toss-up. Either my Number 26 Billy Williams-signed Cubs jersey or a ball that I threw for a strike when throwing out the first pitch at Wrigley Field. I came with some 45-mile-per-hour heat.”
“I have a signed David Wells ball from his perfect game. It was given to me by a friend. [Wells] is a character and one of my favorite Yankees.”
“Four years ago, I caught a foul ball at Safeco Field in my hat. Sounds like bullshit, I know, but I have video evidence to prove it. I could also call my mom as a witness, as she was sitting next to me at the time. I’ve got the ticket, hat and ball on my bookshelf at home in Seattle.”
Name: Alice Cooper
“Al Kaline’s rookie card and a hat that he signed for me.”
Name: Daniel Zott
Band: Dale Earnhardt Jr. Jr.
Position: Vocals, Guitar
“I have a baseball with Alan Trammell’s autograph. I acquired it post-Tigers, but it still works for me.”
“The Red Sox made us all red jerseys with our names on them for when we shot the music video for ‘Tessie’ at Fenway in 2004. We wore those jerseys each time we did the national anthem or played before a game in 2004 and 2007. FYI, the Red Sox never lost when we played or sang the anthem — sorry, couldn’t resist plugging that fact! — and by the way, those were the only two years we ever were involved with the team. I have every signature from the 2004 and 2007 team on that jersey… It’s on display at McGreevy’s 3rd Base Saloon, 911 Boylston Street in Boston.”
“Either my Thurman Munson rookie card or signed Mickey Mantle and Yogi Berra baseballs.”
“I actually have a handful of very cool baseball artifacts, many of which I’m staring at right now as I type these words. Look! Signed baseballs by Nolan Ryan, Ernie Banks and Jim Bouton. And over there! An autographed copy of Ball Four. And then there are the baseball cards, most of which I ended up saving from my preteen years. But maybe my favorite item is an autographed menu from the proprietor of the short-lived Lasorda’s restaurant in Los Angeles. I guess I like it because it brings back memories of the first time I went there, checked out the menu and asked the waitress what Tommy usually ordered. She looked bemused, then showed a flash of exasperation and said, ‘About five or six vodkas.’ I went for the linguini.”
“I have two. A buddy of mine who used to be a TV producer for MLB gave me a bag of dirt from the pitcher’s mound in St. Louis after Game Four of the 2004 World Series. I was floored. My Red Sox friends still hit me up for some of it. It’s gotten to the point where I’m using tweezers to give out one grain here, one grain there. I felt like a hippie during a drought, or the dude in Soylent Green who has the last grain of rice. My other prized possession is my Topps 2004 Manny Ramirez World Series card. I had written a song about Manny (long before his drug suspensions and publicized domestic incidents came to light), and Topps mentioned my tune on the back of the card. I was very stoked about that when it came out, because it was as if I’d touched otherworldliness and that moment had been immortalized. A real thrill. Now the card has a different kind of deep meaning because I have been linked — as gossamer as that tether may be — to one of the more extraordinary sports letdowns.”
“A rubber Dodgers ‘Brooklyn Bum’ squeaky doll thing, given to me by a guy named John Means. A gift. Pure love and friendship. It’s from the Forties or Fifties. Half-smoked stogie, toes sticking out of holes in shoes, week-old beard growth, crumpled-up hat… You have to see this to believe it!”
Name: George Thorogood
Band: George Thorogood and the Destroyers
Position: Vocals, Guitar
“I have a Mets Hat autographed by Willie Mays and Joe DiMaggio!”
Dan Epstein’s book, Big Hair and Plastic Grass: A Funky Ride Through Baseball and America in the Swinging ’70s, is now available in paperback.