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Court TV

Owning a piece of history

By Matt Bean
Court TV


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(Court TV) -- The holy grail of sports memorabilia has long been the coveted Honus Wagner T-206 tobacco card. A throwback to the days when pairing toys and tobacco was de rigueur, the card was used as part of a tobacco company's marketing campaign to promote cigars.

As the story goes, Wagner, a shortstop for the Pittsburgh Pirates from 1897 to 1917 and perhaps a precocious anti-tobacco advocate, didn't want his mug used to hawk cigars to children, and ordered it pulled from production.

As a result, there are only about 50 of the rare "Wagner Cards" in existence today. And the most valuable of these, which sold in 2001 for $1.265 million dollars, is sitting on the desk of Joe Orlando, president of Orange County, Calif.-based company Professional Sports Authenticator (PSA).

"Every time this card has come up for sale in the past 10 years it has gone up in value," says Orlando, fingering the lucite-encased card. Sports mementos are big business.

As head of PSA, a heavy hitter in the lucrative memorabilia authentication business, Orlando has seen the once-amateur sports memorabilia business go corporate. His own company, which is listed on the NASDAQ stock index, began by grading the condition of trading cards. It now does most of its business in one of the fastest-growing sectors of the memorabilia business: Game-used items.

While owning a rare baseball card or autograph may give some collectors a thrill, owning something that was actually used in a game can be more elusive. Then, the item is a piece of history.

The popularity of memorabilia, says Orlando, can be traced to Americans' love affair with sports. "It's really a part of our country's history,' he notes. "So when someone sees a Babe Ruth item up at auction, he's not just a sports icon, he's also a tangible piece of American history."

Consider the baseball Barry Bonds smacked out of Pacific Bell park in 2001 to hit a record 73rd homerun. In a courtroom battle scheduled to begin Monday, two California men will vie for possession of the prized ball.

King Solomon might cut the ball in half, or at least the profits. And profits are what's at stake in the California trial of Popov v. Hayashi: Some experts place the ball's value at more than $1 million.

The memorabilia market hit a new high after St. Louis Cardinals slugger Mark McGwire set the record for single-season home runs in 1998 with his 70th. After an anonymous auction, comic artist Todd McFarlane emerged with the ball as part of his collection of home runs from the history season. His purchase price: More than $3 million.

McGwire's ball sold for so much because it was at the center of a cultural tsunami. The neck-and-neck race for the record between McGwire and Sammy Sosa brought Americans back to baseball stadiums after years of waning interest. But the ball also sold well because people happen to like Mark McGwire, says Orlando. That may be part of the reason (along with the economy) that the Bonds' home run ball isn't valued as highly.

"Barry Bonds has a little bit more of a controversial reputation," said Orlando. "Some people seem to love him and some people seem to hate him. I would be very surprised if this baseball meets or exceed the mark set by Mark McGwire's baseball."

Courttv.com asked Orlando what items he would place in the upper echelon of game-used memorabilia:

Mark McGwire's 70th home run ball

Estimated value: $3 million or less.

McGwire's home run fetched the highest price ever paid for any sports memorabilia item. When Bonds broke the record in 2001, the value dropped, but according to Orlando, McGwire's 70th is still very valuable. "People remember that moment," he says. "It's still a significant moment in baseball history. Is it worth anywhere near what he paid for it? Probably not, unfortunately."

Shoeless Joe Jackson's Black Betsy bat

Estimated value: $577,610

Whether Shoeless Joe Jackson really helped fix the 1919 World Series will forever remain a point of dispute among baseball buffs. A third-baseman on the infamous 1919 Black Sox team, Jackson was banished from baseball despite an excellent batting average of .375 for the series. His "Black Betsy" bat, sold at auction in 2001, is currently the highest valued game-used bat.

Babe Ruth's 1923 bat

Estimated value: $1 million-plus

In 1923, the Yankees christened their new ball park in the Bronx Yankee Stadium. True to form, Babe Ruth smacked a home run that day to christen "The House That Ruth Built." As part of a promotion run from 1923 to 1925, Ruth later autographed the bat, and the Yankees sent it to the winner of a youth home run contest. Ruth's inscription, still visible on the bat, reads: "To the Boy Home Run King of Los Angeles. May 7, 1923." Orlando expects the bat to surpass Jackson's Black Betsy when it comes to auction in 2003. "It has a very good chance of going over $1 million," he estimates.

Babe Ruth's 'home run notched' bat

Estimated value: $325,000

Almost like a gunslinger making marks in his belt with each kill, Babe Ruth habitually notched his bats each time he hit a home run. One bat, kept in the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, Ohio, is marked 28 times. This bat has about 10 notches, and includes grease pencil markings from a factory worker that was charged with creating more like it.

Lou Gehrig's farewell jersey

Estimated value: More than $100,000

Famed Yankee outfielder Lou Gehrig bid farewell to the game in an oft-repeated speech given at Yankee stadium. It was this set of pinstripes he donned to tell a teary-eyed crowd, "On this day, I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of the Earth."

Don Larsen's perfect game gear

Estimated value: $120,750

The perfect game -- when a pitcher records all 27 outs in a game without allowing a runner to reach base -- has only been achieved once in a World Series. It was this set of spikes, mitt and cap that New York Yankee pitcher Don Larsen used to pitch that game on October 8, 1956.

 



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