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Can memories be bought?

By Bob Greene, CNN Contributor
updated 8:43 AM EDT, Sun October 20, 2013
The late American golfer Sam Snead holds the 1946 British Open Golf Championship trophy in St. Andrews, Scotland. His family sold the claret jug he won at the open this year for $262,900. His relatives are not alone. Many retired big-name athletes are cashing in by selling their sports memorabilia. The late American golfer Sam Snead holds the 1946 British Open Golf Championship trophy in St. Andrews, Scotland. His family sold the claret jug he won at the open this year for $262,900. His relatives are not alone. Many retired big-name athletes are cashing in by selling their sports memorabilia.
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STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Big-name athletes are cashing in on old uniforms and balls to the tune of a lot of money
  • Bob Greene: Is it possible to buy the warmth of recollection in a cash transaction?
  • He recalls some of his sports heroes who gave him something beyond price: their time
  • Greene: The best memories in life, the most enduring, are nontransferable, never for sale

Editor's note: CNN contributor Bob Greene is a best-selling author whose 25 books include "Late Edition: A Love Story"; "Duty: A Father, His Son, and the Man Who Won the War"; and "Once Upon a Town: The Miracle of the North Platte Canteen."

(CNN) -- Can your credit card buy you a second-hand memory?

Is it possible to purchase the warmth of recollection in a cash transaction?

Apparently a lot of people think so. According to Richard Sandomir of The New York Times, former New York Yankee Chris Chambliss recently decided he would endeavor to sell the bat he swung and the ball he hit to win the 1976 American League Championship Series. Sell them he did.

Bob Greene
Bob Greene

For $121,874.

And Mike Eruzione, captain of the 1980 "Do you believe in miracles?" U.S. Olympic hockey team, decided to find out how much the uniform he wore in the defeat of the Soviet team would bring.

He found out, all right: $657,250.

There seems to be a growth market in the items found in the closets and storage lockers of retired big-name athletes. For many of them, it makes perfect sense to cash in on the old uniforms, gloves, balls, bats, gym shoes and cleats. The allure of all that scuffed and fraying stuff shines brighter to strangers, and the athletes, as the years pass, have families with their own financial needs.

But three names in Sandomir's story jumped out, because each of the three athletes proved to me, a long time ago, that the finest memories are free.

Bill Mazeroski, the second baseman for the Pittsburgh Pirates who won the World Series against the Yankees in 1960 with a thrilling home run, is selling his old gear at an auction next month. The family of the late golfer Sam Snead sold the claret jug he won at the 1946 British Open for $262,900. Bob Cousy, the great guard for the Boston Celtics, sold just about all the uniforms and memorabilia in his basement for around $320,000, which he gave to his two daughters: "That was a much greater priority than hanging on to it."

Maybe the people forking over their money for the sweat-stained clothes will find a lasting connection through their ownership.

Yet as soon as I saw Mazeroski's name, I thought about a long-ago afternoon when he gave a buddy and me something beyond price: his time.

When my best friend Jack Roth and I were 12 years old and crazy about sports, we hatched a plan. Any time there was a big sports awards dinner in our Ohio town -- one of those events that would bring in famous athletes as draws -- we would meet at one of our houses and go to two separate telephones.

We'd call the hotel where we knew the event was being held, and we'd lower our voices a few octaves and ask for the room of the sports star we dreamed of talking to.

Sometimes it worked; sometimes it didn't. And sometimes, even when we got through, the athlete would decline to talk with us. We even loved those moments -- at least we'd been able to briefly hear the voice of the famous quarterback or center fielder, even if all he was saying was "No."

When an athlete would agree to talk with us, though -- we said we wanted to do a sports interview, but were a bit vague in specifying that our only outlet was a little self-produced mimeographed newspaper -- it was something we sensed, even at the time, that we would never forget.

And we never did. Jack died nine years ago, and in his final months we reminisced about those afternoons, and about our gratitude for the athletes who had given us those memories. Bill Mazeroski and Sam Snead were two of them who were the most generous with us; sure, they may have just been killing time in the hours before they had to go down to the banquet room, but they shared a little of that time with us.

We didn't own a tape recorder -- Jack would hold one receiver of those big old rotary-dial phones, and I would do the same on another extension in the house, and we would trade off questions and take notes -- and I'm glad that we didn't have tapes, because if we had, the tapes might have replaced the memories, the tapes might have become cold stand-ins.

(I don't need a tape to recall, with a smile, what one celebrated ballplayer told us after we asked him our standard final wrap-up question: "What is your advice for young athletes?" His reply: "Keep them grades up.")

And Bob Cousy?

He never came to our town, as far as I knew. But some of us, as kids, would, just about every day, send an envelope to one famous professional athlete or another in big-league cities. Inside each envelope was a pre-stamped, self-addressed postcard. We would hope that, before or after a game, the athlete, opening his fan mail in the locker room, would see our postcard, sign his name on it and drop it in a mailbox.

It was like playing the lottery. You never knew.

One day, when the mail carrier arrived at my parents' home, there it was: the postcard I had sent to Bob Cousy in care of the far-off Boston Garden, now bearing his signature, with a personal inscription to me above it. It was just such a great day.

Decades later, when I would get to know Cousy, and I would run into him from time to time, I would always remind him of that story, and would always thank him anew. Being a gracious man, he would smile and say it was nothing.

It wasn't nothing. It was everything. I hope that the people who are spending hundreds of thousands of dollars in pursuit of memories of their sports heroes will feel that they got their money's worth. But the best memories in life, the most enduring, are nontransferable, and never for sale.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

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The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Bob Greene.

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