The Untouchable

At the House of Cards in Silver Spring, an O.J. Simpson card in mint condition has been in stock years. So far, no takers.
At the House of Cards in Silver Spring, an O.J. Simpson card in mint condition has been in stock years. So far, no takers. (By Susan Biddle -- The Washington Post)
By Neely Tucker
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, October 4, 2007

There are cosmological truths to the universe of sports memorabilia -- the authenticity issue, the personality factor, the Splinter of the True Cross beliefs -- that pull the galaxies of Peyton Manning, Tiger Woods and Babe Ruth into eternity.

When you have all three combined -- for example, when you can be absolutely certain that this baseball bat in your hands is indeed the one used by Red Sox icon Ted Williams to hit his 400th home run -- then you have a totemic item from years past, a bit of mythology in a wooden shaft.

"If a guy gets out his coin collection, all people are going to be impressed with is the overall value," says Bill Mastro, owner of Mastro Auctions, who last year auctioned the aforementioned bat for more than $100,000. "But when he takes out a signed Babe Ruth ball, everybody says, 'Wow!' They know it's worth a lot, but this is dealing with icons. It's magic. It gets their blood going. You put a Babe Ruth bat, a Ted Williams bat, in his hands, and they know Ruth held that bat, it's 'Wow!' "

Do anthropologists have words for this?

It's a lesser version of what drove crusaders to search for the Holy Grail, why the Romans had a cult that venerated the remains of Oedipus, why museums hold the flag Francis Scott Key saw flying, or why Judy Garland's ruby-red slippers from "The Wizard of Oz" are on display in the Smithsonian. There is an idea, as old as museums, that the works and possessions of the powerful or famous carry special significance, and to own such a thing oneself carries inherent value. It is an emotional connection to the distant past.

Then there's the O.J. Simpson Mystery.

This is the question memorabilia dealers around the country have been pondering in the weeks since Simpson was charged with robbery after storming into a Las Vegas hotel room and allegedly taking some of his own signed pictures and footballs (and a lot of other items, such as Joe Montana lithographs and the like) from a dealer of questionable background.

Why would he think anybody wants to buy stuff signed or owned by him?

While the sports memorabilia field has boomed into an industry worth a few billion dollars a year over the past decade, with popular athletes charging up to $150 to sign a single jersey at a trade show, Simpson -- a Heisman trophy winner and Hall of Fame running back -- has seen his memorabilia fall to depths not seen by any major athlete in modern times. Simpson makes Michael Vick's gear look upscale.

He is banned from nearly all trade shows. Brandon Steiner, CEO of Steiner Sports Marketing, one of the biggest agencies in the business, won't get on the phone to discuss him. John Dee, marketing director of Authentic Sports Collectibles, says his Web site sells no Simpson material because "nobody wants it."

The National Sports Collectors Convention, the biggest in the biz, had him kicked out of the show in 2005 when he made an unscheduled signing appearance. Robert Schmierer, director of the Philadelphia Sports Card & Memorabilia Show, lists an "O.J. Simpson Policy" on the packet he sends out to dealers, banning everything but playing-era trading cards and the like. The National Football League does not sell his throwback jersey. The Pro Football Hall of Fame sells his photograph for $5 and nothing else.

Simpson items such as jerseys, helmets and playing cards pop up on eBay; most get no bids at all. Put it this way: The NFL Web site offers authentic team helmets for $269. An eBay auction for a Simpson-signed throwback Buffalo Bills helmet sold last week for $122.50 -- less than half what any unsigned helmet would cost.

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