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.
"I've been in the industry for 30 years, and I can't tell you any other athlete who has seen that kind of impact in our world," says Bob Wilke, executive director of the collectors convention.
And so the mystery goes: What in that room could have been so valuable that Simpson would risk jail time to get it?
* * *
First, let's state the obvious: Guys -- sports collectors are almost entirely male -- are willing to pay a lot of money for stuff that might be neat but, frankly, is not worth much as an object of historical merit.
It's a business driven by the rush of fame and thrill of athletic prowess. Big-name players such as Alex Rodriguez of the New York Yankees and Peyton Manning of the Indianapolis Colts make exclusive deals with companies to sign almost anything, and the markup once their signatures are attached is stunning.
An authentic New York Yankees jersey will run you $174 on the league's Web site. Take that jersey, have Rodriguez sign it with "Bronx Bombers" added by his name and it will be priced at $922 at Pro Sports Memorabilia, a popular online outlet. His signature on a $30 baseball runs you $425. A duplicate Manning jersey from the NFL retails at $189; Pro Sports has a jersey like that signed by Manning for $530. A regulation pro football costs about $80. Steiner Sports, a competing memorabilia agency, will sell you a "Super Bowl XLI ball," signed by Manning, for $549.
These are fine as fashion items and game-day statements, provided you've got the cash, but dealers will tell you that in no way are they one-of-kind treasures or any kind of "investment." Players sign these things all day long. There are thousands upon thousands of them, and the minute they run out, athletes are under contract to produce more.
"Any of these manufactured items that are not game-used or part of the game are not rare and won't have much value," says Dan Hitt, football price guide editor for Beckett Media, which publishes price guides for all sorts of sports memorabilia. "The value of things for living athletes is usually less than what collectors will think."
Of course, we've been talking small potatoes.
Let's go back to Mastro, who runs the upscale auction house.
He recently auctioned a mint condition Mickey Mantle 1952 rookie baseball card, one of the most sought-after cards ever made. (It's a drawing, not a photograph.) It drew 15 bids and sold for $77,672. A complete set of Cracker Jack 1915 trading cards featuring iconic names like Ty Cobb, Walter Johnson, Honus Wagner and Connie Mack sold for $262,701. These are all little cards of paper. But because they are perfectly preserved, because they are very rare, because they depict popular athletes of great skill and achievement -- and because grown men think these things are extremely important -- they are worth fortunes.
So where does an accomplished athlete and pop culture figure like Simpson fall?
After his 1995 acquittal in the slayings of his ex-wife, Nicole Brown Simpson, and her friend Ron Goldman, Simpson is about as close to an untouchable as this country can get. Pete Rose was banned from baseball for betting on the game, but some people still like him. He even sells a limited-edition baseball, signed by him, with the inscription, "I'm sorry I bet on baseball." People buy them because they like Pete Rose.
Vick, the disgraced Atlanta Falcons former quarterback, was a big name as recently as this summer. Then he pleaded guilty to taking part in dogfighting, a practice Americans place just above child pornography, and today his material has vanished. Bill Huggins, co-owner of the House of Cards in Silver Spring, had a signed Vick jersey in his window this summer, at a price of $275.
After Vick's guilty plea, "a kid who works downstairs asked if he could buy it. I asked him what he'd give me for it. He said, '$25,' and I said, 'Sold!,' " Huggins recounts. Similarly, he has an early Simpson trading card in near-mint condition on sale for $45. He's had it for years. No takers.
As Huggins points out, Simpson had notable on-field accomplishments, but nobody likes him. If people don't like you, there's no power, no hip factor to owning things that you have used, touched or signed. Your memorabilia is yesterday's trash -- the one thing in life nobody collects.
"I don't sell O.J. stuff, I won't touch it," says Jerry Miller, who has run the Miller Boys, a sports memorabilia business, for the past 35 years, based out of his home in Warminster, Pa. "I've been offered Simpson stuff. I wouldn't take it for free. . . . He got away with it [the murders], but a lot of people, including me, think he did it. Then he was cocky about it."
* * *
So what was it Simpson was after in Vegas?
According to the manifest released last week by the Las Vegas Police Department, there were a couple of hundred signed pictures of Simpson and 10 specially inscribed footballs. The pictures are pretty much worthless.
The footballs are another matter.
"One (1) inflated 'Wilson' brown leather football bearing 'Juice 1000 YDS. 10-29-1973. Bills 23 Chiefs 14. O.J. Simpson,' " reads one entry. This would be a game or commemorative ball noting when Simpson topped the 1,000-yard mark for that season. There's a similar one from when he scored four touchdowns in a game against New England in 1975, and one that reads: "For OJ Simpson from Detroit Lions Nov. 25, 1976. NFL Record 273 YDS Rushing." This would be, if proven authentic, a game or commemorative ball from when Simpson set what was then the league's single-game rushing record.
Let's go back to Hitt, the football price guide analyst, at Beckett's.
If real, the balls might be worth about $1,000 to $3,000 each, with the rushing record ball going for as much as $5,000. Taken cumulatively, those 10 balls might fetch $20,000 or $30,000 at auction.
"There are serious collectors of game-used, one-of-a-kind equipment, which is a hot sector of the market right now, and those balls would sell," Hitt says.
If Simpson could prove to the court they belonged to him, he might actually claim them -- only to see them reclaimed by Fred Goldman, father of one of the deceased. Simpson owes him, at this point, $38 million, which is gaining $10,000 per day in interest, for a civil judgment that held Simpson responsible for the murders.
And here is the final irony: Even if Goldman gets them, the balls have been so downgraded because of Simpson's notoriety that they are worth a fraction of their former value, Hitt says.
"More than $1,000 for a football sounds like a lot of money, but it's really not in this market. If not for Simpson's legal troubles, a game-used ball by a Heisman winner and Hall of Famer, those balls would be worth two or three times as much."
O.J. Simpson, shorn of the magic he once possessed, is an emblem of the fact that the star athlete doesn't possess the magic, the fans give it to him. The fan giveth, and the fan taketh away.