Would you buy a Negro League baseball book that’s worth tens of thousands of dollars? What about a photograph of a team from 108 years ago, in near perfect condition?
Would you want copy of a $20,000 contract signed by two Hall of Famers — one a legendary player and one a manager — a value less than the paper it was typed on is worth today?
Christie’s, the famed New York City auction house, is hosting a historic baseball collectibles showcase in October called “The Golden Age of Baseball, Selections from the National Pastime Museum.” Hundreds of rare, old-timey baseball treasures are going up for auction, many of which have deep Philly connections, ranging in value from a few hundred dollars to $500,000.
Would you pay half a million dollars…for a baseball bat?
The bat — a “Shoeless” Joe Jackson game-used stick — didn’t make the trip down to the Billy Penn offices with Simeon Lipman, an appraiser and consultant for Christie’s to promote the event, but a lot of really incredible baseball history did.
Lipman, who is often seen on the hit PBS show Antiques Roadshow, brought down several amazing and rare Philly-centric items out of the 485 lots that will be up for auction on Oct. 19 and 20 in New York.
The whole show is a baseball-lover’s fantasy, and a high-end collector’s far more realistically attainable dream. And speaking of dreams coming true, in addition to presenting items to us from the Christie’s auction, Lipman agreed to look at some personal sports artifacts, to tell this novice sports-memorabilia collector and ARS fan what his items are worth.
Yes, an actual appraiser from Antiques Roadshow inspected my old balls. Yes, it was as thrilling as it sounds.
Philly’s Rich Baseball History
First, we discussed the items Lipman brought with him, the most fascinating of which had to be a letter written by Connie Mack in 1908, talking about the struggles his Athletics were having, and how he was contemplating the call-up of a young player named Jackson. That Jackson would later be known as, simply, “Shoeless” Joe, who got his professional start playing in five games for the Athletics in 1908, then another five in 1909.
The letter is incredible, penned with an indescribable level of class Mack notoriously employed as a manager in Philadelphia.
Lipman also showed us several Negro League artifacts, including a team photo of the 1908 Philadelphia Giants, with names penned on each jersey. They aren’t signatures of the players, he explained, more printed names to identify the team members, but Lipman said the identifications were done “of the era”, which shouldn’t lessen the value of the picture at auction.
Speaking of value, each of the pieces Lipman brought range in value from a few thousand dollars up to more than $20,000. He stressed that these are conservative estimates on how much each item will go for at the auction, based on who attends and what the market dictates. As with any auction, multiple bids can drive up a price of an item and in the collectibles market — especially with rare and one-of-a-kind pieces like some they have in this show — that up-bid price becomes, in a way, the new valuation.
That’s not to say values don’t fluctuate down as well. Watching any Antiques Roadshow episode and you can see they’ve updated the appraisals at the time of the taping with more modern pricing posted at the bottom of the screen. Often, pieces go up in value, but sometimes, depending on the market, prices can plummet.
The pieces in this auction have not plummeted. Nor should they, ever. In fact, the 1907 “History of Colored Base Ball” by Sol White is worth tens of thousands of dollars and, as one of only five known copies still around today, the book chronicling the Negro Leagues, which had very little in terms of documented recordings, will only become more valuable as that era gets further and further in the sport’s memory.
Lipman shared that the trading card market, for those in perfect condition, is very hot right now. So, too, are old tobacco cards, which were oversized prints of players from the turn of the century. This Sherry Magee card (pictured below) is worth more because, as Lipman explained, it was an error card. His name was spell wrong and covered over before more were made with the correct spelling.
Phillies Hall of Famer Ed Delahanty’s tobacco card (pictured earlier) is worth five figures as well, given his status in the game and how rare it was for Delahanty to sit for photographs back in his playing days.
Lefty Grove’s Contract
Lipman also shared the actual contract signed by Lefty Grove for the 1931 season with the Philadelphia Athletics. Grove’s deal was for $20,000 and was signed by both the player and John D. Shibe — of the Shibe Park family — on January 15th of that year.
Grove went on to win the league MVP that season, finishing 1931 with a 31-4 record, a 2.06 ERA, a league-best 175 strikeouts and 27 complete games. The contract, now, is worth more to a collector than it was to Grove in salary back then.
Connie Mack, Jimmie Foxx and “Red” Grange
After Lipman shared his historic items, I got to share mine. I brought in a ball my grandfather had gotten signed in 1933 by the likes of Connie Mack, Jimmie Fox and football star “Red” Grange. It’s an odd combination of players, with nearly a dozen names, which also includes former Athletics player Rube Walberg. I mentioned to Lipman the ball was signed at a game, which made it even stranger that Grange would sign the ball, though that shouldn’t change the value of the item.
It turns out, my grandfather went to a sports banquet and had the ball with him to get autographs. What’s odd is that in 1933, my grandfather was already in his mid 20s, and he always told my father that he got the ball signed when he was still in school, so either the date above Foxx’s autograph is a 23 (not 33) or this story is way more interesting than I ever knew.
Lipman said the ball is worth, perhaps, a few thousand dollars. “Definitely one digit before the comma” he answered when pressed if the ball might be worth five figures.
He said that if the ball had one signature — Foxx or Mack, for example — it would be worth more at auction. That’s a lesson for future collectors out there: Always carry extra balls.
Steve Sabol & The Undefeated ‘72 Dolphins
The coolest piece of memorabilia in my family’s collection is something I stole from my brother, who was born in 1972, the year the Miami Dolphins went undefeated in the NFL and won the Super Bowl.
My father was given a ball signed by the entire Dolphins team to commemorate that undefeated season by NFL Films guru Steve Sabol. Sabol was a reputed trickster — he once had an electric chair installed in his house and concocted a story around it just so my dad would include the note in a profile he was doing on Sabol — so needless to say, the authenticity of all the signatures on this ball have come into question for years.
Basically, my dad doesn’t believe the ball is real, and thinks Sabol probably had his staff sign the names to screw with him, again. And yet, if that is the real truth, Sabol played the long game.
A few years before his passing, I interviewed Sabol, and between stories of the Ice Bowl and what he considers the greatest game ever played, I asked him about that ball.
He swore it was real. He was adamant about it. So I burned the interview onto a CD and put it inside the case with the ball. What better certificate of authenticity than Steve Sabol saying to me the ball is real?
Lipman loved it, saying with that “provenance” there’s no reason but to think the signatures are real. Even though several names were written in plain lettering, not typical autographs. He suggested that maybe the names were printed because the team asked the players to write legibly for their giveaway balls. Or, maybe some of the team signed the ball — Earl Morrall, Don Shula, Mercury Morris, et al — while the rest were, in fact, forgeries to fill out the list.
In other words, we all think the ball is fake, in some way. But Sabol said it was real. And who wants to question a dead football icon?
Lipman said that with the “proof” included, the ball is worth a few thousand dollars for sure, as it’s an item many collectors would love to have, real or not.
We won’t be selling either ball, but it was a personal thrill to have a personal Antiques Roadshow experience before going home to gladly put my balls back on the shelf for all to see.
The entire Christie’s collection will be on display in New York from Oct. 13-19. For more information, visit www.christies.com/baseball.