Legends selling relics? For some athletes, that old glove is truly gold

Richard Sandomir / New York Times News Service
Published Oct 14, 2013 at 05:00AM / Updated Nov 19, 2013 at 12:31AM

There comes a time when a sports legend must decide whether to hang on to this championship ring and that game-worn jersey, or to cash in on the memorabilia market, which can fetch stunning sums for rare and historic artifacts.

Bill Mazeroski, the former Pittsburgh Pirates second baseman best known for his World Series-winning home run against the New York Yankees in 1960, was the latest to choose to purge his house of decades-old keepsakes. This summer, as the Pirates were heading to the playoffs for the first time in 21 years, he received an offer from the Hunt Auctions company to sell the uniform and many other items cluttering his basement.

“My wife, Milene, goes along with me, that we might as well get rid of it,” Mazeroski said by telephone. “One of our sons said, 'Ah, it's hard to get rid of,' and the other said, 'OK, get rid of it.'”

The Mazeroski auction heads into a memorabilia market in which Chris Chambliss recently received a combined $121,874 for the home run bat he swung, and the ball he hit, to win the 1976 American League Championship Series for the Yankees, and in which Mike Eruzione, the captain of the 1980 U.S. Olympic hockey team, sold the “Miracle on Ice” uniform he wore during the defeat of the Soviet team for $657,250.

Golfer Sam Snead's family sold the claret jug he received for winning the 1946 British Open for $262,900. And the son of Angelo Dundee, the boxing trainer who died last year, received $385,848 for the boxing gloves Muhammad Ali wore when he beat Sonny Liston in 1964. Dan Imler, a vice president at SCP Auctions, said that some former athletes regard their game-used wares with sentimentality.

“But to a lesser extent than most people think,” he said. “It's not that they don't value the memories or the accomplishments. They just don't equate the objects to their achievements.”

And if they want fans to see their wares, few have the opportunity to put it in a museum of their own, as Yogi Berra did.

Mazeroski, 77, had kept the uniform and the socks he wore when he hit the home run 53 years ago Sunday in a cedar chest at home in Greensburg, Pa. Once, years before he received the offer from Hunt to sell his collection, he opened the chest to see if moths had damaged it. Seeing that the uniform was intact, he closed the chest again. He did not weep over the Champagne-stained flannel even though he is a softy; in 2001, he broke down as he tried to deliver his Hall of Fame induction speech. But those tears were ignited by memories, not memorabilia.

Now, with nearly all his trove gone, Mazeroski said, “I won't miss it because it hasn't been a part of my life.”

Although Mazeroski said he did not need the money, he was thinking of his sons.

“I want to see the joy on their faces when the boys get it,” he said.

Mazeroski's sons could benefit considerably from next month's auction, at the Louisville Slugger Museum and Factory. The uniform alone could sell for $250,000 or more, said David Hunt, the president of Hunt Auctions, which displayed the uniform last month at its memorabilia store at PNC Park in Pittsburgh. In all, the auction will include more than 200 Mazeroski items.

“It's not like there was a master plan to do this a year ago,” Hunt said. “But in June, I got a chance to talk to Bill and I said, 'Do you know what happened to the jersey?' And he told me where it's been. I told him if he wanted to evaluate it, I'd be glad to.”

In deciding to sell his collection, Mazeroski dealt with some of the personal issues and business forces that other former players and families face. Some need the money or are estate planning. Others want to finance vacations or their grandchildren's educations, and some no longer want to house the old uniforms, caps, bats, balls and trophies — sometimes, they do not have the room or are moving to smaller quarters. And the costs of storage, preservation and insurance can loom large as the artifacts rise in value.

Bob Cousy, the Boston Celtics great, kept his memorabilia in a somewhat haphazard state in the cellar of the house he has lived in for 50 years in Worcester, Mass. He did not see his collection much except to take people downstairs to visit it. But his daughters, both schoolteachers, needed money, one of them to pay off a mortgage and the other to help with her children's college tuition.

So he sold nearly all of his collection in 2003, netting about $160,000 for each daughter.

“That was a much greater priority than hanging on to it,” Cousy said. “It was a godsend.”

Robin Roberts, the Hall of Fame pitcher for the Philadelphia Phillies, was quite fond of his collection, and he used the artifacts to decorate his homes in Pennsylvania and, later, Temple Terrace, Fla. But when he died in 2010, his four sons were left to wonder what to do with it. Sell it? Divide it in an NFL-style draft? Quickly, they realized that they did not want the responsibility of keeping it.

Roberts' memorabilia included a ball signed by Babe Ruth at the Phillies' spring training camp in 1948, Roberts' rookie season. That raised a serious question: “How do you split that ball four ways?” Robin Roberts Jr. said in an interview. And who would get the oil portrait of their father? His 1952 player of the year award? His Hall of Fame ring and replica plaque? His 1952 All-Star Game bat?

“I told one of my brothers, 'This stuff is for collectors; they're serious about it and they want to display it in their houses,'” Roberts said. “I'd have loved to have kept stuff and pass it on to my son, but all I would have done is get a giant safe-deposit box for it.”

Ultimately, the brothers shared $300,000 from an auction.

As the oldest child of Warren Spahn, the winningest left-hander in baseball history, Greg Spahn inherited a vast collection.

“I remember he sold a 1957 World Series jersey when I was in college, and when I found out, I threw a fit,” Spahn said. “I think he got $1,200 and gave me the money. But I told him, 'This stuff will be worth a lot more later.' His attitude was that he didn't care — they were just artifacts of his career.”

Indeed, Spahn created a personal category of collectibles: He kept one ball from each of his 363 wins.

Greg Spahn waited a decade after his father's death in 2003 to sell the memorabilia that had been stored in several places.

“I didn't have the time to catalog and preserve it,” he said from his ranch in Broken Arrow, Okla. “I have five kids. How would I split a Cy Young Award five ways or four gloves five ways? I would regret turning it over to them and turning it into a big fight. So I just decided that money was more splittable than memorabilia. And I do have three more kids to put through college.”

Warren Spahn's 1957 Cy Young Award sold for $110,000 in an auction in July. His Hall of Fame induction ring brought $48,000.

“I have no regrets,” Greg Spahn said. “I don't have a security problem any longer, and I don't have the fact that the balls and gloves are not being properly stored.”

The uniform that was worn by Bill Mazeroski as he hit a title-winning home run. Mazeroski, the former Pittsburgh Pirates second baseman best known for his World Series-winning home run against the New York Yankees in 1960, has agreed to sell his uniform, a glove and other personal artifacts.