Hall-of-famer and former
Celtic Bill Russell signed
autographs at the Atlanta
National.
Hall-of-famer and former <br>Celtic Bill Russell signed<br>autographs at the Atlanta<br> National.

One of the most bally-hooed auctions at the recently completed 20th National Sports Memorabilia Collectors Convention was the Pope ball.

It turned out to be a dud.

Backers had hoped to get at least the $50,000 from those who attended the national convention in Atlanta, especially considering all of the pre-convention hype the ball received. The ball, autographed by Pope John Paul II, had national media attention because of the uniqueness of the signature and the other non-sport pope memorabilia that had brought in large amounts of cash across the world.

But the asking price was a bit too high and the ball did not sell. No word yet on whether or not the ball will be on display at the next big collectors convention to be held Aug. 19-22 in suburban Chicago at the Rosemont, Ill., convention center located near the city's O'Hare airport.

The auction's top price in Atlanta was for $24,200 for a 1933 Nap Lajoie card, while a canceled check from Lou Gehrig brought $10,175.

Autographs remain the catalyst behind successful conventions. That was evident in Atlanta, and figures to be one of the top selling points in the Rosemont convention later in the month.

NBA hall-of-famer Bill Russell, once considered very elusive toward both collectors and media, showed up in Atlanta, and his autographs were fetching around $200 apiece. Part of the high price for the former center’s autograph on an 8 by 10 photo can be traced to his refusing to sign anything during his playing career with the Boston Celtics in the 1950s and 1960s when the great Celtic dynasty ruled the NBA. Published reports even indicated Russell bristled at a Boston teammates request to autograph a basketball after they won a championship because and refused to sign the ball.

But Russell has apparently mellowed through the years. He was honored at a ceremony in Boston earlier in the summer that drew more than 9,000 Celtic fans – and did attend the Atlanta convention. However, he did not mellow enough to speak to the media in Atlanta. He also plans to be among those signing in the Rosemont event next week but isn't likely to do interviews with the press before or during the convention.

Speaking of elusive, John Elway will be among the more than 30 sports celebrities who will be signing autographs at the Rosemont event. Sponsors say Elway's "rare" appearance will limit the number of tickets to obtain the former Denver quarterback's autograph. The football-heavy roster of signers includes Joe Namath, Jim Kelly, Ken Stabler and Cliff Branch. Russell is the biggest basketball name on the marquee – don't even expect to see Michael Jordan leave the golf links to attend the event – and other baseball stars signing include Reggie Jackson, Ozzie Smith and Juan Marichal.

The event will also feature Kidstore, a place for children under 12 to purchase sports collectibles priced at under 43 with the proceeds to benefit the 2,001 Special Olympics World Winter Games in Alaska.

Speaking of Chicago, interest remains on the increase for Shoeless Joe Jackson, the subject of legislative moves right up through the halls of Congress to get the former Chicago White Sox outfielder enshrined into Cooperstown. Jackson, accused of being one of the "eight men out" who helped fix the 1919 World Series, has been denied entry to the hall of fame despite his and subsequently his family's insistence he did not participate in the fixx. A letter from 1949 inviting Jackson to a banquet honoring former major leaguers from South Carolina was on display at the Atlanta convention as were other Jackson items.

Back to Atlanta, Upper Deck officials reported the hot baseball cards were Ken Griffey, Jr., Alex Rodriguez, Derek Jeter and Jeff Bagwell. Tim Couch, the Cleveland Browns rookie quarterback and No. 1 draft choice in last April's draft, was also drawing top interest according to Upper Deck.

Randy Minkoff is a former reporter, writer, editor and author, with more than three decades of journalism experience and a unique combination of both print and broadcasting. Minkoff is a regular contributor to the Chicago Tribune, Chicago Magazine and Crain's Chicago Business. He has been syndicated nationally as a radio/TV critic and has also written a weekly column for the Daily Herald. He is the author of Ron Santo; For Love of Ivy, the biography of the former Cub third baseman and his battle against diabetes. A native of St. Louis, Mo., he is a graduate of Drake University School of Journalism.