Seldom has a year seen so many superstar impact players leave the game at the same time. Yet, when looking back on 1999, it was another great year for collectors who went back to the future to keep paying record prices for memorabilia.
One would have thought the retirements of Michael Jordan, Wayne Gretzky and John Elway in a six-month period would have spelled disaster for auctions and sports trading shows down the road. Instead, it only fueled an industry where record prices from 1998 seemed to have it a peak.
Typical was the Barry Halper auction in New York in late summer, which drew in a record amount of money for a collection of memorabilia with a heavy emphasis on baseball and, in particular, New York Yankee collectibles. Halper's final auction tally has been under constant revision, but estimates range upwards past $4 million by some officials.
The September auction at Sotheby's saw a successful bid of $46,000 for a single-signed Base Ruth baseball, a new record. But, typical of the year 1999, that record lasted less than two months. Collectors Universe PSA/DNA Authentication Services garnered $55,660 at Mastro Fine Sports Auctions' Millennium Auction on Nov. 18.
Don Flanagan, vice president of Mastro, hinted the numbers could go up in 2000 and foretold of the increasing value of baseball collectibles.
"The sale of this PSA/DNA authenticated Babe Ruth autographed baseball establishes a new record and raises the bar to a new level of excellence for sports memorabilia," he noted.
The attention the Halper auction drew from the media and celebrities alike reflected that new level. Billy Crystal sat in the rafters with expert and novice collectors alike, waiting to bid on the baseball memorabilia. True, Halper's wide-ranging collection was a once-in-a-decade type of auction, but certainly it signaled a prosperous trend in collectibles.
No one single event could have matched the 1998 battle between Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa for Roger Maris' home run record. Still, the battle between McGwire and Sosa for a second straight year of home run supremacy led to widespread interest in their contest, more to see which player would come out on top than who could surpass 70 home runs.
Todd McFarlane could claim to be the collectors' man of the year. The comic book creator revealed Feb. 8th he was the one who, in the preceding month, purchased Sosa's 66th and McGwire's 70th homer from 1998. Total cost? Well, he wouldn't reveal the exact amount, but most collecting officials said it exceeded $6 million.
Pete Rose hawked his own personal memorabilia, but Rose items got an unintended shot in the arm during the fall. Rose received the loudest ovation when introduced on the all-century team at the World Series in Atlanta in October and was grilled by NBC reporter Jim Gray about Rose's ties to gambling. The backlash against that interview allowed Rose to continue his campaign to get into the hall of fame and be re- instated to baseball. Rose even had a website to lure collectors and fans to vote for his return.
Baseball seemed to be the only sport to avoid major retirements. Jordan's departure came at the end of a lockout by NBA owners that cancelled nearly one-half of the regular season. San Antonio with second year all-star Tim Duncan won the NBA title but interest was down in NBA collectibles as well as TV ratings. At national conventions in Atlanta and Chicago in late summer, when NBA items would have been at their peak, pro basketball items played second fiddle to collectibles from major league baseball. Interest increased for three notables: Nolan Ryan, George Brett and Robin Yount, who all were enshrined into Cooperstown in July.
Gretzky's departure, like Jordan's, was expected. He was a dominant force in hockey for two decades and his No. 99 jersey replicas drew greater interest after his April retirement. ESPN's Dan Patrick reportedly paid $4,000 for one of the Gretzky jerseys at a celebrity auction, saying he figured the price would likely go up now that the "great one" had stepped off the ice.
Elway's retirement caught some by surprise. He led Denver to a second straight Super Bowl win last January over the surprising Atlanta Falcons and said he wanted time to think about whether he wanted to return. Most thought it was a ploy, but Elway announced in the spring that he had enough and was retiring.
Jordan and Elway's retirement had a significant effect on their teams and, as a result, the market for those team's items. Without Jordan, the Bulls slumped to just 13 wins in the labor-shortened season This fall the club won only 2 of its first 22 games, causing a downturn in interest in red and black Chicago items. Denver started off the season 0-4 with new quarterback Brian Griese and never was a contender to reach the playoffs, let alone the Super Bowl.
While retirements made big news, so did the unexpected passing of some all-time hall-of-famers who were major players in collecting. Wilt Chamberlain, one of the all-time leading greats and who many consider the best big man to ever play in the NBA, died of a heart attack in the fall at age 62. Walter Payton, the NFL's all-time leading rusher, died at the age of 45 from cancer, after announcing earlier in the year he needed a liver transplant.
And Payne Stewart, one of the few colorful names on the PGA tour who dressed and played with a flair of his own, died in a plane crash in late October.