Call it “Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon” – collector's style.
During one of the great controversies of the 20th century this week, collectors found themselves living a version of Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon, the popular game in which people try to relate every movie ever made to a film in which Bacon starred in.
Consider this: Mark McGwire, whose 500th home run will again trigger bidding speculation by collectors for that mammoth round-tripper, and the assassination of John F. Kennedy were lumped together.
The growth of the trading card collection business was never more evident than it was this week in Washington, when an arbitration panel took into account the tremendous interest in collectibles. The case involved the color film taken by the late Abraham Zapruder near the spot in Dallas’ Dealey Plaza where JFK was shot on Nov. 22, 1963.
And how does this translate into McGwire home runs?
Zapruder had originally sold the JFK footage to Life magazine shortly after the incident for a mere $150,000, but Life sold it back to him for $1. The US government got involved when it took possession of the film as part of the 1964 Warren Commission report on Kennedy’s assassination. The film remained in government possession at the National Archives, even though the Zapruder's estate retained the copyright.
A board established by Congress ruled the government had to pay the Zapruders, but at issue was just how much the film was worth. The arbitration panel received a claim by the family that the movie was worth $30 million. Eventually they ruled that about half of that, $16 million, should go to the family for the 26-second movie. That 26 seconds was also included in Oliver Stone's 1991 movie, JFK, which, by the way, also featured a performance by the aforementioned Kevin Bacon.
So, you ask again, how do Big Mac's homers get involved in all of this?
The above ruling took into account the price paid for McGwire's 70th home run ball last September. The $3 million-plus figure was a key to the panel's decision to go against the US government, which had wanted to pay the Zapruder family only about $1 million.
In its brief, the government took on baseball collectors, contending the comparison of McGwire's home run ball and the resulting frenzy by collectors across the USA was irrelevant to the historic Zapruder footage: "The utter irrelevance of the sports memorabilia market to the price of material of historical importance."
The government brief went a step further, stating, "It is no more informative of the value of the Zapruder film to compare it to a baseball than it would be to compare the salary of the President of the United States to the salaries of Mark McGwire or the recently retired Michael Jordan."
For the information of the government, McGwire's $10 million annual salary is about 35 times that of President Clinton. But the comparison linked back to 1930 when another slugger, Babe Ruth, was criticized for signing a $100,000 salary – significantly more than President Herbert Hoover earned. When asked about it, Ruth shrugged, "I had a better year than he did." The same could be said for McGwire in 1998 and 1999 than the current White House incumbent.
The arbitration panel didn't buy the government's claim and did take into account the lucrative collectibles' market, including that for baseball. Certainly the McGwire home run was the key element, but the panel had to also take into account the huge interest in other sports memorabilia, particularly over the past 10 years.
That frenzy is likely to be resurrected in the days and weeks ahead. McGwire's 500th homer off Andy Ashby on Aug. 5th could cause another bidding war, although it is unlikely it will fetch the $3 million plus of the 70th home run ball.
Of more significance is the heating up of the home run battle between McGwire and Sammy Sosa, both of whom were ahead of their 1998 pace through the week ending Aug. 6th. With the increased interest in the homer race, to say nothing of the national spotlight the Zapruder film generated in print and electronic media in the past week, it is now conceivable that astronomical numbers for McGwire-Sosa home run balls could resurface again in the next six weeks.
The ultimate irony would be that McGwire would break his own record and the ball would be caught by, well, Kevin Bacon.
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.