The Equipment Manager

By Mike Heffner

As a professional working within the sports memorabilia market, I am often asked the age-old question "What type of sports memorabilia should I invest in?"

My typical response is to buy what you love and don't worry about the investment potential.

Collecting sports memorabilia is a hobby and most hobbies are not meant to be for financial gain but for personal enjoyment and satisfaction. But, let's face it, it can be very difficult to be involved in a hobby such as this one and not think about the financial rewards that may lie down the road. With the current uncertainty of the stock market, many collectors and investors are spending their extra cash on sports memorabilia. Are they wrong for doing so? Well, the answer is not a simple one, but I believe that if they are educated collectors and have a passion for the material, they will come out ahead in the long run.

Lou Gehrig bat
This Lou Gehrig bat is now worth at least $40,000. It could have been purchased for under $20,000 less than 10 years ago.

As a collector with 20 years of experience in this hobby, I find it hard not to think about the future prospect of a return on my collection. I think that very few people buy an item with the thought of losing money if they ever decide to sell. In our minds, we all want to feel like we got a decent deal on our purchases. There are people out there who realize that they are paying too much for an item but can easily rationalize the purchase by the simple enjoyment of placing it in their collections. That is what collecting is all about, the thrill of the hunt, the capture, and sometimes the release. Let us not forget the part in the middle when we cherish that newly acquired item by placing it on a special shelf, telling our fellow collectors about it, looking at it for long periods of time, and sometimes fantasizing about what it may be worth in 10 years.

I have followed the sports memorabilia market very closely over the past two decades and have witnessed steady gains across the board. It seems that the high quality, high-grade items seem to increase in value more so than the low quality, low-grade items. This is only natural as we refer back to the old saying "You get what you pay for." Game used equipment is one area of the hobby that has undergone tremendous growth within the past few years. It was not that long ago, in fact, within the past decade, that the following game used items could be bought for a fraction of what they are worth now: A Babe Ruth bat could be purchased for $15,000 (now worth around $40,000), a Willie Mays flannel jersey for $10,000 (now worth around $25,000), a Stan Musial jersey for $10,000 (now around $25,000), a Gordie Howe jersey for $20,000 (now around $40,000), a Jimmie Foxx bat for $10,000 (now around $20,000), a Johnny Unitas jersey for $10,000 (now around $25,000), a Wilt Chamberlain jersey for $20,000, (now around $35,000), a Lou Gehrig cap for $20,000 (now around $50,000). You get the picture.

All of these items that I just mentioned have a few things in common. First, they represent some of the biggest names in the game. They are all superstars who transcend sports. Secondly, they belong to exclusive clubs within their own sports, i.e. 500 homeruns, 500 goals and held or hold significant records in their representative sports. Third, they have all been retired from their sports for at least 20 years. That means that the existing equipment that they used is the only equipment that will ever be on the market.

Jackie Robinson jersey
Ten years ago, a Jackie Robinson jersey could be purchased for around $50,000. Now, one would cost well over $100,000.

I believe that if you are looking at sports memorabilia as a sort of investment, game used items have some of the best potential. The performance of the game used equipment market over the past 10 years has been very good to say the least. There are, however, certain areas of that market that have experienced little or no increase. Common players equipment and "styles" have basically remained on the same level that they were a decade ago. I admire the people who collect this type of material because most of them are purists and share one common denominator, a love for sports and the teams that they root for. On the other hand, game used bats of Hall of Famers have shot up like rockets. There are a few reasons for this dramatic increase. First and foremost, bats are cool! They are masculine, easy to display, and can be thought of as an extension of a players body. Trying to form a mental image of Babe Ruth without a bat is not possible for me.

Within the past decade, there has been a plethora of knowledge and expertise on game used bats that has been dispensed throughout the hobby. People like Dan Knoll, Dave Bushing, John Taube and Vince Malta have spent countless hours researching bats and sharing their knowledge with others. This makes it much easier to authenticate game used bats and adds a sense of confidence to the marketplace.

Keep in mind that there are sometimes extenuating circumstances that may create dramatic increases in pricing. One such circumstance has occurred over the past few years. As most of you know, the card companies have been buying game used equipment and cutting it up to insert in their packs. These companies have been buying items through auctions and also by private transactions, sometimes paying above average prices for pieces that they need. It is important to realize that while these companies have increased the demand for game used items, they have also lessened the supply. When an item is purchased by them it is cut up, never to be seen again in its original state.

Mickey Mantle jersey
Most Mickey Mantle game-used items have doubled in value over the past decade.

This is both good and bad for collectors. On one hand it limits the supply and makes specific game used items tougher to locate, but on the other hand it bolsters the market and increases the value of existing collections.

If you are thinking about collecting specifically for investment purposes, I would not recommend it unless you can buy at a wholesale level. If you love the stuff and want to try to put together a collection that should increase in value I offer the following: 1) Concentrate on the old stuff. Remember that once a player retires, there will be no additional game used items of his on the market. 2) If you like collecting current players equipment, try to pick up items that have been documented by the player or team. These items, with letters from the players or teams are and always will be the more desirable. If you can't find what you are looking for with this sort of documentation make sure that you buy from a reputable and educated source. 3) If your budget permits, stick with the big names in sports. Guys like Babe Ruth, Muhammad Ali and Jackie Robinson transcend sports and will always be valuable, even to people outside the sports memorabilia market. 4) Try to collect items from players that belong to exclusive milestone clubs. Collectors are constantly trying to complete collections of 500 homerun bats, 500 goal scorer sticks, etc. There is also a continuous flow of new collectors who are just starting to work on themes such as these. 5) Buy quality. Typically, collectors of game used equipment desire items that show nice use and still appear to be in good condition. Try to avoid the stuff that shows no use at all. Also, over time, items which are fully original have increased in value at a greater rate than those which have been heavily restored.

Several readers have contacted me regarding my column on game worn caps. They wished to know how to decode the letters stamped inside Wilson professional baseball caps during the 1960's. The first letter of the three letter code represents the last numeral of the year that the cap was manufactured. A represents 8, B is 9, C is 0, D is 1, E is 2, F is 3, G is 4, H is 5, I was not used, J is 6, and K is 7. The second letter of the code represents the month when the cap was manufactured. Z represents January, Y is February, X is March, W is April, V is May, U is June, T is July, S is August, R is September, Q is October, P is November and O is December. The last letter in the code is always "C" which stands for cap. For example, a cap dated EWC would have been made in April of 1962. A special thanks goes out to cap guru, Phil Wood, who taught me this decoding method many years ago.

If you have any questions or comments, I can be reached at 3947 Merrick Road, Seaford N.Y., 11783 or [email protected]