Baseball's Biggest Auction Ever

Barry Halper's eccentric treasure trove will fetch millions

Baseball legend Ty Cobb is smiling somewhere--but there are a few gaps in his grin. Cobb went to the great ballfield in the sky in 1961, leaving behind a slew of big-league records and one set of yellowed false teeth. His dentures eventually found their way to Barry Halper, a New Jersey collector who is to baseball memorabilia what Cobb was to center field. "My first reaction was: `What am I going to do with a pair of dentures?"' recalls the 59-year-old Halper.

Now he knows. Cobb's teeth, and the rest of Halper's amazing collection, which includes such treasures as a ticket to the first World Series in 1903 and a lock of Babe Ruth's hair, are scheduled to be sold sometime this summer in live and online auctions run by Sotheby's in New York. It may not have the snob appeal of the Jackie O auction, but Halper's collection is expected to attract a crowd as large and boisterous as Opening Day at Yankee Stadium.

HOLY GRAIL. "There is going to be a huge turnout of really passionate people," says David N. Redden, a Sotheby's executive vice-president. "I had a call from a partner in a well-known brokerage firm who's very interested. I said, `The Halper Collection is the Holy Grail, isn't it?' He said, `You hit the grail on the head."'

Halper's collection contains more than 100,000 items, including bats, uniforms, trading cards, and photos. While the live auctions are expected to take only a week or two, preparing for the event has been a Ruthian job. Since last November, Sotheby's has been cataloging the collection, which occupies almost an entire floor of a Manhattan warehouse, and the shelves are filling fast.

Not far from Mickey Mantle's first professional contract and signing-bonus check--for $1,150--is Lou Gehrig's last mitt, a leather oval that looks like a giant oatmeal cookie. Paging through one of Halper's many albums recently, memorabilia consultant Rob Lifson came across a questionnaire filled out by a young Jackie Robinson. On it, Robinson writes of his dream to be the first African-American ballplayer in the big leagues. "I looked at this and got chills," says Lifson, who is helping to appraise items for Sotheby's.

The total value of Halper's collection is the subject of intense guesswork; estimates range from $10 million to more than three times that. "We'll only know when it sells," says Lifson. Last year, Major League Baseball paid Halper an amount said to be $7.5 million for 170 items, including Mantle's rookie uniform and the contract selling Ruth to the Yankees after the 1919 season. The items will be displayed at the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y., in a "Barry Halper Gallery" opening next fall. The Hall of Fame declined to discuss the purchase price.

Although the market for some baseball collectibles flattened in the mid-1990s, demand for unusual items remains strong. On Jan. 13, the baseball Mark McGwire socked into the stands last September for his 70th home run sold at auction for $2.8 million. And it's not just baseballs that attract big money. In November, an auction in Chicago netted a record $4.6 million, including $61,034 for a bat used by Gehrig and $41,745 for a 1941 Joe DiMaggio baseball card. "The prices being paid for some of these items are astounding. We're all kind of wondering where it's going to end," notes Tom Mortenson, editor of Sports Collectors Digest.

Halper's collection figures to feed the buying frenzy. Until late last year, many of the items had been stored in his Livingston (N.J.) home, where they were seen only by Halper's family and guests. That includes dozens of star ballplayers from Ted Williams to Reggie Jackson to Roger Clemens. One of Halper's closest player friends is DiMaggio, 84. Among the unusual items up for sale is a coffee table with 56 balls signed by DiMaggio--signifying the Yankee Clipper's record 56-game hitting streak--displayed beneath a glass top.

Halper, who owns about 1% of the Yanks, started collecting when he was 8. The next summer, his father took him to Yankee Stadium on the day Ruth's No. 3 was retired. Before the game, he got the Babe to autograph a ball, the first of 200 Ruth-signed horsehides in his collection.

These days, Halper is known as much for his efforts to authenticate his items as for the items themselves. In the 1970s, he acquired a uniform supposedly worn by Cincinnati's Ewell Blackwell in a 1947 game in which Blackwell tossed a no-hitter. Halper brought the uniform to a memorabilia show to have Blackwell confirm that it had been his. As Halper remembers, Blackwell lifted the right sleeve and "smelled under the armpit. Then he looked up and said, `Yep, this is mine."'

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