Joel Platt, right, and his son, Jim, pose for a picture in “the vault,” a secure location containing an immense trove of memorabilia.

Photographer: Edward Linsmier for Bloomberg Businessweek

Joel Platt, right, and his son, Jim, pose for a picture in “the vault,” a secure location containing an immense trove of memorabilia.

Photographer: Edward Linsmier for Bloomberg Businessweek

A 1 Million-Piece, $250 Million Sports Collection Is Up for Auction

Memorabilia include Cassius Clay’s Olympic jacket, Chris Evert’s Wimbledon racket, and the Ray Chapman “death ball.”

Seventy-four years ago, Joel Platt says, Babe Ruth came to him in a dream. “Don’t give up,” Ruth told Platt, then 4 years old and recovering from injuries suffered in a gasoline explosion. “You can be a baseball player or open a museum to sports legends.” Platt turned out to be a decent shortstop and an even better collector. Over decades, some of history’s best athletes and their families gave him mementos—in many instances, before there was a market for such items. Platt also bought from other collectors, eventually amassing more than 1 million pieces, some of which are on display at the Sports Immortals Museum in Boca Raton, Fla. Now 78, he wants to unload the collection. With the accompanying branding and marketing opportunities, it could be worth as much as $250 million, says Michael Heffner, president of auction house Lelands.com. Platt’s goal is to sell to a person or an institution that can do what he didn’t have the space to do: display the entirety of his life’s work. Here, Platt describes a few of his prized possessions and explains how he acquired them.

Gertrude Ederle 1926 cap from swim across the English Channel and signed photo
Gertrude Ederle 1926 cap from swim across the English Channel and signed photo

“The swim cap was part of a vast collection from a Pennsylvania collector, Michael Lopota, who had been an inspiration to me. He started collecting after he was injured in World War II. He would write to athletes, and if they didn’t write back, he’d send a telegram: I fought in World War II, the least you could do is send me a memento. And they sent it!”

Est. value: $20,000

Photographer: Edward Linsmier for Bloomberg Businessweek

Photographer: Edward Linsmier for Bloomberg Businessweek

1966 Art Modell press release and Jim Brown NFL retirement letter
1966 Art Modell press release and Jim Brown NFL retirement letter

“Jim Brown was the best running back in the NFL. [Cleveland Browns owner] Modell was threatening Brown, because Brown didn’t want to report to training camp. He was making a movie. Brown wrote, ‘I am writing to inform you that in the next few days I will be announcing my retirement from Football. This decision is final and is made only because of the future that I desire for myself, my family, and if not to sound corney my race.’”

Est. value: $50,000

Photographer: Edward Linsmier for Bloomberg Businessweek

The second floor of the Sports Immortals Museum and Memorabilia Mart hosts many of the pieces the museum prides itself on.

Photographer: Edward Linsmier for Bloomberg Businessweek

Satchel Paige 1940s Negro Leagues All Stars uniform
Satchel Paige 1940s Negro Leagues All Stars uniform

“I went to visit Satchel Paige in Kansas City. He was a big man, around 6’ 2”, and his wife, Lahoma, was very small, maybe 4’ 9”, and they were waiting on the porch as I pulled up. They told me all the stories of the greats and of his experiences in the Negro Leagues. It’s not only the items I remember. It’s meeting these sports heroes.”

Est. value: $500,000

Courtesy Sports Immortals Museum

Bins of baseball cards are for sale on the second floor.

Photographer: Edward Linsmier for Bloomberg Businessweek

Ray Chapman 1920 “death ball”
Ray Chapman 1920 “death ball”

“Ray Chapman is the only baseball player who died from an injury sustained in a Major League game. He was hit in the head before they wore batting helmets. Charlie Jamieson, an outfielder, picked up the ball and kept it for years. Then he gave it to Bob Curley, a sportswriter from New York. I called him once a year for seven years. The eighth year, he said, ‘My vision isn’t so good anymore. You should have this ball.’”

Est. value: $500,000

Courtesy Sports Immortals Museum

Photographer: Edward Linsmier for Bloomberg Businessweek

Wood that Cy Young was chopping the day he died in 1955 and autographed Hall of Fame postcard
Wood that Cy Young was chopping the day he died in 1955 and autographed Hall of Fame postcard

“After Young retired, he lived on a farm in Ohio. When he died, his neighbor acquired his things. This neighbor had taken a picture of him that day, and he said, this is the last piece of wood he was chopping. He also gave me Young’s walking cane and one of his bats.”

Est. value: $5,000

Courtesy Sports Immortals Museum

Photographer: Edward Linsmier for Bloomberg Businessweek

Cassius Clay 1960 Olympic jacket
Cassius Clay 1960 Olympic jacket

“I’d met [Muhammad] Ali many times, at the gym, at training camp. He would call me, ‘My man, the museum man.’ His Olympic items came from Cassius Clay Sr. I was on a business trip to Pittsburgh—I was in real estate—but when he said to come to Louisville, I drove through a snowstorm to meet him.”

Est. value: $500,000

Courtesy Sports Immortals Museum

Photographer: Edward Linsmier for Bloomberg Businessweek

Jim Thorpe 1912 Summer Olympics album
Jim Thorpe 1912 Summer Olympics album

“I found his third wife, Patsy, in Hesperia, Calif. She showed me his high school jerseys; the album, which was from the games in Stockholm where he won two gold medals and included congratulatory letters from President [William Howard] Taft and the king of Sweden; and trophies. She said, ‘Keep in touch,’ and in the next five years, I took three trips to see her. Then one day, I got a telegram: Am confined to bed, want you to have Jim’s things.”

Est. value: unknown

Courtesy Sports Immortals Museum

Photographer: Edward Linsmier for Bloomberg Businessweek

Jack Dempsey 1927 fight-worn gloves
Jack Dempsey 1927 fight-worn gloves

“We thought Jack Dempsey’s gloves were used in the Georges Carpentier fight in 1921. We found out it was a different company that made the gloves for that fight. These were from the Gene Tunney rematch. We got lucky, because Tunney’s gloves were in the Smithsonian, and we photo-matched them. Back then, the fighters had to agree on the brand of gloves.”

Est. value: $250,000

Courtesy Sports Immortals Museum

Photographer: Edward Linsmier for Bloomberg Businessweek

George Mikan 1940s Minneapolis Lakers game-worn uniform
George Mikan 1940s Minneapolis Lakers game-worn uniform

“George Mikan was the first big man of basketball, the original center. I spent a day with him in Minneapolis, and when I said, ‘I’d like one of your mementos,’ he goes to his utility room, brings out a garbage bag, and says, ‘Here are my uniforms, take what you want.’ Today, game-used items have become so valuable, it’s difficult even to ask for them.”

Est. value: $225,000

Courtesy Sports Immortals Museum

Photographer: Edward Linsmier for Bloomberg Businessweek

Chris Evert 1976 Wimbledon racket
Chris Evert 1976 Wimbledon racket

“I heard her father was coaching in Hollywood, Fla., so I went with my family and introduced myself. He gave me the racket from when she won Wimbledon [the second of three times]. I don’t have as many stories about women athletes, because there weren’t as many women athletes.”

Est. value: $20,000

Courtesy Sports Immortals Museum

The Sports Immortals Museum and Memorabilia Mart in Boca Raton boasts more than 20,000 unique items for sale.

Photographer: Edward Linsmier for Bloomberg Businessweek