The local sports memorabilia types couldn't get over Robert G. Urban's gall. He set up a booth in a mall, put a few old Baltimore Colts things out for sale. The next thing they knew, he was calling himself Mr. Memorabilia. Mr. Who?
Some veteran collectors had been at it 10, 20 years -- before prices went wild, before the slick New York auction catalogs appeared and the skybox crowd got into the act. Then comes Mr. Memorabilia, a former artist with a prison record who knew next to nothing about sports.
Mr. Memorabilia? Try Mr. Upstart, Mr. Chutzpah. What nerve.
Now, seven years later, some folks look at Urban and see further evidence that the country's gone mad. But then, if someone wanted to pay you $1 million for a baseball, what would you do? Turn it down?
Nobody's offered yet, but that's what Urban is asking -- a million for one baseball. Why not? says Urban, who runs a national sports memorabilia auction from Sykesville. After all, this is the ball Cal Ripken Jr. hit for a homer at Camden Yards on Sept. 5, 1995, the day he tied Lou Gehrig's record of 2,130 consecutive games played.
Never mind that the home run had nothing to do with the record. Never mind that this baseball has virtually nothing more to do with that moment in sports history than any other ball used that evening. Urban refers to it as the "million-dollar ball," as if its value were established as immutably as a $20 bill. The last price paid for it was just over $41,000, which was extraordinary enough as these things go.
No matter. Here's how Urban sees it:
"We're not talking about its collectible value. We're talking about the value that that ball will generate to the person who buys it. And that media attention and promotional value is why it's worth a million dollars. When you look at a 30-second spot for a Super Bowl commercial at $1.2 million and you're going to be seeing it for only 30 seconds one time. Now all of a sudden think about buying this ball for $1 million. And you're not going to be on for 30 seconds. You're going to make the front page of USA Today. You're going to make the front page of practically everything in this country. You're going to be on CNN every 30 minutes."
The pitch goes on and on. A pitch so stupendous that it has value if it sells nothing at all.
How much value? Hard to say. How much is this story worth?
This story and several others have been triggered by the pitch. Urban got a blurb on Page 1 of USA Today last fall just by announcing that the ball's owner, an anonymous business person in Western Maryland, whom he represents, would sell the ball for $1 million. And so Urban, a regular guy raised in Baltimore County, thrust himself into the megabucks game of sports memorabilia, wherein a Honus Wagner baseball card sells at auction for $640,000, wherein an Oriole fan gets $300,000 invested in an annuity for Eddie Murray's 500th homer ball, wherein Charlie Sheen pays $90,000 for a baseball that supposedly rolled through Bill Buckner's legs in the 1986 World Series.
A roadside attraction
Now Urban -- who is gaining a reputation for getting good prices for his clients' merchandise -- is making a pitch to Wal-Mart or anybody who will listen. He's touting the Ripken ball as a sort of contemporary Jumbo, the immense African elephant P.T. Barnum marched around to draw crowds to the circus. A baseball as roadside attraction in a country obsessed with sports, fame, money.
Just watch, says Urban. At the Wal-Mart in Eldersburg today, Urban says, he'll demonstrate the drawing power of the Ripken baseball by displaying it there with other memorabilia items.
And in case you have another million dollars sitting around, you can check out this package at Wal-Mart: two official Sept. 6 lineup cards, the program from that game and untorn tickets from Sept. 5 and 6, each piece autographed by four umpires and Ripken. A million dollars takes it all away, with the money -- after Urban takes a 15-percent cut -- going to establish a scholarship fund at Bowling Green State University in Ohio, which was given the stuff by American League umpire Larry Barnett.
Urban envisions such crowds, such excitement that Wal-Mart executives will rush for the corporate checkbook. Urban's commission on the baseball sale would be 20 percent.
Bill Adler, manager of the Eldersburg Wal-Mart, says he's been hearing customers talk about the Ripken baseball. Not a peep, however, from the corporate offices of Wal-Mart in Bentonville, Ark. Adler's been sending them newspaper clips about the ball, so he figures they've heard of Urban's grand notions. Corporate officials never returned a reporter's calls. If they're interested in the ball, they're not saying.
The much-publicized sales of the Honus Wagner card, the Murray ball and the 1986 World Series ball have contributed to the inflation of memorabilia prices. Prices have been rising since the mid-1980s, as baby boomers with money to burn waxed nostalgic for emblems of their youth. Collecting has not only ceased to be the exclusive province of the hard-core fan, it has become too expensive for fans of modest means. Trade publications still refer to collecting as "the hobby," but Tom Mortenson, editor of Sports Collectors Digest, says it's become much more of a business.
Urban, who freely acknowledges he never was a sports fan, who says he knows little about sports history, exemplifies this new world of sports memorabilia. More promotion, less passion.
Bill Mastro, a dealer outside Chicago, told Card Trade magazine last fall that the Murray ball deal and the Ripken ball hype reminded him of "charlatans or con men or gypsies running around making headline news that don't even deserve to be in the classifieds."
Says Urban: "Some people think I'm the greatest thing that ever came along, and some people think I'm the worst thing that ever came along. You used to be able to get this stuff for nothing. You'd walk up to your favorite player and ask him for his uniform."
That was good for the collector, says Urban, but not for the players, some of whom Urban represents as an auctioneer: "I represent the person selling the material. My job is to get him top dollar."
The job has grown beyond the limits of Urban's unheated garage in Sykesville, where he's been conducting national telephone auctions. Next month, he'll move the auction and retail operations into a rented store on Liberty Road and hire five people. They'll handle accounts, retail sales, shipping. Urban will handle acquisitions, auctions and, of course, promotion.
He decided to hire help in part because his business was forced to shut down for about three months last year as he recovered from a serious car accident in July. Debts mounted as Urban recuperated from broken bones and collapsed lungs. The business recovered partly because of the hype surrounding the $1 million Ripken baseball offer.
Urban's recent incarnation as the Don King of sports memorabilia is the latest in a series for this 44-year-old father of two daughters. Since he graduated from Milford Mill High School and studied art at the Community College of Baltimore, he's been an artist, restaurant manager, gallery owner and convict. His attempt to conduct the sort of high-stakes auctions normally associated with Sotheby's or Christie's seems all the more dramatic, or improbable, if you consider where he's been.
The low point
The low point came early in 1982, when Urban and his second wife, Melinda, were reunited after months of separation and went on an all-day drinking binge. They wound up in The Horse You Came In On, a bar in Fells Point. Urban doesn't recall the exact date and remembers little of the episode. This much is clear, however: at some point in the evening, for reasons that are unclear to him, Urban pulled out a .25-caliber automatic handgun and fired one or more shots into the wall behind the bar. He also drove back to his apartment on Gage Court in his estranged wife's car and returned with a shotgun and his roommate's handgun.
By that time the police had arrived. Urban, then a 29-year-old artist and manager of a Bob's Big Boy in Dundalk, was arrested and sent to Baltimore City Jail.
"I thought I had ruined my life," he says. "I was on suicide watch at the city jail. I just screwed up royally. And I paid the price."
After a trial before a judge, he was convicted of gun violations and malicious destruction of property. He was sentenced to 36 months and served 27, moving from the City Jail to three state prisons in Jessup and finally to the minimum security Central Laundry in Carroll County, where he served about nine months.
Prison officials discovered Urban's artistic talent and put him to work painting designs on walls and teaching art to other inmates. He also made paintings that still are displayed in the visiting room at the Central Laundry.
"I'm not exaggerating, I'm not fooling around. The place changed my life," says Urban, whose wife divorced him while he was in prison. At the Carroll County prison he became friendly with a unit manager, Marsha Maloff. After he was released in April 1984, they began seeing each other romantically. A year later, they were married -- her first, his third.
With $8,000 he received for painting a mural in a prison in Baltimore, Urban opened an art gallery on Thames Street in Fells Point, one of four galleries he ran in the mid- to late-1980s. He counted on Fells Point becoming the next big tourist destination, another Georgetown, or at least another Inner Harbor.
It never happened. To make matters worse, the city closed down Thames Street for repairs, killing his biggest gallery. He ran out of money and time and declared bankruptcy.
By the late 1980s, Urban stood in yet another trough. He was broke, out of work, the father of a baby girl and searching for something to do. He decided to try selling antiques at malls in Pennsylvania and Western Maryland. Soon he switched from antiques to baseball cards, then from cards to memorabilia, Colts stuff at first. Meanwhile, he was staying home taking care of his daughter, Alexandra, now 8, while his wife worked. Maloff is now administrator of the prerelease prison unit in Jessup.
"People would always come up to me at the shows and say 'What do you do for a real living?' And I would say 'I'm a Mr. Mom.' And that's how I got the name Mr. Memorabilia," says Urban, who often wears a royal-blue T-shirt imprinted with the moniker. "They couldn't remember my name, so the next time they'd see me they'd say, 'Oh, it's Mr. Memorabilia.' "
Urban liked the name and it stuck. It also stuck in the craw of some local memorabilia dealers who had been around long before Urban appeared on the scene.
Ted Patterson, Baltimore sports historian, memorabilia collector and radio reporter, recalls that dealers tended to look at Urban and say: " 'Who is this guy calling himself Mr. Memorabilia'? He was in it just for the dollar. Even to this day, I'm sure there's some people who are irked by it."
Patterson, who has published four books on the Orioles, is bugged by Urban's hype, and by the fact that he knows little about sports. He also wonders if Urban is not presenting a distorted public image of memorabilia collecting.
Several local dealers got so worked up at the mention of Urban's name that they declined comment if their names were going to be published.
Barry Wolfsheimer, a memorabilia dealer from Jarrettsville, says there are many unscrupulous auction houses around, but Urban's is not one of them. He says Urban is careful about what he sells, and if he doesn't know something he's not afraid to ask for advice from more experienced people.
"He's not trying to gouge people," says Wolfsheimer. "I've turned a lot of people on to him, and they've had nothing but good things to say."
Ken Frisch, senior development specialist at Bowling Green State, says the school agreed to let Urban handle the sale of the lineup cards, program and tickets after checking out his reputation and getting a good report.
"The indications we got were this is something he did and did well," says Frisch.
Urban has heard it all -- for better and worse. He's heard the ugly innuendo about his prison record, aspersions cast on his reputation. His local competitors, he says, are "just totally, utterly jealous. They will do anything they can to get me out of this business."
Not a chance. Not now, not when the notion of what is considered outrageous in the world of sports and money seems to be redefined every day. A million-dollar ball. Right.
Urban picks up the ball. Looks in for the sign. Here's the windup. And the pitch:
"You just have to have a little vision as far as what you can do with it. And once you've paid a million dollars for it, it will be, it will be like the Hope Diamond. It will be the most valuable piece of sports memorabilia in the world. It'll make 'The Guinness Book of World Records.' "
Pub Date: 2/22/97