Oh the sights Barry Halper has seen -- and without even leaving his own den!
Hank Aaron and Frank Robinson taking sample swings with bats once used by Ruth and Gehrig. Ozzie Smith trying on a 19th century fielder's mitt -- undersized by today's standards -- and yearning to "try to turn two with this." Joe DiMaggio grudgingly signing Playboy magazine's first issue, the one with a cover photo of a certain peroxide-blonde actress with a plunging neckline. Joe Garagiola crawling on his hands and knees, examining a hundred years of baseball artifacts with all the delight of a child set loose in F.A.O. Schwarz.
By Halper's count, 41 baseball Hall of Famers visited his house in suburban New Jersey, including Mickey Mantle, Willie Mays, Ted Williams and Stan Musial. Almost certainly, they enjoyed the company of this amiable man who loves their sport as ardently as any of them. What must have awed them, though, were the sights they saw in that den, which until recently housed the world's largest privately held collection of baseball memorabilia.
That den as well as various warehouses have now been nearly emptied of the treasures from Halper's five decades of obsessive-compulsive collecting. Much of it has been packed off to the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y. Even more of it is destined for Sothebys, the New York auction house, where it will be sold later this month, most likely for tens of millions of dollars.
Whatever the amount, it is not likely to add up to the pleasure Halper enjoyed in assembling and showing off his collection.
"I've had all the fun in the world," he said last week by phone. "I wanted it, I sought it, I chased it, I bought it, I displayed it. Now I'm selling it. I've come full circle."
What he'll miss, though, is seeing the astonishment on the faces of those he ushered into his den, a baseball shrine rivaled only by the Hall of Fame itself. "I used to tell people before they visited Barry that no matter what your imagination is, it won't be big enough to appreciate the size of it," says Ted Spencer, chief curator at Cooperstown.
At the Hall of Halper, a visitor would watch as a dry cleaner's carousel rolled out more than a thousand vintage uniforms, all of them worn at one time by a baseball luminary. Each was more striking than the last: an 1888 Chicago White Stocking shirt worn by Cap Anson, a John McGraw New York Giants jersey from 1905, a San Francisco Seals shirt DiMaggio wore in 1933, his first full season in professional ball.
In shelves, racks and cases all around were scores of historically significant balls, bats, caps and gloves. That was to be expected, of course, but in Halper's collection, baseball exotica also abounded: a pair of dentures and a fishing hat worn by Ty Cobb, a derby and silk robe worn by Ruth, an ostentatious pair of alligator boots bearing the initials B.M. for the one man with bad enough taste to wear them: Billy Martin.
There was no end to the delights in Halper's collection. He managed to lay his hands on the harmonica New York Yankees infielder Phil Linz famously played on the Yankees team bus after a doubleheader loss, thus incensing manager Yogi Berra in 1964. He also acquired an authentic subway sign bearing the destination "Polo Grounds" and a pair of seats from that fabled, long-obliterated home of the New York Giants.
There were hundreds of fascinating and evocative photographs, few of them seen by anyone not lucky enough to have visited Casa Halper. One of the most arresting pictures shows Ruth and Gehrig stylishly dressed in street clothes and sitting on a bench at Soldiers Field watching the 1927 football game between Notre Dame and USC. Handwritten at the top of the photo are the words, "Sitting on Notre Dame bench by permission of Knute Rockne." At the bottom are the signatures of the two Yankees greats.
Speaking of Ruth, Halper's collection covered the entire length of the Curse of the Bambino, from the 1920 contract that sent Ruth from the Red Sox to the Yankees to the baseball mitt and cleats Bill Buckner was wearing in the 1986 World Series when Mookie Wilson's grounder tragically -- for Red Sox fans -- scooted between his legs.
Halper began collecting when he was 8 and he ingratiated himself into a clubhouse job at Newark's Ruppert Stadium, home of a Yankees farm team. Players often gave the youngster autographed balls and bats, but the true breakthrough came one day when one of the players thrust a paper bag in his hands. Inside he found a Detroit Tigers uniform that had been worn by a middling major leaguer named Barney McCosky. It would be the first of hundreds to come into his possession.
"I've got so many stories," he said, "I'm going to put them all in a book."
Through the years, he developed close relationships with many of the players, none more valued than DiMaggio. In 1976, Halper, a minority owner of the Yankees, ran into the baseball legend outside a ticket window at the stadium. DiMaggio was seeking tickets for a friend, and Halper had some to give. When DiMaggio offered to pay, Halper said he preferred DiMaggio accept a dinner invitation to his house that night. "He asked if my wife was Italian. I said, 'No, but she cooks Italian.' "
It was the first of many visits DiMaggio paid to Halper's house, as the two became good friends. Halper remembers when he was organizing a silent auction to raise money for a local hospital, DiMaggio volunteered himself as a prize. He offered to provide a personal tour of Halper's collection to the winning bidder. The amount of the bid: $14,000. It came with a dinner with the Yankee Clipper.
As tight as they were, it still took Halper 10 years to work up the courage to show DiMaggio the Playboy magazine with Marilyn Monroe suggestively pictured on the cover -- and even less demurely in the centerfold. DiMaggio, famously churlish about his one-time wife's exhibitionism, grumbled but ultimately agreed to sign it. First, though, he extracted the promise that Halper would not display the magazine until after DiMaggio's death.
Now that magazine is up for sale, along with hundreds and hundreds of Halper's other singular baseball treasures.
The decision to divest his collection was long in coming, prompted by Halper's poor health.
"I had a heart attack in '94," said Halper, 59. "I said then, 'Thank God I'm alive, but if I had died, what would have happened to the collection?' My wife would be overwhelmed with offers and would never get value for it. You can't hold onto it forever."
For a time he had hoped to sell the collection as a whole, but the sheer size of it made that unrealistic. He decided to give the Hall of Fame first pickings. With Major League Baseball footing the bill -- reportedly about $6 million -- the Hall chose about 160 items.
"We tried to fill some of the gaps in our collections," Spencer says, particularly those related to the Yankees championship teams of the '50s and '60s and to the Negro Leagues. Thanks to Halper, Cooperstown now has uniforms once worn by Roger Maris as well as Negro League stars Josh Gibson and Buck Leonard. The Hall also got a uniform, bat, glove and pocket watch once belonging to Shoeless Joe Jackson.
The Halper items initially will be displayed at Cooperstown in a gallery that, thanks to photographs and computer animation, simulates Halper's actual den, complete with a view out his backyard window. Hereafter, the hall will be known as the "Barry Halper Gallery."
As part of the agreement with Halper, the Hall of Fame's research library also received computer discs containing facsimiles of thousands of historical photographs, letters and documents. In maintaining and cataloging that material, Spencer says Halper singlehandedly preserved a huge chunk of baseball's history.
"This is a tremendous legacy for Barry," says Spencer. "He put together a great deal of baseball history that otherwise would have been lost."
Much of what hasn't gone to Cooperstown will be sold at Sotheby's at an auction to be conducted from Sept. 23 to Sept. 29. (A portion also will be put up for auction later on the Internet.) Sotheby's is expecting the auction to generate large sums.
"We've conservatively estimated the value at $10 million, but we expect it to do better than that," said Matt Robbins, a Sotheby's spokesman. "It's fair to say that we expect the sale to achieve tens of millions."
Prospective bidders as well as the simply curious will be able to look at the items to be auctioned at Sotheby's New York offices starting Friday.
For those with a Baltimore bent, the collection offers many items of local interest. Orioles uniforms once worn by Frank Robinson, Brooks Robinson, Jim Palmer and Eddie Murray are to be auctioned off. There's also an 1890s Orioles uniform for sale. Of even greater interest are the items from Babe Ruth's Baltimore days. Among them: a 1912 St. Mary's Industrial School for Boys Yearbook and a rookie card from 1914 when Ruth, fresh out of St. Mary's, began play for the Orioles of the International League. The card is one of only six known to exist.
The collection also has a rare photo of Ruth and his father tending bar at the Ruth Tavern and a wine bottle that was sold at that saloon. A Virginia collector who had found the bottle at a flea market sold it to Halper a couple of years ago in exchange for a couple of vintage bats.
As you might expect, the Babe Ruth Museum, which has often displayed objects from the Halper collection, is quite interested in the auction. When interrupted last Friday, Mike Gibbons, the museum's director, was perusing the auction catalog, compiling a wish list.
"There's a private collector who might try to acquire some of these items for loan to the museum," Gibbons said.
He declined to identify the potential benefactor but said he'd love to to get his hands on the bill of sale sending Ruth to the Yankees.
The Sotheby's catalog puts the value of the contract between $75,000 and $125,000. If that's too pricey, the museum would be pleased to acquire an actual glove Ruth used in a game or perhaps Ruth's wallet, suitcase, watch, ring, polo hat or lounging robe.
"We're looking for things that will enhance our ability to tell stories about Babe Ruth," says Gibbons.
He knows, however, the competition for the items could be fierce. "This is maybe the most anticipated show of its type. It's going to be a mob scene."
Halper expects to be on hand for at least part of it. He will not be wistful or saddened, he says. But he can't resist one more chance to see people gasp over his collection.
Notable items from the Barry Halper Collection of Baseball Memorabilia to be auctioned at Sotheby's Sept. 23-29. Estimates are from Sotheby's and Barry Halper:
Circa 1894 jersey worn by Baltimore Orioles catcher Wilbert Robinson: $20,000-$30,000
Cy Young's baseball glove: $3,000-$5,000
Fishing rod presented to Lou Gehrig by the Yankee Stadium grounds crew on Lou Gehrig Day to mark his retirement: $8,000-$12,000 1921 Babe Ruth game-worn glove: $15,000-$25,000 1928 Ty Cobb Philadelphia Athletics signed uniform: $50,000-$100,000
Ty Cobb's dentures: $300-$500
Ebbet's Field seat: $1,500-$2,000
1950 Satchel Paige Browns uniform road jersey: $3,000-$5,000
Mickey Mantle's first professional contract: $25,000-$35,000
1966 Sandy Koufax's Dodgers signed road jersey: $10,000-$15,000
1966 Frank Robinson Orioles signed road jersey: $1,500-$2,500
1966 Hank Aaron Atlanta Braves signed road jersey: $3,000-$5,000