Baseball Hall-of-Famer and former Orioles Cal Ripken Jr., right, slaps hands with 4-year-old Jenna Weaver, left, of Ohio, during the National Sports Collectors Convention today at the Baltimore Convention Center.
(Kenneth K. Lam)

The price tags came in different shapes and sizes — plain and colorful, stuck on items and hanging off, bigger for sums surpassing $4 million and small enough for a few bucks — and they were everywhere.

They were stuck to baseball cards, hung off used jerseys and sat in front of championship rings. One announced the price of the Olympics Torch from Atlanta. Another, Hulk Hogan's championship belt.


Some price tags were on the Internet. For $300, you could buy a ticket to have Ricky Henderson sign your artwork or jersey. For $250 more, Cal Ripken Jr. would sign your bat. A photograph would only run you $150.

It's the 33rd annual National Sports Collectors' Convention, and for many of the 800 vendors packed into the sprawling, 300,000-square-foot space at the Baltimore Convention Center, this isn't just a hobby. This is business.

"The industry, it used to be a lot more fun than it is now," said Michael Heffner, 43, of Bohemia, N.Y. Heffner, who began as a collector as a kid, is a co-owner of Lelands, one of the bigger exhibitors. "Twenty years ago, you didn't know, a Babe Ruth jersey could've walked in the door. The odds of a Babe Ruth jersey walking in the door today are very, very slim.

"It's not like the old days."

Heffner got his start scouring flea markets for baseball cards, where he once turned a $6 purchase of tobacco cards into a $2,000 profit, good enough to afford a semester of college. Though Heffner says the business has lost some of the excitement as the business has grown in legitimacy, it's more lucrative than ever.

In a glass case feet away from Heffner on Saturday, Lelands displayed its crown jewel: A game-worn, well-kept Babe Ruth jersey from the 1920s. No one walked it in the door this weekend, but don't cry for Lelands. They recently sold it for a record $4.4 million dollars.

Other prizes found among the hundreds of vendors: Used gloves and bats by the hundreds, dating back a century; Muhammed Ali's mouth-piece mold (autographed); and championship rings from all four major sports.

"It's been pretty awesome and overwhelming at the same time," said Mike Wolf, 28, of Crofton, Md. "The sheer size and people, the crazy memorabilia."

If conventions like this are, in fact, losing excitement, as Heffner contends, they make up for it in selection. In gaudy cases, one exhibit displayed items like Derek Jeter's 2004 Gold Glove Award (sold for $19,120) and Arnold Palmer's first set of golf clubs ($41,825). For $155,350, one person came away with Ali's trunks from the "Thrilla in Manila."

And then, by the thousands (and thousands), were the cards. For uniformly sized cardboard rectangles, it was an exercise in diversity. Cards old and new, in stacks and in books, football and baseball. The buyers, not so much. The sizeable majority of people perusing the baseball cards were men in their 40s or 50s.

"It's different being a female collector," said Amy Beard, 34, of Martinsburg, W.V. "There aren't too many of us around."

Despite a few youthful traders, the younger generation has mostly turned away from cards. The hobby isn't dying, just, perhaps, aging.

"To my group, people back in the '60s and '70s, it was nostalgia, you saw a lot of these players, you grew up with them, you became part of them basically, and as a result, you wanted to keep a memory of them growing up through the years," said Stan Risser, 59, of Altoona, Pa., who estimates he owns 100,000 cards. "It's disappointing because a lot of the younger guys aren't into that anymore."

Heffner, the dealer, said cards still account for a large percentage of the collecting business. Still, even some of the older generation has migrated toward either memorabilia, like game-used uniforms, or autographs, which only gained popularity relatively recently.


Mike Rice, 51, of Pylesville, Md., said he used to comb the streets as a kid, looking for empty soda pop bottles to turn in for five cents. He would use the money to buy new packs of cards.

On Saturday, Rice stood in line for autographs.

"One of my favorite memories as a kid was Eddie's 500th in an Orioles uniform at Camden Yards," Wolf said. "It made sense to get his autograph."


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