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Sports artifacts: where to find them, why we crave them

By Sam Weller

SEPTEMBER 28, 1998:  Hundreds, perhaps a thousand fans stand outside Wrigley Field on Waveland Avenue as Sammy Sosa steps to the plate. It's the bottom of the ninth on a steamy Sunday. He's already belted home run No.61 just four innings earlier. Suddenly, a roar goes up inside the stadium, as Sosa sends a ball rocketing toward left-center field.

The small white missile clears the ballpark fence, bounces onto Waveland, and skitters down an alley. As pandemonium erupts inside Wrigley, a mob scene explodes just outside the walls. One man walks away with the ball under police escort, another claims to have been bitten on the hand, a third files a police report claiming to have been robbed of the ball.

"I've never seen anything like it," says Buck (last name withheld upon request) an employee at Murphy's Bleachers on the corner of Waveland and Sheffield, just outside Wrigley. "You could just feel the electricity out there."

"I live a block and a half away," says Holly, another Murphy's employee. "I was watching the game on television and when he hit it, it felt like the whole neighborhood shuddered."

All this, for a five-ounce globe of white cowhide, red stitching and cork. Welcome to the world of sports memorabilia, where a simple baseball card can bring hundreds, even thousands of dollars. Let alone an actual baseball with the good fortune of getting bashed by the right bat at the right time... like the infrared-marked globe that Mark McGwire launched for his No.62 last week. There was a million-dollar bounty on that ball's little cowhide.

"It's obscene," says Bob Verdi, longtime Tribune sports reporter and columnist. "I'm amazed at the value attached to this kind of stuff, but I guess it's not unlike the explosion in everything else in sports. Look at what people are paying for tickets not only at face value, but scalper's tickets to go to the ball games. It's astounding. They just doubled the price of World Series tickets and nobody complained. If they had a World Series in Chicago, people would pay anything. Bulls tickets on the floor... it's obscene."

For an all-too-brief splinter of time, the home run ball that traveled 341 feet (McGwire's shortest of the year) superseded even Monica Lewinsky's dress in the headlines. Now, McGwire's 62nd home run ball of the year is on display at the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York, along with Sammy Sosa's bat and jersey from his Sunday blast. (The ball is likely to be tied up in legal wrangling until Sosa's in the Hall himself.)

But the massive interest in the chase for the home-run record reminds us of other mundane equipment suddenly thrust, by sheer fate, into the sporting annals of Chicago: the basketball John Paxson shot to win the Bulls' NBA title in 1993, the football Walter Payton carried past Jim Brown's all-time rushing record, the baseball the mighty Babe Ruth launched into the Wrigley bleachers during the 1932 World Series, the shoe Dennis Rodman used to kick a cameraman in the groin. Well, maybe not that last one.

The scene out on Waveland last week made Chicago look like a town of barbaric idiots. But it also raises a question: Where have the many great artifacts of Chicago sports history finally fallen to earth?

On October 1,1932, Babe Ruth stepped up to the plate at Wrigley Field. It was the top of the fifth inning in the third game of the World Series. Yankees versus the Cubs. As legend has it, the Sultan of Swat pointed to a rooftop where a round sign bearing a caricature of Harry Caray now rests. Ruth is said to have successfully predicted - in words and gestures to the outfield - that on the very next pitch he would smack a homer precisely where he had pointed. The famous "called shot." Today, the Louisville Slugger Ruth used that day rests in the Baseball Hall of Fame. As for the ball? "Who knows," says Hall p.r. man Jeff Idelson. Guess wrapping one's fingers around the Ruth home-run ball is as elusive a sleuthing story as tracking down the whereabouts of Jimmy Hoffa. Other items of Chicago sports history the Hall has on display: Carlton Fisk's White Sox uniform worn the day Pudge broke the record for most games caught; Nellie Fox's 1959 uniform and Frank Thomas' 1995 All-Star game bat, the first time a White-Sox player homered in the mid-summer classic. As for a more recent trinket of Cubs lore, team media relations honcho Sharon Pannozzo adds that "the 20th strike-out ball that Kerry Wood threw earlier this summer went directly to his parents."

At the 83,000-square-foot football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio, the powers-that-be are smack-dab in the middle of a sports artifact detective story worthy of 221B Baker Street, London. Although not related to Chicago sports history, it illuminates the difficulties inherent in getting objects back from fans. "We don't usually have to worry about getting milestone game balls back from fans," says Hall of Fame Vice President of Communications, Joe Horrigan. "Except in the case of kickers. That's when footballs can go into the stands."

Recently, the telephone at the Hall of Fame jangled with someone on the other end claiming to own the football that former New Orleans Saint Tom Dempsey booted 63 yards in 1970 to break the National Football League's record for longest field goal. His record has yet to be broken. "This individual," says Horrigan, "believes he may have that ball. We're now in contact with Tom to see if the gentleman's story matches Tom's own recollection." Short of carbon dating the pig-skin, there's not much more the Hall can do to substantiate if, in fact, the football in question is the one that traveled through the uprights twenty-eight years ago.

The football, baseball and hockey halls of fame do take precautions, however, to ensure that historical objects at least have the opportunity to go on display. "If we know there's a milestone game coming up," says Horrigan, "we try to have a representative of the Hall of Fame there in person to attempt to get the object secured." League rules also prohibit players from throwing footballs into the crowd, mostly as a legal precaution so someone doesn't get hurt going for it, but also to hold onto the object for posterity. The NFL fines the plethora of millionaires playing in the league a whopping $500 for discarding a football into the stands.

"We're very aware when milestone games are approaching," says Phil Pritchard, director of info and acquisitions for the Hockey Hall of Fame in Toronto, Canada. "After a milestone goal is scored, we ask the referees to pull the puck from the game. Immediately it is taped and marked what time the goal was scored."

As for Blackhawk memorabilia, Pritchard says they have much, including jerseys dating back to the 1930s. The 500th puck Bobby Hull slapped into the net, according to Pritchard, is owned by Hull himself. "Players always have first dibs," he says, echoing a sentiment shared by all professional halls of fame. "As long as the object is cared for and preserved, we don't care if it's in our hall or Bobby Hull's basement."

"The bottom line is these objects are worth so much money," says Laura Foxgrove, director of marketing for Michael Jordan's Restaurant. The popular downtown establishment has scores of Jordan autographed objects on display but, surprisingly, no game-used material. "That stuff comes in occasionally and we'll put it on display for a short time," she says. "Periodically, we'll have game-worn shoes or jerseys. Michael's autographed pieces have increased over the last two months tremendously. Autographed jerseys have gone up in price from $800 to almost $2,000." Foxgrove says the threat of Jordan calling it quits has definitely added to the mad-dash for Michael memorabilia. "We can't keep autographed items in our gift shop, they sell out so quickly. We constantly have a waiting list for autographed jerseys. Michael is one of the greatest basketball players that will ever live and people want a piece of that."

Tracking down other artifacts of Windy City sports history, Joe Horrigan offers that the Football Hall has Walter Payton's complete uniform worn the day Sweetness broke Jim Brown's all-time rushing record of 12,312 yards. "We have the whole thing," says Horrigan, "right down to his socks, his cleats, his headband and his wrist bands." As for the football Payton carried that day, as well as the ball he carried when he broke the single-game rushing record of 275 yards against the Minnesota Vikings on November 20, 1977, "Walter has those." Horrigan adds that much of the Bears memorabilia was "unfortunately lost in a stadium fire in the early sixties within the Bears offices. George Halas lost a tremendous amount of personal memorabilia."

"In all sports," concludes Horrigan, "the athletes - and Mark McGwire is a perfect example - recognize that there is so much more value to these items than just a monetary value. They want these things preserved and shown to the fans for years and years to come. When you start talking a million dollars for a ball, I almost cringe when I hear that. To my knowledge, no major hall of fame buys artifacts. They must be donated. We would never pay for a ball."

Often, what the players don't keep for themselves or donate to their respective halls of fame, the teams own. "Milestone artifacts most often go to the player," says Pat McCaskey, grandson of Papa Bear Halas and director of community involvement for the Bears. He has worked for the organization since 1974. "In the case of game balls, we will have them hand painted with the player's name on them and the details of the game. Then we award them to the players. We hand out twelve game balls to players and coaches every week." McCaskey also adds that retired jerseys for George Hallas (#7), Gayle Sayers (#40), Dick Butkus (#51), Bill George (#61) and Walter Payton (#34) hang prominently in the Bears headquarters located in Lake Forest. "And, of course, we have the Super Bowl Trophy from 1985."

According to McCaskey, the team plans to build a Bears Museum in connection with the new stadium they may build after their contract is up with Soldier Field.

Connected to the stadium's official store for Bulls and Hawks merchandise, "Fandamonium" is the United Center's Hall of Fame. As with Da Bears, the Hawks and Bulls organizations have a trove of team effects on display. Included in the lot of Bulls keepsakes are Michael Jordan's locker from the Chicago Stadium, a Jordan game jersey, a banner from the Stadium and a bevy of game-winning balls.

"If a player wants to keep an object," says Tom Smithburg, a Bulls spokesperson, "that's what we go with. It's pretty much a casual thing. Fans don't really have access to objects like they do in other sports like baseball and hockey. They can't come down on the floor after a game. There's so much security around here, it's like Fort Knox."

"In the market for memorabilia," says Bulls manager of community services, Dave Kurland, "anything used is worth something. Pieces of a floor. Sweat bands. Stuff like that. But the real items of historical significance stay with the players." The ball John Paxson shot in 1993 with 3.9 seconds to secure the championship is, no big surprise, owned by Johnny Pax himself. "Personally," Kurland adds, "I find this whole thing a phenomenon. It amazes me that things you would think are worth nothing are worth something to everybody. The overall popularity of sports in the last decade or two has definitely added to the frenzy." "Every person that gives a part of their achievements in life," says George Randazzo, the founder and chairman of the Italian American Sports Hall of Fame in Chicago, "whether it's memorabilia or memories, they would like it to be recognized. They want future athletes and fans to see these things and to strive for great goals." The Italian American Hall, which celebrates its twentieth anniversary on September 26, will have a rededication of a bronze statue of Joe Dimaggio. Dimaggio, along with Tommy Lasorda, Tony LaRussa and many other stars of Italian descent are slated to be on hand.

Among the famous objects of Chicago sports history at the Italian American Hall: Harry Caray's glasses, Ron Santo's Golden Glove Trophy, 1945 MVP Phil Cavarretta's Cubs game jersey, Carmen Salvino's bowling jersies and trophies, Tony Esposito's Blackhawk jersey and pads and Phil Esposito's Blackhawk jersey. As for non-Chi-town goods, Randazzo seems particularly happy with the Mario Andretti race car the Hall has on display. "We're very proud of our collection," he says. "And people love to see it all."

So what's the allure of a sweat-encrusted game jersey? "The sports market in general has just become so big," offers Paul Alsop, a retailer in the collectibles department at Carson Pirie Scott. "Look at all the money involved in it. The player salaries. Even the advertising companies paying millions of dollars for a thirty-second Super Bowl spot. All the money involved in sports has spread out to the fans and collecting." The priciest object that Alsop has in stock is an autographed Michael Jordan Upper Deck authenticated white Bulls Jersey that fetches $1,800. "The only way this market is going to cap out," says Alsop, "is through oversaturation of items available and through forgery of autographs. As long as the market can adjust to that, the market will stay strong as long as sports are popular. I don't see it dying."

Near the mosquito-laden Fox River in Aurora is Walter Payton's Roundhouse Complex, a restaurant and microbrewery. Inside, old No.34 has amassed an impressive collection of milestone artifacts related to his thirteen-year career. On display in the, Walter Payton museum: thirteen game balls including the single-game rushing record ball, Walter's '85 Super Bowl Ring, Walter's NFL Hall of Fame Bust, Lombardi Trophy NFL-MVP, helmets, even sweatpants from Sweetness' collegiate days.

"I don't think it's a whole lot different than when they auction off stuff from a celebrity," says the Trib's Verdi. "People just seem to want stuff. When an entertainer dies, I'm amazed at the numbers attached to personal artifacts. It's astounding. It hasn't always been like this. If it had, I wouldn't have thrown out all my old baseball cards."

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