Commentary

Stories pour out of prized items

Updated: July 28, 2011, 4:00 AM ET
By Brandon Steiner | Special to ESPN.com

I've been in this business for more than two decades, but one thing about memorabilia still amazes me every day. It's the magic that takes an ordinary item, such as a glove or a jersey or even a wristband, and turns it into a valuable keepsake -- a totem to be revered for all time.

[+] EnlargeDon Larsen
Diamond Images/Getty ImagesYankees pitcher Don Larsen celebrates his perfect game with catcher Yogi Berra after Game 5 of the 1956 World Series.

I'm not talking about the simple act of New York Yankees closer Mariano Rivera signing a baseball -- though we collectors know that Mo certainly has beautiful penmanship, and an autograph as elegant and straight-forward as his timeless windup.

No, I'm referring to what's contained in that signature. You look at that signed ball and your mind conjures up visions of all those epic October nights in the Bronx, when Mo came loping from behind the outfield wall, called in to save yet another nail-biter of a postseason game. All the broken bats his cutter has left in its wake. The way he flexes his body at the hips, then rights it just before going into his windup, like a butterfly knife snapping into place. The way he came up in the Yankees' farm system as a middling starter, then found an unhittable fastball in his first year in the majors, became a relief man and climbed his way up from anonymity to immortality. Five hundred-plus saves.

That's the magic in memorabilia. The history and the inspiration each item carries with it. A ball is never just a ball. It's a window into an enchanted world.

Of course, sometimes that window doesn't look into an epic life or career. Sometimes it looks in on one singular play or game -- and that moment is so magical that it captures our imagination in the same profound way.

Such is the case, of course, with Don Larsen. On Monday, Oct. 8, 1956, at Yankee Stadium, Larsen executed what many (myself included) consider the greatest pitching performance of all time. The sixth perfect game in history would have been special enough. Coming as it did against the Brooklyn Dodgers, as part of baseball's most historic rivalry, added zest. Coming in the World Series -- holy cow, nothing tops that. There have been 20 perfect games in total now, but Larsen's gem is the perfect perfect game.

More magic here. Larsen came to our offices recently and I got to chat with him about that famous fall day 50-plus years ago. When he woke up that morning, Larsen had no way of knowing that the next several hours would virtually define his life, that he'd be commemorating it with his John Hancock for decades to come. In fact, Larsen didn't even know whether manager Casey Stengel was going to have him pitch in Game 5.

Larsen told me that after being clobbered by the Dodgers in Game 2, he didn't know he'd be starting Game 5 until he arrived at Yankee Stadium that morning. Can you imagine having a day start out pretty much as anonymously as any other, then before you go to bed that night, you've become an all-time legend?

I asked Larsen if he ever imagined how many autographs he'd end up signing as a result of that perfect game. "Not really," he said matter-of-factly, "I just do it when it comes up. I enjoy it."

Which is not to say the game doesn't hold a special place in Larsen's heart. Of course it does. I mentioned it's one of the greatest performances in baseball history, and he acknowledged that.

"At least they can't beat it, they can only tie it. I'm very pleased I was part of it. It was a great day. The best day I ever had. Ever thought of having. Especially with Yogi (Berra) behind the plate. I couldn't have done it without Yog. And the club we had was pretty damn good."

Of course I asked Larsen if he saved any mementos from that day. He did originally, but over the years he auctioned them all off, to provide for his grandson's education. Talk about making the most of your pitches!

The best anecdote he told me was how his teammates acted during his quest for perfection. As is the well-worn baseball custom, the other Yankees gave him the silent treatment during the game, lest anyone jinx the whole thing.

[+] EnlargeUNC Basketball
Courtesy Ted DesMaisons Players ranging from Michael Jordan to David Popson autographed this North Carolina Tar Heels basketball.

"Nobody would talk to me. I was in the dugout, and it wasn't normal, like it is when they're joking around and having fun, rooting for everybody," Larsen said. "I didn't like that feeling, being by myself. The only time when I was happy was when I was back on the mound, pitching. But those guys have those superstitions. I don't believe in superstitions. What's gonna happen is gonna happen, and it did. I was very happy."

Needless to say, so was the rest of New York. Well, at least the portion that wasn't composed of Dodgers or Giants fans. And those deep feelings, the awe-inspired spine tingle of watching each new zero being put on the scoreboard, the great relief at the final out, the visceral recognition of having witnessed something so transcendent, are conjured up every time we lay eyes on that photograph of Berra jumping into Don's arms, on a scorecard from that game, on Don's signature on a ball. Or even a slip of paper.

It always amazes me how these simple objects can be so infused with history, that they become descendants of it, pieces of history themselves. This is the inspiration of memorabilia. This is why we collect it.

And it's why I love hearing the stories from your collections. As I read your emails, I'm reminded that often the way a piece of memorabilia is acquired adds priceless personal value to an item already rich with history.

"What's It Worth?" reader emails

Brandon: I've got a treasure of a ball from the 1984 University of North Carolina basketball team, Michael Jordan's last year there.

A dear friend of mine (a woman who had helped raise me soon after my parents divorced) was in nursing school at UNC and worked on the floor of the hospital where all the players would come for treatments. She knew I was a big UNC fan so she got all the guys to sign the basketball as a Christmas present for me and my brother. Needless to say, that was a cool Christmas.

On the ball, you've got the Tar Heel greats who were there that year: Michael Jordan, Sam Perkins, Dean Smith and Kenny Smith. You've got some midrange guys who were or went on to be coaches: Buzz Peterson, Eddie Fogler, Matt Doherty and Bill Guthridge. And you've got the others: Steve Hale, Joe Wolf, Cecil Exum, Curtis Hunter, Dave Popson, Timo Makkinen and Cliff Morris.

The ball's been kept under a glass cover for years, though it does have a bit of yellowing on the white parts of the ball. It's never been played with.

I'd so love to hear your perspective. Thanks so much.
Ted DesMaisons
Northfield, Mass.

Steiner: What a story. At the time, your friend must have known that getting that powerhouse Tar Heels team to sign a ball was a big deal, but considering the careers Jordan, Perkins and Smith went on to have, and Coach Smith's standing in the game, she couldn't have possibly known the significance years later.

The Jordan autograph alone on a ball, by itself, is worth at least $1,000. With the rest of them, I have to think this ball is worth at least $5,000, but I wouldn't sell it for the world. I love that it's a UNC colored ball, by the way. This is a unique item, very special.

Brandon: This is truly a one-of-a-kind item. Back in 1996, I was a writer for an advertising agency that represented a NASCAR sponsor. We produced a limited-edition poster that digitally recreated the Winston Cup champion cars from the previous 30 years, and I wrote the headline for the poster.

[+] EnlargeNASCAR poster
Courtesy Jeff Barnes The owner of this historic NASCAR poster took many years to compile autographs of Winston Cup champions.

In the course of my work, I often went to NASCAR races -- complete with garage passes -- and attended trade shows where NASCAR drivers would also be. For the next couple of years, I went to all of these events with poster and Sharpie in tow and was able to get every living driver's autograph in person. This includes Richard Petty, Cale Yarborough, Benny Parsons, Darrell Waltrip, Bobby Allison, Dale Earnhardt, Terry Labonte, Rusty Wallace, Bill Elliott, and Jeff Gordon. (Of course, Dale Earnhardt and Benny Parsons have since passed, and Bobby Isaac and Alan Kulwicki were already gone.) David Pearson was the last one, collecting that about 10 years after I started by visiting him in his hometown. Naturally, I've got a little story behind each autograph.

A sidebar to this poster: When it came out, it was very popular among racing teams and we supplied to all of them with copies. Gary DeHart, then crew chief for Terry Labonte, told his crew they'd be the next car on the poster; he cut out a picture of the car and stuck it in the corner of their poster. As it happened, Labonte did win the Winston Cup that year. We took a photo of Labonte and DeHart holding that poster for an ad produced for our client; I've got a copy of that photo, signed by both men. I'll have to get that framed to hang alongside.

I'd be curious to hear what you think.
Jeff Barnes
Omaha, Neb.

Steiner: Jeff, you're not kidding this is one of a kind. And I love the header of the poster and the graphics. The sheer length of time you spent rounding up these autographs speaks to the value of the piece. The names on there -- the autographs -- are a true who's who of NASCAR legends. And as you mention, a couple of those autographs are sadly already part of limited lines. I estimate this poster to be worth around $2,500, but as I seem to keep writing, the personal value to you is clearly incalculable. What a great job all around on this item.

Keep these amazing stories and pieces coming!

Brandon Steiner, the CEO of Steiner Sports Marketing & Memorabilia Inc. in New Rochelle, N.Y., will offer appraisals of fans' sports memorabilia items monthly in The Life. Send emails with details and photos of your prized items to steinerespn@gmail.com and check back for Steiner's next installment. If we choose your email for publication, we will send you a $25 gift card to Steiner Sports.

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