Here's the thing about baseball - it's personal.
For all the alienating factors - the bickering labor lawyers, the grasping businessmen, the doping allegations - there are always so many more connections drawing fans into a heartfelt relationship to the game. It might be the memory of shared ball games, or countless conversations with family and friends, or the way baseball integrates into everything from the morning box scores to talk radio to literary reading lists. One way or another, the sport has a knack for working its way into its fans' households and deepest emotions.
Baseball is personal, and that helps explain its openness to collectors and collections. Since its 18th-century beginnings, legions of followers have gathered up ball player signatures, playing cards, uniforms, equipment, and countless other pieces of the Pastime, and why? Die-hard fans realize that, very often, a vintage card or ball or bat or jersey can be far more than old cardboard, horsehide, lumber, or cloth. Silly as it may seem to outsiders, the objects can take on nostalgic meanings all their own. They can bring all the emotions rushing back.
Harvey Wildstein may know about baseball collecting as well as anyone. A lifelong fan, he's been trading game-related pieces for over 35 years, to the point where the bottom rooms of his East Brunswick, NJ home is crammed full of old-time photographs, portraits, figurines, the works - everything baseball. If you've collected in the tri-state area over the years, chances are, you've bought or sold from him.
Harvey's become a self-taught expert in everything from authentication to valuation along the way, but, at the same time, he's remained an amateur in the best sense of the word. Where others have been tempted by the commercialization and commodities, he seems motivated by nothing more than a very personal passion. The real payoff, it seems, comes through his abiding love for the game.
Recently, Harvey discussed the treasures in his basement:
What did baseball mean to you when you were growing up?
In Brooklyn, you grew up playing sports and chasing after girls and gambling and then getting a little education if there was time left over. Sports were a big part of our lives, everybody, and I mean street sports. Stickball, punch ball, basketball, street hockey, everything on the streets and schoolyards. There were parks, but you'd have to hop on a trolley for half an hour. So much for that.
Everyone in the neighborhood went for the Dodgers. I wanted to be different, so I became a Yankee. It was fun, because every year [in the 1940's and 1950's], it seemed, they had a Subway Series. Of course, I bet on the Yankees every year, against all my friends. Of course, I won on the Yankees every year.
What was it like when the Dodgers finally won in 1955?
You're not going to believe this - by then, I'd moved to New Jersey for business purposes, so I missed the bets for the first time since forever. I did make it back to the neighborhood the next year-
I think I know where this is going.
You know your history! (chuckles). I had a girlfriend at the time, who's now my beautiful wife, so I went back to Brooklyn in ‘56. The guys couldn't wait. They came running to bet on their Dodgers. And you know what happened - another Yankees win (chuckles).
When did you start collecting memorabilia?
That started when I was very young, when I collected all the players' baseball cards. We used to play for baseball cards, flipping, off-the-wall. We used to play cards with baseball cards! It was a reminder of the game on the streets.
P.S. - I still don't know what my mom did with those cards.
A lot of mothers have a lot to answer for, throwing away all those treasures.
They disappeared. I never got a straight story on what happened to them; they got lost in the shuffle.
But I started getting more serious about collecting about 35 years ago. By then I was out of the Army and had my bakery business, so I had a little money and I figured, ‘here's a good hobby'.
Was it an expensive pursuit at the time?
It wasn't as expensive. It was easier to get stuff, put it that way. Over time, people collect a Mickey Mantle [piece] or a Joe DiMaggio [piece], but they don't sell it. They pass it on or put it on the wall. And Mick and the Joe aren't signing anymore, obviously.
Back when I started, there was a lot more sentimentality involved, it seems. The only reason people would look for stuff was because they loved the players. Now, they might be thinking of making money, too, so it's much more of a business. Back in the '70's, they'd call you a nut if you said that a Babe Ruth signed baseball were going to go for $50-, $60-, $70,000, and other stuff would be going for hundreds of thousands or a million.
I think the first question an outsider would ask is - why do these pieces mean so much to you? After all, others see them and they just see paper and baseballs and pieces of wood. They'd say, ‘Harvey, you weren't the one hitting the home runs and winning the ball games'.
Ah, it's a personal thing, Pete, and that's powerful. That's it. That's what makes the world go round. If you look at something and it makes you happy - if you can look at it and think of good times - then that's good. I mean, any time I'm in a bad mood, I can go down to my basement and I come back up the stairs smiling - guaranteed.
Ultimately, I can't explain it to you. Why do I love my collection? Hey, why do you love your favorite poem or painting or book? Or Remingtons, you name it. At least this keeps me out of trouble (chuckles).
Most of the collectors I've talk to say the same thing, that in the end of the day, the bond is very emotional.
It is about a love of the sport and, oh, I'm bad, I admit. Sometimes my wife, Frances, tells me, ‘you're out of your mind', but I'm not the worst, no way. Some guys I know, it's a good thing they don't have to choose between their favorite pieces and their friends (chuckles).
In this line, I've met some people you wouldn't believe. I met this lady who went to the dentist and had a Yankee logo put on the crown of her tooth! She showed it to me. She showed me pictures of her bed spread, her pillows, her den carpets - Yankees, Yankees, Yankees. I said, 'You're nuts' (chuckles). We laughed about it. Shows how far people will go.
In collecting, do you think of yourself a historian?
Definitely. I'm always learning something. Just the other day, I found out that Joe DiMaggio's first number on the Yankees [in 1936] was nine. I didn't know that. That's what they gave him when he first came up, but he was so good that they put him fifth in the batting order, so, soon enough, he was number five.
How did that come up?
What they used to do, after they used the uniforms in the Majors, they sent 'em down to the Minors and, this guy [Charlie] Mason - have you heard about him?
He was 89 years old and he just died. Anyway, this guy Mason played for [the Yankees' AAA team in] Newark - he played for half a season; never did make it up to the Majors - and he got old number nine. He kept it all these years and recently sold it at auction, with bidding starting at $600,000. I don't know what he ended up with. So here's this guy you'd never heard of, otherwise, who ends up with this part of baseball's history.
The big thing in collecting, I think, is the chase. The chase, plain and simple. If I know something is out there, I'll keep looking for it, sometimes for a year or two or more, like an amateur P.I. [private investigator] or something. 'Who might have it?', 'Who knows a guy who knows a guy?', 'Is there a better price?', 'Is it authentic?', 'Maybe there's something better?'. You're always learning.
Do you have a rhyme or reason to what you collect?
Seat of my pants. I jump from one to the other. I started with plaques and then I went to balls and then I went to figurines and then I went to bats. You keep on going. Someone'd call me up and say, 'I've got blah-blah-blah, this and that' and I'd say, 'OK, put it away for me'.
And I'm interested in any great player. I've got Ruth, Williams, Mantle on down to A-Rod, Jeter. I love the Yankees, but I love all great players. Name 'em and I've got 'em. All aspects of the game.
In looking over your collection, I'm amazed by the amount of work that must be involved, not only to collect the pieces themselves, but to assembling them in custom-built frames all over every available inch on the basement tables and walls.
Some people, they put everything in storage and never see it. And then what? They die, somebody takes it out of storage and sells it (chuckles). To me, that's such a waste of energy and time. You have to see it and enjoy it, that's what it's all about.
It's all in the basement, as you know, and here's why. One day, years ago, I got a couple of very, very nice 16 x 20's [portraits] of DiMaggio and Mantle, so I put them on living room wall over there, next to some of our pictures. My wife comes in, sees them, and taps me on the shoulder, pleasant as can be, 'Joe DiMaggio and Mickey Mantle are not part of our family. They're not going up next to our pictures'. I didn't say a word; I just took them down and brought them downstairs. To this day, everything stays separate. True story.
How do you relate to your fellow collectors?
What I really enjoy is talking to these people. I've gone on how many trips and games with them. There's a rapport with fellow collectors, buyers, sellers. It's more than just buying, selling. You have to develop relationships. All the time, the usual suspects will give me a little break and I'll give them a little break, back and forth.
You can't think of [fellow collectors] as rivals. You've got to think of them as a fraternity. That's a good comparison. I was in the bakery field and we were rivals, in a way, sure, but if I ran out of [baking] flower, who would I call? I called another baker. And they called me. It's the same with collecting - don't try to screw someone over. Don't get a reputation for being underhanded. You won't last.
Have you had a chance to meet a lot of the old ball players?
I had a chance to meet Mantle in the late 1950's or early 1960's, as he was signing by the field. He was happy, he was smiling. Just an Oklahoma country boy, just great, handsome.
I went to Yankee Stadium when I was 14 or something like that, and I saw Joe DiMaggio play. Right away, he was my hero. I used to carry a Joe D. button in my locker at school. I met him at a signing at Hofstra once. He was a much older man at the time, but I had a chance to shake his hand and take a picture in back of him. But that was about Joe - I don't like to go to signings, hardly ever.
It's expensive, it's impersonal. There's this whole process involved in the shows, and [the players] barely interact with the fans - they don't have time for it. Plus, a Joe DiMaggio isn't necessarily the friendliest guy in the world to begin with. He always thought about money first.
Me, I'd rather deal with a seller I trust, [and] avoid standing in how many lines for who knows how long.
Auctions are a huge phenomenon nowadays, from eBay to Sotheby's. Do you get involved?
Nah. I know what something's worth, not because I'm so smart, but because I've been around a long time. Almost always, bidding gets out of hand. I wonder how many times the seller uses a shill, someone in cahoots with the seller, to up the bidding. But your eyes can't get bigger than your wallet (chuckles).
A couple of times, people have bought pieces from me and put it up on eBay. They have to go through this entire process, putting on a reserve, et cetera, et cetera. Leave me alone with that. That's starting to sound like work. I love collecting because it's fun, because of the personal angle and the relationships.
Do you worry about fakes?
It's a big question. It could be a ball boy or a clubhouse attendant signing, or a scam artist trying to make a quick buck.
We go to guys we call 'mavens' at places at Steiner's Sports to get some authentication, but I don't know how much good it does. First of all, they never say, 'It's no good'. At worst, they'll say, 'I'm not sure'. Second, I've sent the same piece more than once, just to see what they'll say. I know there have been times when the same piece gets an 'I'm not sure' and a 'good' rating. In the end, it's a judgment call.
It can be tricky. Take Mantle. He signed everything that didn't move too fast but, let's be honest, he liked drinking, too. I remember, a friend of mine told me, he had a glass of wine in front of him when he was signing, with his girlfriend topping it off throughout the session. Do you think the first signature is going to be the same as the one you're going to get after a couple hours? No way. I'll bet Ted Williams wasn't signing the same way in 1950 as he was in 2000. So you'll never really know what's what. I tell everybody, 'If you're not personally there when the man is signing, you're taking your chances'.
I've never sold anything that I, personally, wasn't sure about in my heart. Once, I did find out that one of my Roger Maris pieces wasn't real. I just went back to the person - it was a good person who sold it to me - and gave it back. I got another Maris piece from him. You've got to take it in stride.
Do you end up making money from buying and selling?
Well, I don't look to make a living from it; I'm retired, I already made my living. But don't get me wrong, either. If I can make a couple hundred here or there, I'll do it. Fun comes first, though.
Anyway, I do a lot more buying than selling. My wife says to me, 'What do you do? You sell one thing, you buy two. You sell two things, you buy four. When is it ever going to decrease? (chuckles). I said, 'I'm going to be like the pharaoh - I'm going to take all my memorabilia, and you're going to bury me with it' (chuckles).
Keeping aside your feelings as a fan, do you think memorabilia is a good investment in general?
It depends on how you go about it. If you're very, very well organized as a professional, you can get into all kinds of factors in rarity, authenticity, baseball history, appreciation, and on and on. It can be a full-time job.
I'd never go all the way down that route, but I'd say, if you know what you're doing, it can be a very solid investment. It can be as good as any portfolio in the stock market. You can lose money, but you can lose money in the market, too. Either way, you can have, maybe, seven good years and two, three bad years.
Do you ever watch these collectible appraisal shows on cable, where they have these experts discussing why something someone found in the attic might be valuable?
They'd have all these little tips about why something's mint or not mint, due to a scruff or a particular pen ink or something. Do you get into that technical aspect of collecting?
There are companies that rate all the cards, one through ten, for the appraisals. The tiniest little thing can make a big difference, like for instance if the edge is bent or something. It's strange, because it turns out that beat-up, game-used equipment is more valuable.
Yeah, I know a lot about it, but I don't pretend to know every tiny detail.
Out of the several hundred pieces you have down there, do you have a favorite?
Oh, I don't know. After a while, they become your kids - you don't have a favorite. Or, some times you do have a favorite, but you can't say it! (chuckles).
The Babe Ruth autograph, of course, is a favorite. Lou Gehrig. If I had to say, it'd probably be the one with Mantle, Snider, and Mays together. There's a lot of nostalgia there because I grew up with those guys, watching them from Yankee Stadium to Ebbets Field.
I wonder if the youngest generation is going to have that same kind of connection.
Back then, years ago, ball players were more like blue collar men. It was a different world. And reporters didn't report much, at least not when it came to the bad things. It was more like an old boys' club. Maybe they have a better reputation.
I do know this - the Yankees drew over four million to the Stadium last year, for the first time in history. In my day, they were lucky to draw one million, for tickets that were a lot cheaper. I have to look at it that way. There are more fans than ever and, one day, they're going to go after their heroes and their memories, just like me.
Do you have a dream piece out there somewhere?
Do you know anyone selling a 1927 Yankee team picture, complete with autographs? (chuckles)
The complete Table of Contents for the ‘Baseball Men' interview series can be found here.