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Preserving America’s Pastime

It was solely out of curiosity that Marshall Fogel boarded a plane and set off for Chicago to attend a baseball memorabilia expo in 1989. The attorney was 48 at the time, and he didn’t think of himself as a collector. In fact, a structured collector’s market for sports memorabilia didn’t materialize until the early 1990s. Nevertheless, Fogel couldn’t resist the event’s allure. He had no idea what he might see or how much he might spend; all he knew was that he loved the game of baseball. “It has such an interrelationship with our culture,” he says of the game. “It’s a major sport that really has a singular hero.”

“I think Babe Ruth was the first international hero that America ever had,” Fogel continues. “When Babe Ruth went to Japan in 1934, they [the American team] drew 100,000 people to a game. They couldn’t get enough of the guy. Everybody knew who Babe Ruth was.”

Ruth remained a popular figure during Fogel’s childhood years, but because the Babe’s heroic accomplishments were part of history, kept alive in stories told by fathers to sons, Ruth was not as idolized by America’s then-younger generations. Aspiring young ballplayers during the early 1950s found their inspiration in another New York Yankee, a strapping outfielder from Oklahoma with a slugger’s pop in his bat and a track star’s speed in his legs. His name was Mickey Mantle. “He should lead the league in everything,” Yankees manager Casey Stengel once said of the outfielder. “With his combination of speed and power he should win the triple batting crown every year. In fact, he should do anything he wants to do.”

Like most young boys in the early 1950s, Marshall Fogel idolized Mickey Mantle. “Mickey Mantle was my hero and everyone else’s,” the 72-year-old collector recalls. “We didn’t have a real historical context about him; we just related to him.”

Fogel grew up in Denver during a time when the city evoked the lifestyle and ideals made famous by Norman Rockwell’s illustrated covers of the Saturday Evening Post. As the baseball enthusiast reminisces, it was a time when “your whole life was lived within two miles.” Fogel spent most of his childhood days in one of four places: the neighborhood baseball fields, the city park, the downtown movie theater, and a mom-and-pop store called Candy Land, where wax paper–covered packs of Topps baseball cards sold for five cents apiece. “When we were kids, that was the collectible,” Fogel says. “It was baseball cards.”

Even for a boy who loved Mickey Mantle and the New York Yankees, living in Denver had its advantages. The Denver Bears operated as the Yankees’ Triple-A minor-league team from 1955 to 1958, which gave Fogel the opportunity to watch players like Don Larsen, Bobby Richardson, and Tony Kubek play in person. But living in Colorado also had its disadvantages, especially for a collector of baseball cards. Topps’s distribution model during the early 1950s was not without flaws. A complete set of cards often was broken up into several series and released over the course of a season, and this meant that the first few series of cards each season rarely made it to all areas of the country. The 1953 Topps complete set, for example, consisted of 280 cards separated into four series, but some of those, like the Mickey Mantle card (#82), were issued as single prints, meaning they were produced in much smaller numbers than most other cards in the set. The odds of Fogel and his childhood friends finding a low- numbered card were slim to begin with, thanks to where they lived. The prospect of pulling a Mickey Mantle card from a pack seemed all but impossible.

Later in the summer of ’53, word spread around town that one lucky person had found a Mantle card, and Fogel happily let people believe that it was him. It wasn’t true, but it was the closest that the 13-year-old could get to actually possessing the card. Thirty-six years later, that all changed when Fogel’s curiosity got the best of him and he stepped off a plane at O’Hare International Airport to see just what kind of baseball memorabilia he could buy.

hree days later, when Fogel was back aboard a plane heading home to Denver, he was tens of thousands of dollars poorer. However, he also possessed a number of distinctive pieces of baseball memorabilia, including a 1953 Topps Mickey Mantle card graded Gem Mint 10, the best condition rating a baseball card can receive. As Fogel recalls, the moment he saw the card at the expo, he knew he had to have it. “It was connected to me as a kid and it was closure,” he says.

At that time, Fogel still owned all of his original baseball cards from his childhood, though—as one might expect—they had seen better days. It wasn’t long before he parted with his ragged, dog-eared cards, upgrading them for items in better condition. “If you’re a serious collector, history is important but condition is even more important,” he advises. However, when it came time to dispense with his boyhood keepsakes, Fogel made one exception to that rule. He saved a 1952 Topps Bill Dickey card, not because it was worth any great sum, but because it was his most cherished card as a child. Like most boys during the mid-20th century, Fogel came of age playing the game of baseball, and his customary position was crouched behind home plate, relaying signs to the pitcher. Dickey was the New York Yankees’ catcher for 17 seasons and he was a player that Fogel emulated. Fogel recalls trading for the card as a child and he proudly displays it today. “It’s probably worth nothing,” he acknowledges, “but it’s worth everything to me.”               

When Fogel first started collecting, he had little knowledge of the game’s historic players. He was comfortable talking about players from the 1950s and ’60s, but he was clueless when it came to the stars from the turn of the century, like Christy Mathewson and Walter Johnson. Also, the collector’s market offered no third-party authentication services (those didn’t materialize until the mid-1990s and even then, they initially pertained only to trading cards). “It wasn’t like you could get letters of authenticity,” he says. “There were no controls; it was like hell on wheels.”

Some semblance of order began to take shape after Sotheby’s hosted an auction dedicated specifically to baseball memorabilia in 1991. It was the first baseball-dedicated auction of its kind and it made slightly more than $4.6 million. By monetary standards, it was a modest success (the auction was estimated to achieve between $5 million and $7 million). However, according to news stories reported a week following the sale, the first 6,000 copies of the auction’s catalog had sold out a month before the event, and the second printing of another 8,000 copies also was almost gone. That made it one of Sotheby’s most popular catalogs. In addition, 82 percent of the total 880 lots were sold over the two-day event, including the star of the show—a T206 Honus Wagner card produced by the American Tobacco Co. (ATC) between 1909 and 1911, which sold for a then-record $451,000. Fogel attended that sale, and though he wasn’t the winning bidder (that honor went to hockey great Wayne Gretzky and Bruce McNall, the former owner of the Los Angeles Kings), the high amount that the card fetched made Fogel realize that the market was about to mature. “That’s a lot of money for a baseball card,” he says. “You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to realize that when a major sports star and a team owner spend that amount of money for a baseball card, a door is opening.”

Since then, Fogel has had plenty of opportunities to acquire a Wagner card of his own, noting that at least one seems to make its way into almost every auction. Finding one in exceptional condition is the challenge. Even when one does appear, the greater challenge Fogel often faces is the intense competition from other collectors, many of whom have much deeper pockets. “There are guys that have so much money in this industry now, $2 million is interest for them for two months,” he says.

The way Fogel sees it, however, he owns a card just as valuable as that ATC Wagner; it’s a Gem Mint 10 Topps Mickey Mantle card from 1952, which he acquired in 1996 for $121,000 (other collectors have since offered him seven figures for it). “There are probably 200 Wagner cards out there,” he explains, “and there are more Mantle ’52 cards, but none as valuable as this one.”

According to Fogel, the card’s borders are all symmetrical and evenly cut, which is rare for a card produced during that time, and every corner of the card, he says, is “razor-blade sharp.” Beyond that, the card survived packaging and shipment to a hobby shop unscathed, and it somehow retained its mint condition for years before protective cases were invented. “It’s like somebody surviving Normandy,” he says.

As for Wagner memorabilia, Fogel can’t produce a rare baseball card, but what he can produce is something even scarcer—the only confirmed, game-used bat that the Hall of Famer used during his playing career. The bat, which dates to 1916 (the last full season that Wagner played for the Pittsburgh Pirates), is just one of many that make up Fogel’s collection. And though the bat has a captivating provenance, it’s how Fogel discovered it that’s the real story.

hortly after third-party authentication services began to revolutionize the trading-card industry in the mid-’90s, Fogel questioned why similar authentication services didn’t exist for other types of sports memorabilia, particularly game-used bats. It was a segment of the hobby that fascinated the budding collector. “Other than pitchers, what makes a baseball player great is his bat,” Fogel explains. “The bats were the weapon. Why wouldn’t you want to collect the instrument that creates the game?”

With no such service on the horizon, Fogel and a couple of other serious collectors took it upon themselves to change that. They visited the Louisville Slugger factory to analyze the company’s records and later produced a collector’s guide on bat authentication. Not only did Fogel learn how to read bats, he also learned that many template bats used by Hall of Fame players still existed. As the collector explains, when players needed new bats or wanted to make changes to their existing bats, they’d send their used equipment back to Louisville Slugger. The company would then write the players’ names on the barrels of the bats with a grease pencil and would use those bats to reproduce additional ones for the player. For years, the company held on to those original bats, most of which displayed signs of player modification—handles tarnished with pine tar, tape, or hand-carved grooves, and barrels held together with carpet nails.

When Louisville Slugger later decided to destroy the bats, one of the company’s employees offered to take them instead. The company acquiesced, and for years the bats were stored in a barn in Indiana. Once Fogel learned of this collection he offered to buy many of them from that employee, spending anywhere from $800 to $3,000 per bat. “I was spending thousands of dollars,” Fogel recalls, “but I just kept doing it. I didn’t have any real competition and I figured someday these things would be worth more.” That’s how Fogel acquired the Wagner bat, along with bats used by Babe Ruth, Tris Speaker, and other heroes of the game.

Today, Fogel’s collection numbers almost 300 game-used bats, but when asked to pick his favorite three, the collector doesn’t hesitate. Number one is Honus Wagner’s. The next two are bats that were used by Lou Gehrig—one is from the Yankee first baseman’s four-home-run game on June 3, 1932, while the other is the bat that Gehrig used during his final major-league season. It was through a private sale in 2000 that Fogel acquired that particular bat, which was signed by the player and inscribed with a message to a man named Jerry. The message reads: “May you use this to better advantage than I did.”

ogel tries to do the same with his collection. He keeps a number of artifacts in storage, but the best pieces often are either on loan to the New York Yankees Museum in Yankee Stadium or they’re on display in a 2,000-square-foot showroom in Denver. That showroom remains a clandestine affair, but Fogel regularly donates private tours to local charity auctions. In doing so, he often gets to see his collection through fresh eyes and is reminded of the significance of the items that he owns, items like Babe Ruth’s handprint, Sandy Koufax’s game-used glove, and the uniform worn by Joe DiMaggio when he hit his last home run during the 1951 World Series. “We all see ourselves as sort of museum curators,” he says of the community of sports memorabilia collectors.

“I enjoy the fact that they get so much out of it and they’re so appreciative,” Fogel adds of the occasional visitors who tour his collection. “It’s very rewarding for me; I get something out of it too.”

Fogel’s approach to collecting has changed over the years. When he bought his first pieces in 1989, he viewed collecting as merely a fun hobby. But as the popularity and prices for prized baseball memorabilia grew, Fogel amended his philosophy and approached the endeavor as a serious investment. “When I collected early on, I always tried to stay ahead of the game,” he says. “When something started to become demanding and expensive, I moved to another subject. Today, the market’s too mature for that. It’s not like the old days where people used to call me [with offers]. Now, there are a lot of people like me that are looking for that [top] one percent.”

Nevertheless, Fogel still believes that a new collector to the hobby can benefit from the course of action that he took more than 20 years ago. The number one rule, he says, is to diversify your areas of interest. Plenty of collectors focus on specific teams or players or genres (cards, game-used equipment, autographed baseballs, etc.), but Fogel believes that the best way for collectors to assure a strong return on their investments is to own exceptional examples in all categories. “You want to collect horizontally for two reasons,” he says. “One, you can cream the top; and two, you want to spread out your risk. If you’re a hedge fund guy or a financial adviser, you spread your risk. It’s the same with collecting.”

Fogel does own some modern baseball memorabilia, but he has no illusions that the material will ever be worth the money that vintage items command. In that respect, his advice to a modern memorabilia collector changes. “Just collect this stuff to enjoy it,” he says.

In the grand scheme of things, that advice pertains even to items from the game’s golden age; it just comes down to the collector’s mentality. “You can buy something in poor condition that you really like and you can enjoy it,” Fogel explains. “Or you can buy that same thing in mint condition for hundreds of thousands of dollars.”

Fogel, of course, falls into the latter category, and his obsession with condition and rarity has elevated his collection and his notoriety to dizzying heights. “I never played for the Yankees,” he says, “but I sure ended up with my name in Yankee Stadium.”

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