Stories Pour Out of Prized Items

July 28, 2011

Stories Pour Out of Prized Items

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.

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.

"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.




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