Collecting for profit — and fun -- Gazette.Net


Like many men, Philip R. Hochberg collected baseball cards and other sports memorabilia as a kid.

The recent discovery in Ohio of baseball cards featuring Hall of Famers Ty Cobb, Honus Wagner, Cy Young and others — made by some folks who were cleaning out their grandfather's attic and stumbled across the century-old cards that together could be worth $3 million — has Hochberg thinking about venturing into his own attic.

“I have this vision of going to the attic and finding my old card of Mickey Mantle,” said Hochberg, a lawyer with the Potomac firm of Shulman, Rogers, Gandal, Pordy & Ecker who represents the NFL and other sports leagues, conferences and teams.

But he doubts it is up there.

“Unfortunately, I no longer have the cards I collected as a boy,” said Hochberg, a longtime public address announcer for the Washington Redskins who also announced for the Baltimore Orioles, Washington Senators, University of Maryland and others. He has amassed an impressive collection of some 120 autographed baseballs by the likes of Ted Williams and Mantle, along with about 45 signed footballs and other items. Many are prominently displayed in his office.

“No one really knew to hold onto those cards, that they would be worth something some day,” he said.

These days, more children hold onto their cards, and many sell them and other items online on eBay and similar websites. What began as a hobby for many has mushroomed into a billion-dollar sports card and memorabilia industry.

Annual sales in the sports collectibles industry exceed $2 billion, with more than 16.7 million collectors worldwide, according to Tri-Star Productions. The Houston company sells sports memorabilia and produces collectors shows, including the 33rd annual National Sports Collectors Convention, which is in Baltimore Aug. 1-5.

At that event at the Baltimore Convention Center, the best cards of the 700 or so found in the small Ohio town are expected to command in the range of $500,000 when they are sold in an auction. That discovery, as well as the sale of a Babe Ruth jersey in May for a record $4.4 million, has renewed interest in sports collectibles, vendors say.

“We’ve gotten a lot more phone calls and items from people who want to sell in our auctions since the Babe Ruth jersey sold,” said Ricky Huggins, manager at Silver Spring sports memorabilia business House of Cards. His father, Bill Huggins, is president of both Huggins & Scott Auction House and House of Cards.

Huggins also has heard of more people checking their attics and the attics of relatives since that Ohio discovery.

“It’s definitely sparked more interest in what we do,” he said.

Breaking the iceAlthough some are really serious about collecting, Hochberg said he mostly does it for fun.

“I kind of pride myself on the fact that I've never bought anything in my collection,” he said in his office overlooking Interstate 270. The office is crammed with signed balls and framed photos of him speaking before congressional committees and of prominent people he has met, such as Earl Warren, former chief justice of the U.S.

The memorabilia provide a way to break the ice with new clients, although he said it doesn’t have much impact on most sports-related clients, as they have been around athletes so much.

“What I found made more of an impression was when my prospective clients found that their lawyer’s avocation was doing public address announcing at the stadium,” said Hochberg, who was the first person who was not a player, coach or owner named to the Redskins’ Ring of Fame at FedEx Field in Landover.

“This was something that said to them, ‘This lawyer knows something about my business, in addition to the legal issues.’”

One item Hochberg especially cherishes is a baseball signed by some 35 Hall of Famers — including Mantle, Williams, Joe DiMaggio, Jackie Robinson, Satchel Paige, Yogi Berra, Stan Musial, Dizzy Dean, Lefty Grove and Bob Feller — that he obtained during the 1969 celebration of baseball’s centennial in Washington, D.C. He was invited to a cocktail party attended by all of those legendary players.

While they all signed one ball, Hochberg said that single-signed balls usually are worth more than those autographed by numerous players, even if those stars are Hall of Famers.

“I brought the one baseball to get it autographed,” he said. “If I really had foresight, I would have brought 35 balls and had each sign one.”

It also boosts an item’s value to have it authenticated by a professional service such as James Spence Authentication.

Hochberg isn’t the only prominent Maryland executive who keeps sports collectibles in his office.

EagleBank CEO and Chairman Ronald D. Paul’s collection includes a game ball from Don Larsen’s perfect game in the 1956 World Series, a basketball autographed by NBA Hall of Famer Oscar Robertson and a painting of DiMaggio by the late artist LeRoy Neiman that once hung in the National Baseball Hall of Fame.

Although he doesn’t consider himself a serious sports memorabilia collector, Richard Story, senior vice president of sales and marketing at Columbia financial services firm JPB Partners, said he has collected about 700 golf balls that have various corporate logos or are from different courses. Those include ones signed by professionals Tiger Woods and Ernie Els.

Although Story keeps about 60 of the golf balls in his office, they aren’t really used to break the ice with clients, he said. “I rarely meet with people in my office,” said Story, who also collects other items such as coins and stamps.

Hitting the showsBill Huggins has been selling items and conducting auctions at shows such as the National Sports Collectors Convention for more than two decades.

One of the most lucrative items auctioned off by his Silver Spring business was a baseball signed by the late New York Giants pitcher Christy Mathewson, one of five players in the 1936 inaugural Baseball Hall of Fame class. That baseball sold for $161,000 in 2007. Another ball signed by Ruth fetched $40,250 five years ago.

Among the items the Hugginses plan to showcase during the Baltimore show is a nearly complete set of 1910 E98 cards, the same series as the ones discovered in Ohio. That auction begins July 30 and runs through Aug. 9, with online bidding.

Huggins & Scott’s E98 cards aren’t in as good condition as those found in Ohio, but they expect to draw a lot of attention, Ricky Huggins said. The National Sports Collectors Convention, which is held in a different city each year, is the industry’s biggest, he said.

This year’s edition is slated have more than 600 dealers, 50 corporate displays and autograph opportunities by the likes of Hall of Famers Gale Sayers, Reggie Jackson, Bill Mazeroski and Gordie Howe. Numerous Baltimore and Washington-area athletes also are scheduled to sign items. Attendance has varied from more than 100,000 at the 1991 convention in Anaheim, Calif., to about 45,000 at last year’s event in Chicago.

“We always get good response from customers there,” Huggins said of the annual convention.

Another fairly big show in the area is the Collectors’ Showcase of America, which runs several times per year in Chantilly, Va. About a dozen Maryland vendors participated in the mid-July event.

Lutherville sports collectible shop Robbie’s First Base is even the backdrop for an ABC-TV show that gives an inside look at the memorabilia industry. “Ball Boys” started production this year, with owner Robin Davis Sr. and son Robin Davis Jr. among the characters on the show.

The Baltimore Orioles are providing sellers with some more items this summer by offering free replicas of bronze statues to fans attending statue unveiling ceremonies for five Hall of Fame players and Hall of Fame manager Earl Weaver.

The replicas of Jim Palmer, Frank Robinson and Weaver were selling this week on eBay for as much as $50 each. Brooks Robinson, Cal Ripken Jr. and Eddie Murray are slated to have their own replica statues distributed in the next two months.

Another benefit of collecting sports memorabilia is that it helps maintain family bonds, Hochberg said. His collection makes quite an impression on his 9-year-old grandson, for one.

“It provides a great bonding mechanism,” Hochberg said. “I can talk to my grandson for a long time about sports.”