Collectors streak after Ripken items

September 05, 1995|By Tom Keyser | Tom Keyser,Sun Staff Writer

As Cal Ripken methodically has added game after game to his historic playing streak, a flock of aggressive collectors has gobbled up Ripken memorabilia like sea gulls swooping in for french fries on the boardwalk.

The collectors have devoured anything -- and everything -- from the ever-expanding, ever-more-costly mountain of memorabilia.

"It's like a frenzy," said Chuck Williams, a Ripken-memorabilia collector and surety-bond underwriter who lives in Philadelphia. "Anything associated with that man is gold. He's a cottage industry."

Tonight at Camden Yards, Ripken can tie Lou Gehrig's record of 2,130 straight games. He is scheduled to break it tomorrow night -- the record can become official after 4 1/2 innings, the minimum for an official game.

Tom Galik, whose Fielder's Choice store near Columbus, Ohio, caters to collectors specializing in one player, said Ripken's memorabilia are by far the most sought-after of active baseball players. He said that Mickey Mantle's have been the most coveted from any era.

"But I think that when Cal breaks Lou Gehrig's record, he just might become the most sought-after player of all time," Galik said.

Dealers and collectors across the country have pronounced items associated with Ripken as the hottest commodities in the frenetic world of sports collectibles. "And they're getting hotter by the day," Williams said. "It's hitting a crescendo."

The closer Ripken has crept toward Gehrig's record, the greater the number of Ripken collectibles that flooded the market: cards, coins, pins, posters, Baltimore Sun vending-box inserts, autographed lithographs, magazine covers.

"It's getting crazy," said Bill Haelig, the dean of Ripken collectors, who lives near Reading, Pa.

Haelig, who owns more than 5,000 Ripken keepsakes, including hundreds of one-of-a-kind items, compiles a list of Ripken memorabilia that he mails to several hundred collectors. The list is up to 42 single-spaced pages -- and growing.

In the first six months of this year, Haelig said, Ripken appeared on the covers of more than 20 magazines. And the baseball cards, Haelig said, "after a while, you get confused; they start looking the same. . . . Do you realize there'll be more Cal cards issued this summer alone than Brooks Robinson cards issued during his entire 23-year career?"

Haelig, a 34-year-old commercial underwriter, bills himself as Ripken's biggest fan. His stationery and envelopes trumpet that. His license plates read, "CL RPKN."

A Ripken aficionado since 1983, he said nothing in his collection is for sale. He owns Ripken bats and uniforms, a Ripken paycheck from the Rochester Red Wings, nameplates from the Memorial Stadium lockers of Bill and Cal Ripken and the most valuable Ripken collectible of all -- a mint-condition, orange-bordered, 1980 Charlotte Orioles baseball card. Haelig has refused $4,000 for it.

Rising value

The value of Ripken memorabilia clearly has risen with each passing game, but estimates of how much varies from dealer to dealer. One said prices doubled in the past year. Another said they tripled. Still another said that whatever they'd done in the past year, they'd double again the moment Ripken set the record.

Joe Bosley, who owns the Old Ball Game collectibles store in Reisterstown, has kept a clear head about the pricing frenzy. He offered these examples of price increases from the beginning of last season to August this year:

* Ripken's 1980 Charlotte Orioles cards: Blue-bordered, increased from $700 to $1,400. Orange-bordered, increased from $1,500 to $2,500.

* Ripken's 1981 Rochester Red Wings cards: Color, increased from $200 to $350. Black and white, increased from $250 to $450.

* Ripken's 1982 rookie cards: Topps, increased from $40 to $80. Topps traded (meaning it was issued in midseason), increased from $175 to $325. Donruss and Fleer, increased from $35 to $55.

* Ripken's 1993 Topps finest refractor card: increased from $500 to $2,500.

* The most common Ripken cards: increased from 50 cents to $1.

* Autographed baseballs: increased from $50 to $70.

* Autographed Ripken-model bats: increased from $125 to $300.

The man who creates instant collectibles with his signature, Cal Ripken, said he didn't understand what all the fuss was about.

"I don't have a great deal of understanding or knowledge about the collectibles market," Ripken said. "The way I relate to collectibles is that collecting things is personal. You know, you have a ticket from an All-Star Game, or you catch a foul ball. Maybe you get the guy to sign it, and you look at that ball on your dresser. It doesn't have a dollar figure on it. It has a memory attached to it. It captures part of your life."

As he traveled around the country this season, he said, he sensed "a certain desperation" for his auto- graph that wasn't there before. How did he sense that?

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