Pitch MAN Dealer: 'Mr. Memorabilia,' Robert Urban, will sell you a baseball for $1 million. Hey it's not just an object, it's an event.

February 22, 1997|By Arthur Hirsch | Arthur Hirsch,SUN STAFF

The local sports memorabilia types couldn't get over Robert G. Urban's gall. He set up a booth in a mall, put a few old Baltimore Colts things out for sale. The next thing they knew, he was calling himself Mr. Memorabilia. Mr. Who?

Some veteran collectors had been at it 10, 20 years -- before prices went wild, before the slick New York auction catalogs appeared and the skybox crowd got into the act. Then comes Mr. Memorabilia, a former artist with a prison record who knew next to nothing about sports.

Mr. Memorabilia? Try Mr. Upstart, Mr. Chutzpah. What nerve.

Now, seven years later, some folks look at Urban and see further evidence that the country's gone mad. But then, if someone wanted to pay you $1 million for a baseball, what would you do? Turn it down?

Nobody's offered yet, but that's what Urban is asking -- a million for one baseball. Why not? says Urban, who runs a national sports memorabilia auction from Sykesville. After all, this is the ball Cal Ripken Jr. hit for a homer at Camden Yards on Sept. 5, 1995, the day he tied Lou Gehrig's record of 2,130 consecutive games played.

Never mind that the home run had nothing to do with the record. Never mind that this baseball has virtually nothing more to do with that moment in sports history than any other ball used that evening. Urban refers to it as the "million-dollar ball," as if its value were established as immutably as a $20 bill. The last price paid for it was just over $41,000, which was extraordinary enough as these things go.

No matter. Here's how Urban sees it:

"We're not talking about its collectible value. We're talking about the value that that ball will generate to the person who buys it. And that media attention and promotional value is why it's worth a million dollars. When you look at a 30-second spot for a Super Bowl commercial at $1.2 million and you're going to be seeing it for only 30 seconds one time. Now all of a sudden think about buying this ball for $1 million. And you're not going to be on for 30 seconds. You're going to make the front page of USA Today. You're going to make the front page of practically everything in this country. You're going to be on CNN every 30 minutes."

The pitch goes on and on. A pitch so stupendous that it has value if it sells nothing at all.

How much value? Hard to say. How much is this story worth?

This story and several others have been triggered by the pitch. Urban got a blurb on Page 1 of USA Today last fall just by announcing that the ball's owner, an anonymous business person in Western Maryland, whom he represents, would sell the ball for $1 million. And so Urban, a regular guy raised in Baltimore County, thrust himself into the megabucks game of sports memorabilia, wherein a Honus Wagner baseball card sells at auction for $640,000, wherein an Oriole fan gets $300,000 invested in an annuity for Eddie Murray's 500th homer ball, wherein Charlie Sheen pays $90,000 for a baseball that supposedly rolled through Bill Buckner's legs in the 1986 World Series.

A roadside attraction

Now Urban -- who is gaining a reputation for getting good prices for his clients' merchandise -- is making a pitch to Wal-Mart or anybody who will listen. He's touting the Ripken ball as a sort of contemporary Jumbo, the immense African elephant P.T. Barnum marched around to draw crowds to the circus. A baseball as roadside attraction in a country obsessed with sports, fame, money.

Just watch, says Urban. At the Wal-Mart in Eldersburg today, Urban says, he'll demonstrate the drawing power of the Ripken baseball by displaying it there with other memorabilia items.

And in case you have another million dollars sitting around, you can check out this package at Wal-Mart: two official Sept. 6 lineup cards, the program from that game and untorn tickets from Sept. 5 and 6, each piece autographed by four umpires and Ripken. A million dollars takes it all away, with the money -- after Urban takes a 15-percent cut -- going to establish a scholarship fund at Bowling Green State University in Ohio, which was given the stuff by American League umpire Larry Barnett.

Urban envisions such crowds, such excitement that Wal-Mart executives will rush for the corporate checkbook. Urban's commission on the baseball sale would be 20 percent.

Bill Adler, manager of the Eldersburg Wal-Mart, says he's been hearing customers talk about the Ripken baseball. Not a peep, however, from the corporate offices of Wal-Mart in Bentonville, Ark. Adler's been sending them newspaper clips about the ball, so he figures they've heard of Urban's grand notions. Corporate officials never returned a reporter's calls. If they're interested in the ball, they're not saying.

Inflation

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