It's the stuff of legends

Memorabilia: Name a baseball great, and some item he's owned is probably now in the hands of Barry Halper. But not for long. He's selling his collection next week.

September 15, 1999|By Michael Ollove | Michael Ollove,SUN STAFF

Oh the sights Barry Halper has seen -- and without even leaving his own den!

Hank Aaron and Frank Robinson taking sample swings with bats once used by Ruth and Gehrig. Ozzie Smith trying on a 19th century fielder's mitt -- undersized by today's standards -- and yearning to "try to turn two with this." Joe DiMaggio grudgingly signing Playboy magazine's first issue, the one with a cover photo of a certain peroxide-blonde actress with a plunging neckline. Joe Garagiola crawling on his hands and knees, examining a hundred years of baseball artifacts with all the delight of a child set loose in F.A.O. Schwarz.

By Halper's count, 41 baseball Hall of Famers visited his house in suburban New Jersey, including Mickey Mantle, Willie Mays, Ted Williams and Stan Musial. Almost certainly, they enjoyed the company of this amiable man who loves their sport as ardently as any of them. What must have awed them, though, were the sights they saw in that den, which until recently housed the world's largest privately held collection of baseball memorabilia.

That den as well as various warehouses have now been nearly emptied of the treasures from Halper's five decades of obsessive-compulsive collecting. Much of it has been packed off to the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y. Even more of it is destined for Sothebys, the New York auction house, where it will be sold later this month, most likely for tens of millions of dollars.

Whatever the amount, it is not likely to add up to the pleasure Halper enjoyed in assembling and showing off his collection.

"I've had all the fun in the world," he said last week by phone. "I wanted it, I sought it, I chased it, I bought it, I displayed it. Now I'm selling it. I've come full circle."

What he'll miss, though, is seeing the astonishment on the faces of those he ushered into his den, a baseball shrine rivaled only by the Hall of Fame itself. "I used to tell people before they visited Barry that no matter what your imagination is, it won't be big enough to appreciate the size of it," says Ted Spencer, chief curator at Cooperstown.

At the Hall of Halper, a visitor would watch as a dry cleaner's carousel rolled out more than a thousand vintage uniforms, all of them worn at one time by a baseball luminary. Each was more striking than the last: an 1888 Chicago White Stocking shirt worn by Cap Anson, a John McGraw New York Giants jersey from 1905, a San Francisco Seals shirt DiMaggio wore in 1933, his first full season in professional ball.

In shelves, racks and cases all around were scores of historically significant balls, bats, caps and gloves. That was to be expected, of course, but in Halper's collection, baseball exotica also abounded: a pair of dentures and a fishing hat worn by Ty Cobb, a derby and silk robe worn by Ruth, an ostentatious pair of alligator boots bearing the initials B.M. for the one man with bad enough taste to wear them: Billy Martin.

There was no end to the delights in Halper's collection. He managed to lay his hands on the harmonica New York Yankees infielder Phil Linz famously played on the Yankees team bus after a doubleheader loss, thus incensing manager Yogi Berra in 1964. He also acquired an authentic subway sign bearing the destination "Polo Grounds" and a pair of seats from that fabled, long-obliterated home of the New York Giants.

There were hundreds of fascinating and evocative photographs, few of them seen by anyone not lucky enough to have visited Casa Halper. One of the most arresting pictures shows Ruth and Gehrig stylishly dressed in street clothes and sitting on a bench at Soldiers Field watching the 1927 football game between Notre Dame and USC. Handwritten at the top of the photo are the words, "Sitting on Notre Dame bench by permission of Knute Rockne." At the bottom are the signatures of the two Yankees greats.

Speaking of Ruth, Halper's collection covered the entire length of the Curse of the Bambino, from the 1920 contract that sent Ruth from the Red Sox to the Yankees to the baseball mitt and cleats Bill Buckner was wearing in the 1986 World Series when Mookie Wilson's grounder tragically -- for Red Sox fans -- scooted between his legs.

Halper began collecting when he was 8 and he ingratiated himself into a clubhouse job at Newark's Ruppert Stadium, home of a Yankees farm team. Players often gave the youngster autographed balls and bats, but the true breakthrough came one day when one of the players thrust a paper bag in his hands. Inside he found a Detroit Tigers uniform that had been worn by a middling major leaguer named Barney McCosky. It would be the first of hundreds to come into his possession.

"I've got so many stories," he said, "I'm going to put them all in a book."

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