No ordinary baseball-card show

Sports memorabilia show offers everything from 10-cent baseball cards to $100,000 bats

August 06, 2010|By Chris Kaltenbach | Baltimore Sun reporter

When Don Berkus set up his first baseball card convention 41 years ago, a few dozen collectors gathered inside a Los Angeles hotel room at 10 a.m. and within an hour had spent pretty much all the money they had. This weekend, the National Sports Collectors Convention he started 10 years later is holding court at the Baltimore Convention Center through Sunday, and Berkus expects upward of 35,000 people to show up.

Times change, Berkus admits. But the enthusiasm fans have for the games of their youth, and the athletes who played them, never wanes.

"You can spend a dollar on one thing, and pick up a program that you had as a little boy, maybe one from that first game your dad took you to as an Orioles fan," he says. "And if you want to bring your kids and show them all those baseball cards you had as a little guy, they're here."

With nearly 1,000 dealer and exhibitor spaces, the National can prove daunting to even seasoned collectors. It's almost impossible to take in the whole thing in a day; anyone used to the church-hall baseball card shows that usually attract a dozen-or-so vendors may faint when they walk inside and see rows of memorabilia collectors stretching as far as the eye can see.

"It's a once-in-a-lifetime experience," says Ray Schulte, president of Schulte Auctions, whose display includes the recently obtained items on consignment from Babe Ruth's granddaughter, many inscribed to his sister (and her mother), Mamie. "You have all sports here; you have auction houses, appraisers, exhibitors, as well as card dealers. This is a one-stop shop for everything."

That includes autographs, for those who don't mind shelling out the money. More than 70 athletes will be on hand to sign just about anything that's put in front of them, at prices ranging from $15 (for, among others, former Orioles catcher Andy Etchebarren and American League Rookie of the Year Ron Hansen) to $300 for the immortal Willie Mays. Six Orioles who have made it into the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown will be signing on Saturday: Frank Robinson ($80), Brooks Robinson ($60), Jim Palmer ($40), Earl Weaver ($40), Eddie Murray ($100) and Cal Ripken Jr. ($150).

Not that big bucks are required to have a good time at the National. Paying the $19.95 daily entrance fee and simply wandering about is as good as going to almost any sports museum in the country. Plenty of baseball and other sports cards are available for a dollar or less, and Orioles game programs going back to the 1960s can be had for just a few bucks. One dealer had autographed 16x20 photographs of an impossibly young-looking Brooks Robinson on sale for $39.

Still, chances are that most visitors to the National, which for 2010 is venturing outside its normal Midwest or West Coast location to give the East Coast a try, will spend far more than a dollar or two. While boxes of 10-cent baseball cards are there to be sifted through, it's the big-ticket items that will capture the eyes (and the envy) of even the casual collector. There's the wax figure of Babe Ruth, rescued from a closed Indiana museum, that can be yours for just $11,995, or the Babe Ruth-signed baseball available for a cool $15,000. And there's a 19th-century baseball bat used by the legendary Cap Anson that's expected to fetch more than $100,000 at auction; the same auction house recently sold a Ruth-used bat for $537,750.

Sports memorabilia has become a billion-dollar-a-year business, Berkus says. "You walk into the National, and you see things that the Hall of Fame will never own," he says. "What we have here is about 1,000 times more than the Hall of Fame, not only in terms of size, but in the number of items. And if you really like it, you can take it home with you."

chris.kaltenbach@baltsun.com

If you go

The 31st National Sports Collectors Convention runs through Sunday at the Baltimore Convention Center, 1 W. Pratt St. Hours are 10 a.m.-6 p.m. today and Saturday; 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Sunday. Admission is $19.95 for each day. Go to nsccshow.com.

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