The National experienced

On Saturday, we survived the 5 Freeway to get to The National in Anaheim. This is the Super Bowl of sports-memorabilia conventions (and, like the big game, started in L.A.). Big-money collectors like Gary Cypres roamed the aisles like rock stars, while Gary Engel, co-author of Sayonara Home Run! The Art of the Japanese Baseball Card (Chronicle Books), was manning a booth stocked with Sadaharu Oh and Ichiro cards. Autographs hounds lined up to meet Joe Montana ($170 for a photograph of you and Joe), Magic Johnson ($135 for a "regular" autograph), and Duke Snider ($100 for a "premium" autograph). There were some Hollywood celebs: the line in front of Catherine Bach was long; the line in front of Ernie Hudson was, uh, not so much. Two of the guys from "Entourage" were posing happily with young women.

It seemed like every type of memorabilia that has ever been produced concerning sports was on display and available at a price: baseball cards, natch, but also basketball, football, hockey, cycling, track, and boxing cards, books, posters, stamps, jerseys, mitts, bats, hats, balls, pucks, sticks, basketballs, programs, bobbleheads, banners, advertising ephemera, ticket stubs, vintage photographs, Wheaties boxes, artwork, championship rings, trophies, badges, pins, board games, and more. You could get your stuff "rated" – that is, you could pay $50 to have certified experts judge the condition of your item, which goes a long way in determining its value and price. What was billed as the "world's most valuable hockey card" – a 1911-12 George Vezina card from Imperial Tobacco – was priced at a cool $150,000. (Yes, hockey cards are now cool.)

Lots of local stuff was available: you could've bought a pristine ticket for a Los Angeles Dons football game in 1946, or a mint Rose Bowl program from 1934, or an unused ticket to the 1932 Olympic boxing competition at the Olympic Auditorium, or the special edition of the Los Angeles Examiner published on April 18, 1958 -- the Dodgers' first Opening Day in L.A. (at the Coliseum).

The ratio of pasty white men over the age of 35 to "other" was approximately ten to one, and we heard some classic lines. "I only collect helmets," one guy said, as he caressed an early 20th century leather contraption that surely caused a few concussions. "I'm one of those guys whose mother threw out his collection, then spent my entire adult life buying it back," said another. One exhausted dealer said that he was going back on the road: "I'll be at the first-day cover convention in Cleveland next week" – and who knew there was such a thing?

Those who collect this stuff tell me that the "hobby" has changed considerably since the early 1990s. That marked the crest of a bull market in cards, one that attracted investors and saw the opening of card shops on ever corner. Inevitably, that caused problems: too many dealers and too much product saturated the market. Sort of like what happened with cigars.

Today, the high-end level of sports memorabilia remains hot; the well-stocked booths of auction houses Sothebys and Lelands signal that the classics will always have a certain cachet. But I truly wonder if the next generation of collectors – today's kids – will be willing to pay thousands of dollars for, say, a Grover Cleveland Alexander autographed ball or a Paul Waner game uni. It seems to me that they'd be more interested in a Tony Hawk autographed skateboard or a Shawn White game-day snowboard. And, those were about the only items I didn't see in Anaheim.

My big purchase was a Mecca tobacco card, circa 1910, of John Hayes for $7. I'm betting that Hayes will be huge in 2008, the 100th anniversary of his controversial victory over Dorando Pietri in the 1908 Olympic marathon. In two years, I expect to cash out for at least $10.

July 31, 2006 9:17 AM • Native Intelligence • Email the editor

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