Friday, February 01, 2008

Chatting With The Curator (Part Two)

As Sohna and I continue our conversation with John Odell--Director of History & Research at The National Baseball Hall of Fame--we are discussing the documentation of baseball artifacts today in a booming collector's market--that many times leads to fakes.

Can you speak a little on verification? (SBF)

“If you have the ironclad provenance, who has owned it, how did that person get it—then that is the kind of thing that brings up the zeros when it comes to auctioning it off. That’s the bad side. A good side of this whole Sports Memorabilia Market is that people are valuing things in a way that they didn’t when I was a child. And, it was not until the 1980’s that people were buying and selling memorabilia that use to be owned by, used by or signed by—name your favorite ball player. Before, it was just: ‘I got a great baseball and I think you are a wonderful person, so I am going to give this to you.’ Great you respond: ‘Why don’t we trade?’ Or, the person thanks the giver and that’s the end of it.”

“Now a days, these things are being preserved for a lot of money. But, at some point, if it is preserved it can always be donated to The Hall of Fame at sometime in the future. If the artifact has not been preserved—it can’t be. So, even though we are a small fish in a very big artifact-collecting pond—the fact that these artifacts are being kept and preserved helps in the long run. But, sometimes that preservation gets lost going through dealers.”

We talked about this topic the other day. Why is it that The Hall of Fame will not get involved in purchasing artifacts? (SBF)

“When The Hall opened up in late 1938, officially dedicated in 1939—for two years prior to that people who were the original staff of The Hall—before there was a building—were contacting ballplayers saying: ‘We are creating, with the help of The National League’s Ford Frick (who was an important player in all this by giving his official stamp) collecting artifacts for a Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum. Would you please donate your memorabilia, your old stuff, your old artifacts to the museum.’ So, they contacted Walter Johnson and Christy Mathewson and Ty Cobb and Cy Young—all of these players—both old, recently retired and, I am sure, some who were playing right then. But, the push was for the older ballplayers. And these ballplayer did, they donated: ‘Here you go—here’s a bat I used. Here’s my favorite glove. Here’s my last jersey. Here are the spikes I wore.’ That was all they (ballplayers) said. They didn’t say ‘Here are the spikes I wore during this year, this time—dot, dot, dot, dot, dah (laughing).’ All the kinds of details we like to have now for verification. By this time—Christy Mathewson had died—tragically with tuberculosis. His wife donated and said this particular model was Matty’s favorite glove—that’s all she said. Today, we would have to go back, research and find the history of that glove.”

“So—that’s how we started collecting artifacts. For 40 odds years, no one really thought anything of it (collecting artifacts without documentation). Babe Ruth donated his artifacts. Willie Mays donated his artifacts. Hank Aaron donated his artifacts. These are the greats of the game who were donating artifacts. Some were donating during their playing days, others donating after they retired. We had nearly a half century of accepting donations.”

“Then, during the 80’s a memorabilia market developed. We (The Hall) had to start talking about whether we wanted to start buying these items. We can’t just ask for them any longer to have people send them to us. Thinking about the situation, the decision was made to not start paying for the artifacts for two reasons. One of which is very simple—every museum operates on a shoestring—and we didn’t have the money to buy artifacts—even if we were able to buy some. Secondly, The Hall of Fame recognized that it had made a contract with these other ballplayers over history, by saying ‘donate to us and we will be the keeper of this.’ If we started buying things now, then that would be disrespectful to that contract—a repudiation to the good faith these other players who had graciously given us their artifacts. Just imagine a player saying from back in the day: ‘If you were going to buy it….?’ You can see where this is heading. Player’s back then didn’t make a whole lot of money. They could have used that money.”

“Now, as it turned out, by us saying we wish that you would donate—we are putting these later donors in the same place as Babe Ruth, Honus Wagner, Roberto Clemente and all these other great players who had donated to The Hall of Fame. We have maintained that cache.”

“The next thing that happened was the market exploding. We would not be able to afford anything today. If we had gotten into the market when it was a low priced market—it’s just a couple of bucks for a ball--$10 for a jersey—but look at where all this headed. Just look at any online auction catalog. Its just amazing how pricey the artifacts are. We would not be able to afford it now.”

“Then, the last part of this equation: where there is money, ultimately comes fraud. By almost accidentally, not foreseeing this, by refusing to purchase items—we have also kept ourselves out of a market which is riddled with fraud. We know so much more today from FBI situations how bad the memorabilia market is. We have dealt with an FBI Agent who was a part of the baseball fraud sting operations. He said that 90-95%, maybe 99% of signed autographs out there are fraudulent. So, if you didn’t see it signed, you have to wonder. That’s just another reason why we don’t care about anything being signed (all of us laughing). We just want the artifact.”

“So many things come with the signature of authenticity—which has become a part of the story of it. There is this perception that the signature adds authenticity, making two separate issues. One is the authenticity of the item; the second is the authenticity of the signature. And, if the signature is being used to authenticate the item—then if the signature is fraudulent—the item is mostly likely fraudulent as well—leaving you with nothing. All that is a long story about how through the best of intentions, to honor the donators of the past, with the situation of the present—there being no money to purchase items—we have ended up with a great policy. Does it mean we might not get some items we would love to get—Absolutely.”

“Sometimes we also keep ‘Wish Lists’. If somebody wants to donate our way another Roberto Clemente Jersey, and the glove he wore in the 1971 World Series—(animated) That’s OK BY US!!! (Smiling). But, yes, it does mean we don’t get some artifacts we would like. Hopefully, those items will be donated in the future. There are a lot of collectors out there. Some will liquidate their collections. Some will donate some of their items before they liquidate—in order to off-set their tax position.”

Is that how the Barry Halper Collection came about? (SBF)

“The Halper stuff was a slightly different situation. First of all, Barry Halper had donated many items previously to The Hall of Fame—before the great Halper Auction. Halper actually ended up giving us the first of two Honus Wagner T-206 Baseball Cards. The Holy Grail of cards that is valued at about $2 Million, based on the last one sold. For a number of years, he was donating artifacts to The Hall of Fame and he was liquidating his big collection. His collection was so big and he was having health issues (Halper died recently of cancer). He wanted to liquidate in a controlled type of way. He wanted to convert from artifacts and memorabilia to something his family could use—cash. Nobody in his family had the passion of Barry Halper for the items—that happens to a lot of people. What he did was give us (The Hall) first dibs. Major League Baseball bought the elements that we wanted. We did not look at his collection for Babe Ruth Jerseys. We have several Babe Ruth Jerseys. We don’t need another Babe Ruth Jersey. But, there were any numbers of artifacts that we thought: ‘This is pretty cool. This item tells a good story that we don’t have.’ One of my favorites—I will be using next year on exhibit. We picked up a trophy ball—a baseball used in a game with the information painted on it--from the National Association (precursor to The National League)—the Troy Haymakers (New York) used it in a game. One of the players on that team was Steve Bayon—who was born Esteban Bayon—in Cuba.”

“All of sudden, we have a ball were this fellow played in the game and this baseball was used—The First Latin American Ballplayer in Pro Baseball History—and we have a ball from a game he participated. Now he went back down to Cuba and was one of several people who helped bring baseball to Cuba—which is neat, because it wasn’t Anglos who brought the game down to Cuba—it was Cubans who were playing in the United States who said: ‘This is a neat game. I’ll bet some compadres down in Cuba would like this game.’ So, Cubans brought the game of baseball to Cuba. That’s not something you would expect The Hall of Fame to get—unless I tell you the story about it—so you can understand why we got that item, and not another Babe Ruth item.”

It moves the story forward (SBF).

“Yes, it moves the story forward here at The Hall of Fame. That was a donation from Major League Baseball. Barry Halper couldn’t afford, quite frankly, to donate all the things to The Hall of Fame he wanted The Hall of Fame to have. But, we were able to find a way to make the process work for him, for us by taking a small selection that mattered the most to us. Halper then kept the rest to auction off in the Greatest Baseball Memorabilia Auction Of All Time.”

Do you have any situations arise where a player dies and his estate donates all his artifacts to The Baseball Hall of Fame? (The African Queen)

“Yes, we do. We have had that happen on a number of occasions in the past—although not recently. The basic handling of that type of donation is the same as any other donation—you look at it and decide whether or not it fits in with your collection. We don’t have to take the donation. We don’t have to take a bequest. You can take a portion of a bequest—if it’s OK with the executor. Usually, you can explain why we only want a part of it. We want to tell this story, the collector wanted to make sure some things were preserved—we can do part of it—we can’t do all of it. But, we would like to honor as much as possible.”

“One time we were approached from someone wanting to donate a whole bunch of baseballs. They were all signed. They were all displayed for years and they were ALL FADED. I understand that the 1960’s Mets were your favorite team—we just don’t need any more baseballs signed by guys. Then, we would have to preserve them. Basically, for as far in the future as you can imagine, that’s our mandate to preserve them for not just decades, but centuries—and that’s a tough thing to do.”

I don’t know if you are already aware of this—or it’s already on your ‘Wish List’ but Walter Johnson’s Daughter has the family scrapbook of Walter Johnson's Career—a few volumes worth. I know it exists because his Grand Son—Hank Thomas—wrote about it in his book “The Big Train.” (SBF)

“Oh!! I did not know that!! Yes, that now just got added to my list!! (Smiling)

We were talking about memorabilia sales. Sohna and I visited a few of the shops on Main Street in Cooperstown including The National Pastime Store. The prices are very high. (SBF) Sohna stating: Yes, unbelievable.

“In a market that makes no sense in many ways--I will attempt to make sense of it. There are a lot of people who come to Cooperstown and they are looking for a way to connect to their own past in a very special place. You can buy that very same mitt off eBay, but if you are buying it at that shop, which when you walk into it—and its astounding the variety and the quality of the artifacts there. (It’s impressive—it really is—Sohna). Yes, unbelievable actually. It’s a mini-museum. I think its fun to walk in there, because I see all the stuff here (at The Hall) all the time. I want to see something new!! (Animated, Sohna laughing). There are gloves, bats, pennants (There is this Opening of Dodger Stadium Pennant in that store—the same one on display here at The Hall—SBF). Yes, isn’t that great. There is a great amount of nostalgia and ambiance that they (National Pastime) are tapping into—and a lot of personal connections. If you buy that glove in Cooperstown, let’s say the very glove you had as a kid, and find it walking down the street here—that’s worth instantly—infinitely more than anywhere else because of where to just found it.”

“There is that chance, you also saw that glove with your dad—here visiting The Hall. And, it would mean so much more to purchase a similar item here. (National Pastime) is a great store. They have beautiful trophies there, the decorative arts are lovely. I find that store infinitely more interesting than the other handful of baseball card stores. But, I have always been more of an artifact guy than baseball card guy. Others are, but I am not a card guy.”

Let's step back to the storage of artifacts here at The Hall. How are things preserved here? (SBF)

“We do a couple of things. We maintain the temperature, humidity and light, and we reduce handling. Those are the enemies to artifacts. Those are the enemies to all artifacts, not just us. It is what every museum and every collector should be doing. The humidity and temperature must remain low and constant, fluctuations are worse. Its worse to be fluctuating than to be relatively a little bit higher or lower in humidity. They must be stable. We not only have extensive air conditioning and heating—but also backups. We keep track of all of that. There are recorded graphs, which can be monitored. If we start seeing things going up and down—we know something needs to be addressed.”

“The artifacts, as you two noticed, are almost all in boxes—with the exception of those items which are out for photographing. This makes it easier to stack them. Now you can get stacks of gloves on top of each other—instead of having more space to stretch them out. Also, this keeps light off the artifacts. UV light is the worse, people generally know that now. But, all light is bad. UV light will cause items to fade out and damage them sooner. It’s a higher intensity light and puts more energy into the artifact and energy is bad as it speeds up chemical reactions. All light will do that, eventually. So, we must keep the light low and covered in boxes. Also, the boxes are acid free—which also reduces chemical reactions. The boxes provide mini-environments.”

“You may recall a few years ago—there was a major power outage—the entire northeast grid shutdown for a couple of days—which is not a good thing at all. Our backups came on right away—that’s fine. Then, we ran out of fuel, and there was no electricity to get the fuel out of the pumps—so it shut down. Not Great—as we are back down again. Fortunately, the artifacts were in a well-insulated room in those acid free boxes—the fluctuation within each box—was less than the fluctuation in each room—which was less than the fluctuation out of the storage room. This enveloping type of protection—helped preserve the artifacts.”

“And then reducing the handling, by having on each box the identification number for each item and a brief description. This allows us to find easily the artifact you want, and not these others. We don’t have to go through each box—hunting for labels, and hunting for numbers. No, just go straight to the box, pull it out and there is the item you need.”

And all the boxes are lined with Acid-Free Paper? (The African Queen)

“Yes, that is correct.”

And it’s very limited who actually gets to touch any item? (SBF)

“Yes, absolutely. As you saw on our tour—I was wearing my gloves. It keeps the dirt from my hands off the artifact, and baseball artifacts are dirty. So, this keeps the dirt from transferring from my body to the item.”

Back to the artifact storage boxes—does someone check those items on a regular basis—just to be sure they are being preserved correctly? (SBF)

“No. We know that if we have the room temperature under control—the boxes will be OK. They are acid free boxes, with acid free paper—so if we have the greater environment fine—then the inner environment is fine.”

What qualifies someone to see an artifact at The Baseball Hall of Fame? (SBF)

“One thing that qualifies you instantly is if you donated the item. So, Ralph Kiner can see his bat!! (All of us laughing). But, don’t come up to ask for it in the middle of induction weekend. We don’t have the staff to do it at that time. We are busy doing other things.”

A donor actually comes back to see their items? (The African Queen)

“Oh yeah!! (excited)—They do. They are very interested in that!! They want to show their wife, son or daughter. This is a tie that they (donator) have with baseball and its something we want to honor. Guess what? Maybe they have other things or maybe we have others—but we have to build that relationship we have with that person. It’s a big part of who we are.”

“If you are a scholar, and scholarship in baseball is different from scholar in medicine--there are a lot of baseball scholars who are doing worthwhile other things in their life. You don’t have to be a full-time baseball scholar, but if you are a member of SABR, The Society of American Baseball Research, and you are doing research on uniforms and want to compare uniforms you have come across with those of The Hall—lets say you are looking for makers, or you are looking for how The Cardinals Uniform stitching has changed with their great Cardinals and bat logo. If it’s a legitimate project and you are doing real research—then its something we can accommodate.”

“Unfortunately, our situation is similar to other museums. If you are a fan of something, and wish to see more than what we have on exhibit—we probably can’t do that. ‘I want to see all The Yankee stuff that you don’t have on exhibit?’ Gee—that would be nice but we simply can’t do that. But, come back in a couple of years and we might have changed out some of our Yankees Exhibit Cases.”

But, when Joe Scholar shows up from SABR and wants to compare that Cardinals Uniform—you may bring that item to them—but they will not be necessarily touching it themselves? (SBF)

“We would bring it to them, and they would have to wear the gloves, set up in a particular place, where under supervision—they can do their work. Once they were done with their work—we would take the item away.”

Just to be clear—no one can show up and say I want to see everything under the sun? (SBF) Someone will try. (The African Queen)

“Its just not possible.”

That concludes Part Two of our chat with John Odell--Director of History & Research at The National Baseball Hall of Fame. Tomorrow--in the final installment--its all about the Displays, Induction Plaques and why many players of today--actually don't come visit The Hall--often.

Photos--Property of Nats320--all rights reserved


joseph said...


I wanted to draw your attention to this important petition that The Freeman's Journal is sponsoring:

"Save Hall of Fame Game"

The National Baseball Hall of Fame announced Tuesday, Jan. 29, that Major League Baseball has unilaterally cancelled The Hall of Fame, a revered 70-year tradition.

Please help the Cooperstown sports' community in petitioning MLB Commissioner Bud Selig to change his mind.

And, please, forward the petition to anyone you know who may be sympathetic to the cause.

Best regards,

Jim Kevlin
The Freeman's Journal
Box 890
Cooperstown NY 13326
(607) 547-6103

Anonymous said...

I thought I was crazy about baseball and our team in DC, but you have me beat by a mile. You ARE the ultimate baseball fan in DC!!

Thanks for writing about your trip to Cooperstown. I really enjoyed reading. Next on your list needs to be a review of all the ballparks.

You should be writing books on baseball. You have a knack for this. Your first book could be the "Ultimate Fans Guide to the Washington Nationals".

Thanks again!