Palladino: Record Auction For Babe Ruth’s Ring, Contract Doesn’t Mean Memorabilia Business Is On The Up And Up

By Ernie Palladino
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If Charlie Sheen was ever hurting for cash, he’s not now.

No, he didn’t sell a vial of his tiger blood, but he’s certainly “winning!” these days after Babe Ruth’s 1927 World Series ring and the Bambino’s 1919 contract of sale from the Red Sox brought him more than $4 million at auction last week.

Both were record-breaking prices, with the winners of the Leland’s auctions gaining the ring for a tidy $2,093,927 and the contract for $2,303,320.

The jerseys and other trinkets from the family of the great Roberto Clemente, which include his 1960 and ’71 World Series rings and his ’71 World Series MVP award, should also bring a handsome sum during an All-Star week auction.

Considering what Sheen got and what the Clemente family may get for their various charitable foundations, the memorabilia business is apparently alive and kicking, at least with the big-ticket items.

But the little guys who get their thrills doling out their middle-class cash for anything from game-worn uniforms to autographed pictures to infield dirt from legendary moments still need to take caution. Plenty of stuff out there is a lot faker, in President Donald’s eyes, than CNN — or whatever news outlet he will tweet-bomb next. And plenty of casual collectors, the ones without the resources to deep-dive into authentication, have gotten cheated.

No less than Eli Manning has been accused of passing along game-worn helmets and jerseys that, uh, weren’t exactly as advertised, including a helmet the Hall of Fame in Canton put on display. And though the quarterback has strongly denied the allegations, a lawsuit is pending, and the NFL could conceivably investigate and punish him if the court finds him guilty.

Manning is straighter than the laces on a football, so whatever shenanigans happened to trigger the suit could well have gone on without his knowledge. Still, it’s his stuff, and he could be on the hook along with fellow defendants Steiner Sports, co-owner John Mara and equipment manager Joe Skiba.

It’s a tricky situation, discerning what is genuine and what isn’t. It goes a lot to the character of the seller and the so-called authenticator.

There is probably little need to worry about the Clemente items because they are coming straight from the Clemente family. But that’s not an ironclad guarantee.

The late Barry Halper, one of the biggest and most famous collectors in the country until his death in 2005, suffered posthumous scrutiny in 2010 when a uniform purportedly worn by 1919 Chicago White Sox star “Shoeless” Joe Jackson he had donated to the Hall of Fame was deemed a fake. Problem was the Hall found that the acrylic dye used in the logo didn’t come out until 1941.

The Hall removed the jersey in 2008. The matter was exacerbated by conflicting published accounts from Halper as to where the jersey came from. Subsequent issues about other items tainted the images of both Halper and what had been considered the country’s foremost private collection of America’s pastime.

When the stuff is real, though, it’s great. Little slices of history one can touch.

One of the greatest collectors of recent years was the late boxing maven Bert Sugar. His house was a museum, albeit a tad cluttered one.

Out front, before a flagpole, sat the cornerstone to the original Yankee Stadium. A walk inside his home would find a dining room table cluttered with historic pamphlets, contracts and other paper items waiting for sorting and storing.

Just off the dining room was a smaller study-type space, only it was too crammed with memories for one to accomplish any real study. On a hat stand rested old Yankees third baseman Red Rolfe’s signed cap. On a roller chair was slung Clemente’s No. 21, probably from the ’70s, as if it was carelessly laid sports jacket.

In the offices of The Ring magazine, which he published from 1979-83, sat the Boxing Hall of Fame, complete with Jim Jeffries’ gloves and the handcuffs the cops put on John L. Sullivan during an arrest in the bare-knuckle days.

Sugar’s items were beyond reproach as far as anyone knew. Then again, that was before all the phony stuff started showing up in collectibles shops, ruining the fun for legions of memorabilia buffs.

Sheen made a killing last week. Undoubtedly, the Clemente family will also enjoy a healthy haul. And the buyers who will undoubtedly pay top dollar for Clemente’s stuff will be elated.

Most memorabilia fans aren’t Sheen or the Clementes. They’re just regular, plain folks who want to own a couple or three interesting pieces.

For them, it’s buyer beware.

Please follow Ernie on Twitter at @ErniePalladino

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