The baseball playoffs are in full swing with the Chicago Cubs and Cleveland Indians both reaching the League Championship series in their respective leagues and looking to end historic World Series droughts. Baseball is a game steeped in history dating back more than 150 years. It celebrates its rich past to a greater extent than any other sport. The attachment to the past spurs collectors to chase coveted pieces of memorabilia.
Nearly 500 items from that rich history are hitting the auction block next week ahead of the World Series start. It’s no coincidence the auction is taking place in October when baseball fever as at its peak. Famed auction house Christie’s, whose wheelhouse is in the art world, is handling the sale. It is the first auction of baseball memorabilia handled by Christie’s in more than 15 years.
The selections are from the online National Pastime Museum and one person’s collection, who wishes to remain anonymous. The items, which date back to origins of professional baseball in the 1860s, are expected to cumulatively fetch between $5 million and $7 million, according to Simeon Lipman, Christie’s expert curator and the sports and pop culture expert from The Antiques Roadshow TV series.
The big ticket item at the auction is one of only two known professional model bats used as a big leaguer by “Shoeless” Joe Jackson with an estimate of $500,000 to $700,000. Jackson’s story is immortalized in Hollywood in movies like Eight Men Out and Field of Dreams. He had the third-highest career batting average all-time, but was banned for life from baseball in 1921 for his part in the Black Sox scandal where eight members of the 1919 Chicago White Sox were accused of throwing the World Series that year.
The Jackson bat is the marquee item of the auction, but there are items available with estimates as low as $300-$500. “I think what really captures the imagination of baseball memorabilia is that it is a continuing story,” says Lipman. “There is a thread of history throughout, and it is connected to American social history.”
No player is more connected with the changing social fabric of baseball than Jackie Robinson, who broke baseball’s color barrier in 1947. Robinson memorabilia is well-represented at the auction, including an autographed, game-used bat, priced at $300,000-$400,000, a single-signed baseballfor $30,000-$40,000 and more than a dozen photos of Robinson and his Brooklyn Dodgers teammates priced below $1,000.
There are auction items from dozens of Hall of Fame players, including Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Mickey Mantle, Willie Mays, Ty Cobb, Grover Cleveland Alexander, Cy Young, Roberto Clemente, Satchel Paige, Josh Gibson and Christy Mathewson. Even if you don’t want to bid thousands of dollars on baseball memorabilia, you can still view these items. Christie’s will display the full collection to the public from Oct. 13-18 at its headquarters in Rockefeller Plaza in New York City.
One of the most interesting items up for bid is a signed photograph of Mike “King” Kelly, which is expected to cost $150,000 to $200,000. Compare that to a Ruth-signed photo priced at $5,000 to $7,000. “You are going to have to buck up big-time if you want Mike ‘King’ Kelly,” says Lipman.
Kelly’s story is unknown to even many die-hard baseball fans. He was one of baseball’s first superstars in the 1880s and was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1945. The photo up for auction is the only known signed photo of Kelly. The scarcity factor sends the expected price soaring because there are collectors who specifically collect images signed by Hall of Famers. This might be your only shot at Kelly and the price could prove to be low. Says Lipman, “That is the beauty of auction. You never know what is going to happen.”