Collectors convention is quite unconventional

Photo by Daniel Kay

Photo by Daniel Kay

BALTIMORE -- The National Sports Collectors Convention is probably the only place in the world where a guy can find Jerry Rice's football pants, a box of Flying Nun trading cards and the tooth of a Tyrannosaurus rex under the same roof.

This gigantic trade show is not just for sports fans, even though there were thousands of signed baseballs, countless game-worn jerseys and enough football helmets to cover every head in the NFL.

"Just a little bit of everything and a lot of nothing," said Rick Walker, who brought much of his inventory from Atlanta to the show. Walker's station included comic books, coasters, plates, pennants and a miniature pink Cadillac.

The 31st annual convention, which runs through Sunday, features dozens of stations with unopened football and baseball cards from yesteryear. At various places on the floor, grown men eagerly opened one pack after another in hope of filling out their collection.

Those without patience but thick wallets could dispense with the suspense by buying a full set. For example, the 1956 Topps baseball collection cost a cool $4,300.

That's nothing compared to the 1979-80 O-Pee-Chee Hockey Wax Box, which sells for $14,375 primarily because it could very well contain the coveted Wayne Gretzky rookie card. And how much is a Wayne Gretzky rookie card worth? Well, you could ask someone at one of several appraisal booths located throughout the basement of the Baltimore Convention Center.

This is not a place to take your girlfriend. The clientele was mostly middle-aged men, and the items for sale were not exactly the type of stuff women covet. Then again, what lady wouldn't look good in a sleeveless Oakland Athletics jersey once worn by Rick Monday? The one selling for $1,000?

Some of the items were downright strange, and not just the 1961 UK-issued Liberace card being sold by collector David Rosenberg for between $75-100. Upper Deck displayed thoroughbred trading cards that included hair from Afleet Alex, Smarty Jones and Funny Cide. Neither the Liberace card, or those of the horses, were signed.

Also at the Upper Deck station: The tooth of a T-Rex, available if a lucky card collector comes across the sole matching redemption card from the 2008-09 Champ's hockey set.

Most of the people running the booths are delighted to chat, even if they know you can't afford to pay $4,999.99 for the pants Rice wore as a member of the San Francisco 49ers.

Detroit-based brothers Rich and Mike Rea were dressed as NBA referees, complete with whistles, at their station hawking cards and comics. On a display behind them stood many of the comic books your mother threw away, including early editions of The Justice League of America and The Atom.

Back then, they cost 12 cents each. Now they're worth hundreds of dollars.

"A lot of people aren't coming here to see comics," Mike said. "Others are. When it comes to collecting, there's a huge overlap."

And what of those referee outfits? Should patrons expect a different look over the weekend?

"I can only say there's a top hat involved," Mike quipped.

Nearby was a stand that displayed early baseball equipment. The table featured a Joe Garagiola catchers glove that would have probably turned to dust if used to receive a 100 mph fastball thrown by Washington Nationals rookie Stephen Strasburg.

Strasburg, by the way, is already becoming a key player in the sports collector industry. His game-used glove from San Diego State was selling for $6,000, and a stub from the game in which he made his major league debut was going for $35.

Arguably, the best bargain in the house were two different massive posters signed by Pete Rose. One of them was a black and white picture of him taking the field in 1963 for his first game; the other was a shot of his trademark headfirst slide.

Each cost $29, or four for $100. That compared quite favorably to a signed black and white 8x10 of former NFL commissioner Bert Bell for $1,250.

Travis Furr, a 30-year-old with an eye for value, looked at the Rose posters and said, "I've seen some good deals on some stuff here, but that's crazy."

Still, he didn't buy it because he figured the frame would cost more than the picture itself.

Other items of note: A Super Bowl I ticket stub for $1,500; a stack of canceled checks from Hall of Fame jockey Eddie Arcaro (who died in 1997) for $20 apiece; a handmade knife made by Cy Young in 1925 for $350; and posters depicting the 1959 football schedules of El Camino College and Fresno State.

Vendor Pete Lewnes was undaunted about the prospect of being stuck with those ancient football schedules, which he picked up at a yard sale.

"The price was right," he said. "If I don't sell them here, thank goodness for eBay."