Memorabilia collectors know all that clutters is not junk

Pack rats, take heart.

The economy is still shaky, stocks are risky, and oil wells are hard to come by. But the sports paraphernalia cluttering your attic and hall closet just might net a small fortune.

What you or your clean-crazy spouse might dismiss as junk is, in some circles , considered sports memorabilia. The old golf clubs you refuse to part with might be worth $1,000 to a classic club dealer. And those battered baseball cards stuffed in shoe boxes could buy a semester or two of college.

It isn't likely that you'll find a set of 18th-century wood-shafted Scottish clubs tucked away in your basement. Unless, of course, your home has a moat and drawbridge, and is located somewhere near Edinburgh.

But you might find a set of 1966 or 1967 Jack Nicklaus VIP irons by MacGregor. Jim Kaplan, a classic club dealer in Northbrook, Ill., believes that the Nicklaus VIP irons are the Rolls Royce of golf clubs. And his customers are willing to pay $1,000 for the nine club set that once retailed for $225.

What makes the VIPs so desirable is, according to Kaplan, ''a thick, rounded sole which makes it easier to spin the ball. The clubs are so hitable that even the bad shots don't come off quite as bad.''

Among woods, MacGregors are in demand--especially the Tommy Armour 693s. ''The epitome of quality,'' said Kaplan. Manufactured between 1940 and 1952, a set of four woods now commands $900 to $1,200. ''That's a 400 percent increase since I started in this business in 1977, but they're worth it.

The most sought-after putter is the Wilson Arnold Palmer. Although it once retailed for $12, today's prices start at $300.

Boxing also has its memorabilia enthusiasts, and one of the most dedicated is New York advertising executive Martin Sloves.

''I collect anything with a pize fighting theme from everywhere around the world,'' he said. ''One day it's a great painting by Sidney Dickinson, another day it's a mud drawing from Zaire.''

Twenty years and ''. . . well in excess of $100,000'' in the making, Sloves's collection includes a diamond stickpin in the shape of a fighter, a Baccarat crystal vase with an etching of two champions, prints by Currier and Ives, an artist's proof of Muhammed Ali for the Superdome, and a solid gold boxing glove charm with a diamond imbedded in the center.

But the best known and most actively traded sports collectibles are baseball cards.

One reason is the law of supply and demand. For years, mothers have been giving the old heave-ho to shoe boxes full of tattered Mickey Mantles, Hank Aarons and Duke Sniders. It's made once plentiful cards rare.

While the real Mickey Mantle now only plays an occasional oldtimers game, the 1952 Mickey Mantle baseball card has seen a lot of action lately. Prices as high as $2,500 have been reported for that card in mint condition. The 1954 Hank Aaron card has been trading at nearly $200, and so has the 1949 Duke Snider.

Scarce cards, of course, are likely to be the most valuable. When Honus Wagner's picture appeared in 1909 on a tobacco company's card, the non-smoking future Hall of Famer was outraged. He demanded that the card be recalled and when the company acceded to his wishes, the few remaining cards became instant collector's items. Today, a 1909 Wagner can bring $15,000.

Vintage cards are not the only ones that have increased in value. Not too long ago, a 1975 George Brett could be had for 75 cents. But after a banner 1980 season, Brett's value on the baseball card market soared to $7.

A 1966 Gaylord Perry sold for $5 in 1979. Today it commands $70. Incredibly, that price increase has almost nothing to do with Perry's ability as a player. It's his position in the gum card line-up that caused the jump.

Many fans wrap rubber bands around their collections, so the first and last cards in each series take a real beating. Thus a mint condition Gaylord Perry is hard to come by.

Mistakes also boost value, as in a 1967 card showing Roger Maris in a Yankee uniform even though he had been traded to St. Louis before the season. That gaffe has upped the price of the card to $300.

But collectors with even the most meager of hobby budgets can get in on the action, too. One dollar will buy the 1968 Aurelio Rodriguez and the story that goes with it. The photo isn't the former Angel infielder at all, but a bat boy whom Rodriguez persuaded to sit for the photographer instead. Today, that bat boy has his own card that reads: Leonard Garcia, Trainer, Salt Lake City Gulls.

Baseball card collecting is more than a hobby--it's an industry. There are four major trade publications, several newsletters and buying guides, and scores of conventions where enthusiasts can buy, sell, swap, and exhibit their gems.

And it's not just cards that command these seemingly unrealistic prices. At one recent auction, a collection of rainchecks from the 1924 World Series sold for $95. A hardcover copy of ''Babe Ruth's Batting Hints'' can get at least $50, and a boxed set of ''Babe Ruth'' brand athletic underwear sells for $75. The green box alone can fetch $50.

A complete set of old bottle caps with baseball trivia printed underneath the lids sells for $20. There's also a lucrative market for old yearbooks and equipment, especially bats, gloves, and uniforms used by star players.

But very few memorabilia connoisseurs are in a league with Barry Halper, a paper products manufacturer from Livingston, N.J.

Several years ago, Halper pulled nearly $15,000 out of the stock market and invested in baseball treasures. Today, he not only owns a piece of the Yankees, but has a memorabilia collection that rivals Cooperstown.

Joe DiMaggio is only one of the game's greats who have pressed the doorbell that plays the first several notes of ''Take Me Out To The Ballgame,'' to see such relics as Casey Stengel's high school yearbook, the last glove and uniform used by Lou Gehrig, and Babe Ruth's leather travel bag and celebrated polo coat.

But Halper's private museum houses much, much more. There's a lock of Ruth's hair and a letter from the Babe verifying its authenticity; uniforms worn by Aaron, DiMaggio, and Ty Cobb; a ticket stub from the first World Series in 1903; a scorecard from a 1912 Yankee benefit game to raise money for ''. . . widows and orphans who survived the wreck of the White Star steamship Titanic;'' and nearly 1,000 autographed balls.

Baseball cards? ''I must have a million, literally,'' said Halper.

It's just possible that you possess a treasure or two--which may give you the incentive to finally sort through those boxes in your attic. Then again, even this prospect might not be strong enough to induce you to tackle a particularly difficult, Fibber MeGee-like closet. In that case, here's a handy excuse:

If anyone complains about the mess, explain that you prefer to let it all appreciate in value a while longer. After all, who knows how much those artifacts will be worth next year.

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