They don't collect like they used to

These are strange days in the world of sports memorabilia. An activity that used to be mostly fun and games has turned into big business. Even worse, the boundary separating fantasy from reality is rapidly fading, much like chalk lines on a muddy playing field.

Every day brings new evidence that collectors are making an end run into the Twilight Zone. Consider the announcement from Leland's auction house that the ball Wilt Chamberlain used to score a record 100 points in an NBA game was sold recently for slightly more than half-a-million dollars. In addition to being flabbergasted by the price, I immediately thought, "How do they even know it's the real thing?"

The ball was grabbed on the night of March 2, 1962, by a kid named Kerry Ryman, who congratulated Chamberlain and then ran off with the prize. I suppose Ryman (now 52) showed the ball to his friends over the years, but I wonder if Leland's used any special techniques for authenticating it, such as fingerprints or DNA evidence?

Such verification is crucial because consumer demand for collectibles has now spawned a booming market for fakes. Another story that crossed the AP wire in April told how federal investigators broke up a ring of counterfeiters based in San Diego and seized "thousands of items with forged autographs - including a baseball supposedly signed by Mother Teresa."

I would burst out laughing if someone offered me a "genuine" Mother Teresa-autographed baseball, but perhaps the grifters had concocted an elaborate story to convince potential buyers. Since 22 million viewers tuned in for "Who Wants to Marry a Multimillionaire?" it's safe to assume that many Americans are gullible enough to believe that Mother Teresa might have spent part of her youth playing shortstop for an amateur girls' league in the Midwest.

The Upper Deck Company, which markets a variety of memorabilia, has devised an authentication process that includes witnesses, serial numbers, and registration cards so customers are assured that everyone is playing fair. It sounds very effective. But imposing so much bureaucracy inevitably crushes the spirit of the hobby. Memorabilia that has been "officially certified" is just another commercial product.

The exhilaration of true sports collecting, spontaneous and unrehearsed, was captured perfectly by Godfrey Sperling in his Monitor column last Jan. 4. After watching Red Grange run wild against the Michigan Wolverines in 1924, Mr. Sperling visited the winners' locker room and was given a rubber cleat that had fallen off Grange's shoe. Nowhere in the column did he ever wonder what the cleat might fetch at an auction. It was simply a personal artifact, a physical reminder of that unique moment.

Incredible as it may seem to modern investment-oriented collectors, some of us don't think about getting rich from our acquisitions. My own collection is characterized by items that are quirky, rare, and probably worthless. One non-sports item that may have monetary potential is a small patch of cotton fabric. Back in 1964, the Beatles stayed at a hotel near my home during a West Coast tour. After they departed, the hotel allegedly cut up their bed sheets and sold the snippets to the public, along with - guess what? - certificates of authenticity.

Is it possible that someday I might reap a fortune from a scrap of bedding one of the Fab Four slept on? Only in my dreams.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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