Friday, December 30, 2005

Fanfare for a Departed Friend

From "Play's the Thing," Woodstock Times, December 29, 2005:
I have been preoccupied with the idea that fans are players too, as tied in as athletes and owners and media with making spectator sport what it is. Although no one seems willing to put it quite this way, I submit that their devotion has bought fans a stake and a say in the game, in the way that ordinary citizens have a sense of ownership in a landmark building or cultural institution. After all, without their pride of place, what is a museum or an opera company, or a ball club, but just another piece of private property?

Skilled and dedicated players, united by adept management, make for great performance, on the field and in the bottom line. Loyal fans, however, are what make a franchise great, even amid a championship drought of biblical proportions.

What makes for a great fan is more difficult to discern, though character is surely at the heart of the matter. This question has worked on me ever since Barry Halper, the celebrated baseball collector and my longtime friend, died last week at age 66. With less fanfare than accompanies the passing of a utility infielder — the wires noted Barry’s death, but only the Jerusalem Post covered his funeral — baseball lost a giant.

Upon learning of his demise, George Steinbrenner said of Barry, “What a great baseball fan he was. I’ll miss him dearly.” How odd, I thought, that the Yankees’ owner would refer to his minority partner this way. Barry owned about 1 percent of the team and in the early 1990s was briefly involved in its operations; he was a successful businessman in New Jersey; and he was a brilliant trader who in 50 years of high-end collecting amassed a memorabilia trove that, when put up for sale in 1999, yielded nearly $30 million and safeguarded his heirs. But Steinbrenner was absolutely right: what made Barry Halper tick — the central thing about him, really — was that he was a great fan, so great that he left an enduring mark upon the game he loved and has, it says here, a claim upon a place in the Baseball Hall of fame.

Collectors get a bad rap, often enough, for their greed, their secretiveness, their covetousness, their parasitic relationship to players. Seldom noted is their vital role in securing the game’s treasures against the ravages of time and indifference, and in identifying as treasures pop-culture artifacts that museums or halls of fame have tended to scorn. Barry had thousands of items from the game as it was played on the field — historic bats, balls, gloves, and uniforms, thousands of autographs — but he also collected the cards, photographs, posters, packaging, and personal items to which the average fan more readily attaches. Barry collected memories as a lepidopterist pins butterflies to a page.

His tastes and instincts rubbed off on the Hall of Fame, making it today a stronger museum and archive. Before the major part of his collection went up for auction at Sotheby’s in September 1999, when its 2,481 lots realized $21,795,646, the Hall acquired a chunk of his collection through a $7.5 million tithing of Major League Baseball’s thirty teams. For those few days of auction frenzy, the rooms at Sotheby’s (memorialized in a lavish auction catalog) became the best baseball museum in the country, except for those who had been fortunate enough to have wangled an invitation to the basement archive in Barry and Sharon Halper’s Livingston, New Jersey home.

Hundreds of players came over to sample Barry’s curiosities and Sharon’s gourmet cooking (written up in the New York Times, consumed with gusto by Joe DiMaggio, Yogi Berra, Mickey Mantle and legions more). The guests would autograph the items Barry had prepared for them, sometimes in ways not printable in a family newspaper. DiMaggio even autographed a copy of the first issue of Playboy, its cover and centerfold adorned in the nude by his former wife, Marilyn Monroe — though Barry had to swear that he would not reveal the existence of the item while Joe was alive. A trip to the Halper Shrine was, for these players, a magical mystery tour of a baseball history they knew only dimly if at all. Many out-of-town players would seek return invitations on their next time in New York.

I was lucky enough to visit the Halper home several times over the years, sometimes in connection with photo shoots for publications (Barry never asked for a fee, only an unspecified donation to the St. Barnabas Hospital Burn Treatment Center), other times to discuss his ultimately unrealized dream to create a museum that would keep his collection intact. Bridgeport, Hoboken, and Lower Manhattan venues all seemed promising at one point or another, but ultimately his weakening health forced Barry’s hand. Unable to wait any longer for municipalities or developers to get their acts together, he contracted with Sotheby’s.

Born in Newark, New Jersey, in 1939, the same year that the Hall of Fame opened, Barry began collecting baseball material as a boy, hanging out in the clubhouse of the Newark Bears, the Yankees’ top farm club. His collection came to include over a million baseball cards. You know the famous T-206 Wagner, the million-dollar card? Barry had three. He owned every World Series and All-Star program, an outstanding book collection, and lithographs, photos, and jewelry that were to be found nowhere else.

Sometimes he would acquire material that just looked intriguing, confident that he would be able to gather the underlying stories later on. In this area I was sometimes helpful, either at his home or through back-and-forth sleuthing over the phone or through the mails. While his favorite team was the Yankees, and he could never get enough items featuring Babe Ruth and Mickey Mantle or the team’s other great stars, his pride and joy seemed to me to be the truly ancient artifacts that came his way because of his fame: the original Knickerbocker Constitution booklet of 1848, the cane presented to DeWolf Hopper after the first public performance of “Casey at the Bat,” the shotgun with which Ty Cobb’s mother killed her husband.

Barry owned over a thousand game-worn uniforms, which were housed behind a hidden compartment in a wall and accessed by a James Bondish remote control. At the push of a button an “Old Gold” advertising piece, featuring Babe Ruth, slid down toward the floor revealing a clothing rack much like what you might find in a dry-cleaning store. While he could never acquire an Eppa Rixey uniform to complete his Hall of Fame collection, he had everybody else from 1879 on, including such startling survivors as the uniforms of five Hall of Famers from the 1894 Baltimore Orioles: Willie Keeler, Wilbert Robinson, John McGraw, Hughie Jennings, and Joe Kelley. He had a Cap Anson uniform from 1888, a John Clarkson from 1883, a Pud Galvin from 1879 ... breathtaking to a visitor like me, with an antiquarian bent. Barry had unequaled contacts with former players and especially clubhouse men who, amazingly, had preserved uniforms more than a century old and somehow the stuff just kept coming out of the woodwork ... but only for him.

In a move that I later learned was highly unusual — Barry did not like his guests to handle his rarities — I was invited to try on and be photographed in Hoss Radbourn’s Boston Red Stockings road uniform of 1886. This was my reward, perhaps, for having shared with my host the story of a photo that for many years adorned the stairwell leading to his basement. It depicted the Boston Red Stockings and the New York Giants lined up prior to their Opening Day game at the Polo Grounds on April 29, 1886. At the far left in the back row Hoss Radbourn may be detected giving the finger to teammate Sam Wise below him. (Boston center fielder Dick Johnston, born in Kingston, was seated in the bottom row, second from the left.) Barry could barely contain his delight: he now had another story, and that was what, more than anything else, he liked to collect.

Barry was sedate and businesslike unless he got excited by a baseball oddity ... and then he was just a big kid, like all adult fans. Peter Golenbock said of Barry prior to the Sotheby auction, “From early on as he steadfastly accumulated these artifacts with the seriousness of a museum curator, Halper’s primary interest was in their historical or fascination value. He cared little about their worth on resale, because for many years there was no market value. As late as the early 1980s there was no ‘hobby’ as such, only disparate baseball junkies linked by a common interest of owning mementos from the game’s past. The Wall-Streeting of baseball memorabilia would come later.”

“I don’t keep it for the value,” Barry used to say about the motivation behind his collection. “I keep it because I love baseball.”

So love is the “secret” to what makes a great fan? Yes. And it is the secret to greatness on the field and in the front office, where the dollar reigns. Major league players and management are professionals, of course; but what separates the best from the run of the mill is that amateur, loving spirit that spurred them to pursue greatness in the first place, when they were kids.

--John Thorn


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