In the world of sports memorabilia, old classics are the safe bet. Think of Babe Ruth, Joe DiMaggio or Lou Gehrig bats and balls as Hamptons real estate or blue chip stocks. Their value will fluctuate every now and then, but will steadily climb over time.
"For those guys, the market is set, while for guys still playing, it's more volatile," says Chris Ivy of Heritage Auction Galleries. Indeed, there's always image risk involved with an active player, whether it's Barry Bonds fighting off steroid accusations or Kobe Bryant defending himself on a rape charge.
Most of the credit for old-timer strength goes to Ruth, an almost mythological figure who represents the dominance of baseball in America's sports history. While the NFL and NBA have largely caught up to the national pastime in terms of current popularity, no memorabilia item goes for anything close to the top baseball items. Only a few Heisman Trophies, according to Allen, come close to matching top baseball merchandise. ESPN may have dubbed Michael Jordan the greatest athlete of the 20th century, but he's got a long way to go before his game-worn uniforms catch up to Ruth's in value.
"Our industry is driven by baseball," says Allen. "A longer history, more games, all driven by Babe Ruth."
Another reason, ironically, is that the notion of a lucrative sports memorabilia market didn't really exist years ago, so players and collectors weren't saving artifacts. That makes them more rare and, in turn, more valuable. For example, Heritage recently sold a 1950s Mickey Mantle jersey for $141,000, a price it could get based on players having only two home and two road jerseys to use during a season back then.
Today's memorabilia-conscious era saw Roger Clemens change jerseys in the middle of a game in which he was going for his 300th win, creating more overall cash but diluting the value of each individual item.
Popular Ruth artifacts aren't limited to Yankees gear. Two years ago, Mastro sold the Babe's 1934 World Tour uniform, which he wore during an off-season barnstorming trip that year and occasionally dusted off for other various exhibition games, for $771,000. Altogether, the Bambino accounts for five of the 10 most expensive sports items ever sold. His fellow baseball legends--and fellow Yankees--Mantle, Lou Gehrig and Joe DiMaggio are also perennial blue chippers.
A 1939 Gehrig uniform went for $451,000 at Leland's auction house recently, up from $306,000 two years ago. A bat used by DiMaggio during his 56-game hitting streak in 1941 was sold for $345,000, while a personal diary he kept long after his playing days is being put on the block by Steiner Sports with bids starting at $1.5 million. And that's for a reportedly bland set of notes in which DiMaggio does little more than complain about signing autographs and the cost of food.
No juicy Marilyn Monroe gossip here. And no juice, either.