After the legendary Boston Garden closed in 1995, auctioneers looking for salvageable memorabilia found highly valuable pieces in out-of-the-way places: An abandoned darkroom was inches deep in vintage photos of Hall of Famers, while the arena’s original blueprints were stashed in a wooden trunk near the roof. It seems safe to say that no such hidden gems will be stumbled upon when Yankee Stadium closes after this season. There’s an entire company that’s been hunting down and selling vintage Yankees memorabilia at astronomical prices for years. Rather, the Yankees will be selling their stadium’s leftovers. If the team is so inclined, one prospective auctioneer says, it could get a couple hundred dollars for the trash cans.
There are a few items that won’t be considered for sale. Thurman Munson’s locker—unused since the team captain’s mid-season death in 1979—will be moved to the new ballpark. There’s been talk of leaving the dugouts in the parkland that will replace the stadium. And the mythic bronze sculptures beyond the left-center-field wall are too much of a fan attraction to ever get rid of. Besides that … “It sounds like everything is going,” says Phil Castinetti, the owner of a memorabilia store near Boston called Sportsworld.
The exact details of the sell-off aren’t settled yet. The stadium might close within weeks of the Yankees’ final game, or as late as March 1 of next year to allow for concerts and other events. The City of New York owns the park and has to be financially mollified before it allows the gutting to go forward. The auctioneers have yet to be selected—there are a number of suitors, although some sports-memorabilia dealers consider it beneath them to sell items like upper-deck seats and urinals.
Their loss. This will be a quantity-over-quality sale for Yankee diehards with money to burn, and that’s a vast pool of buyers. Consider that retired former Port Authority executive Andy Fogel paid $1,200 for the home plate used at Shea Stadium on Opening Day 2008 (Shea also closes this year). The Mets are a team with one of the largest, most devoted, and most affluent fan bases in the sport—and by comparison, when the Yankees sold their ’08 Opening Day home plate, it went for eight times as much. In the end, observers say, the coming bonanza will turn literal junk into as much as $50 million.
The Yankees themselves have helped to create much of the sports-memorabilia market as we know it today, though the team didn’t catch on quite as quickly as they could have. Before the team began gut-renovating the stadium in 1973, it sold some memorabilia informally. Sportswriter Bert Sugar (now 72 years old), who was then working as an advertising executive on the Yankees account, paid a small amount—which he won’t disclose, but describes alternately as “embarrassingly low,” “chump change,” and “not much more expensive than a bread box”—to make off with everything he could fit into a truck. The haul included Casey Stengel’s shower door (interesting to Sugar because “he must have peed on it”) and Babe Ruth’s underwear, located inside a bat bag (“It looked like a cow udder”).
Sugar sold much of his stash over the years, though for prices far below today’s market value. The current state of memorabilia sales makes him apoplectic. “There’s no rationale—it’s like the art market,” he says. “When Charlie Sheen [one of several celebs with big sporting collections] decides he wants something … I started it and then got out of the way before it ran me over. I lost out on $5 million, but what the fuck?”
The concept of memorabilia is not new, of course (baseball cards are a century-old business), but it wasn’t until relatively recently that businesses began cashing in on adult fans’ affection toward teams and players to sell them things other than tickets. Given that the Yankees have exploited new revenue sources more than any other team, it’s appropriate that Joe DiMaggio was the one who really kick-started memorabilia-collecting’s escalation to a mass-production affair when his signed baseball cards, bats, and balls started showing up on the QVC network about twenty years ago. Sales heated up throughout the nineties; the field’s arrival as a big-money game was announced most forcefully when Sotheby’s auctioned the collection of a Yankees minority owner named Barry Halper for a total of $21.8 million in 1999. (Billy Crystal bought a Mickey Mantle glove for $239,000.) But more relevant to the present situation was the ascendancy of PR guru Brandon Steiner’s memorabilia company, Steiner Sports. Steiner realized that there was a lot of demand for sports-world artifacts among people who couldn’t pay $200,000 for a glove, so they solved the supply problem by turning nearly everything sports-related into an artifact. If it was used in or around a game, Steiner would sell it. The memorabilia industry as a whole does more than a billion dollars in sales per year. The Westchester-based Steiner company is now a $50 million slice of the global marketing firm Omnicom Group (2007 total revenues of $12.7 billion).