At first blush, news that a really old baseball card fetched $92,000 at auction the other day seemed like a lock for this week's sign-of-the-apocalypse in sports.
For that kind of money, after all, buyer Jason LeBlanc could have bought himself a fully operational jetpack! Which comes with 600 pounds of thrust, and you don't even need a pilot's license to fly!
Or, if you prefer to stay grounded, how about an S-class Mercedes-Benz sedan? Or two toilets made entirely of 24-carat gold. Heck, LeBlanc could even have rented the 25-foot wide townhouse Irish real estate mogul Dennis Quinlan is offering on New York's Upper East Side for a month — and still had enough change left over to cover the cable bill. But no.
LeBlanc shelled out the money for a 148-year-old card depicting the Brooklyn Atlantics amateur baseball club, saying he bought it as an investment for his young son, and the craziest thing about the whole story might be that he actually got a bargain. Since there's very little chance we'll learn that ballplayers in the 1860s were using performance-enhancing drugs, odds are good that somewhere down the road, some other rich guy will be willing to buy that card from his kid for a lot more.
"Absolutely," said Chris Ivy, director of sports auctions for Heritage Auctions. "A lot of these items, when they're one of a kind, we can put an estimate on, but often we miss the selling price by a lot.
"And there's this, too," he added a moment later. "This is still a growth market. Baseball is king right now, because it has the longest and most storied past, at least for Americans. But football is our most popular sport, and the collectibles there are starting to catch up. Plus, there's more and more people getting into the market all the time."
Of course, you'd expect a guy in the business to say exactly that. Heritage wasn't the seller in LeBlanc's case, but the firm expects to generate even bigger headlines later this month as it auctions off the jersey U.S. hockey team captain Mike Eruzione wore in the "Miracle on Ice" game at the 1980 Lake Placid Olympics, when a team composed mostly of college players upset the Soviet Union's Big Red Machine on its way to winning the gold. Heritage already has a standing bid of $325,000 for the jersey, one of two dozen items Eruzione put has up for consignment. Also included in the auction is the bloody sock that then-Red Sox pitcher Curt Schilling wore in in Game 2 of the 2004 World Series. His reputation might be in the can, at least as a businessman, but the sock still could end up in someone else's drawer for a cool $75,000 or more.
So if you've got that kind of money laying around in a drawer and an itch to play the collectibles market, here are the two most important things to know:
— The safest buys will always be stuff once owned or worn by those who, like those Brooklyn Atlantics, have passed into the great beyond. The highest-selling item ever bought on the memorabilia market was the earliest known Yankee jersey worn by Babe Ruth. It went for over $4.4 million just last May and is considered the likeliest contender to break the record if and when it's offered for sale again. Coming in at No. 2 was the original copy of the "Founding Rules of Basketball" written by the game's patriarch, James Naismith, in 1981; that document fetched just over $4.3 million.
— If you like controversy, make sure you have deep pockets and plenty of time on your hands. Cartoonist Todd McFarlane paid more than $3 million for the 70th home run ball disgraced slugger Mark McGwire hit in 1998, and he'd be lucky to get 10 percent of that sum for it today. But McFarlane also seemingly overpaid for some Barry Bonds-powered mementos, and he can afford to take a long range view of the value of his collection.
"I try to take the emotion out of this. We're in the eye of the storm of this controversy. But I'm thinking 20 years in the future, this doesn't matter," McFarlane said in an interview a while back. "You can bellyache all you want, public: it's still going to be in the record book. Get over it! It doesn't matter what you think; what matters is what is. There's not going to be an asterisk. There's going to be a number in a book. I know people who don't think Bush was really elected president, but there he is. You don't have to accept it personally. He'll still be in the history books."
Personally, I'd rather have the jetpack, but something tells me McFarlane is right. As another rich guy famously said once, "The only difference between men and boys is the price of their toys."
Jim Litke is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jlitke(at)ap.org and follow him at Twitter.com/JimLitke.