Originally published in the Maine Antique Digest.
by Lita Solis-Cohen
Hunt Auctions' semiannual late summer auction of sports memorabilia in Exton, Pennsylvania, featured balls, bats, and trophies consigned by the widow of Roy Campanella.
"Campanella was widely regarded as the finest overall catcher in major league history," said David Hunt, who organizes two live auctions each year, held at the Inn at Chester Springs in Exton, Pennsylvania. "He played under Negro League legend Biz Mackey with the Baltimore Elite Giants and became an all-star as an adept defensive player with a potent bat. He was on the championship Baltimore team in 1939 and appeared in several East-West all-star Negro League teams from 1937 to 1945."
His ten years in the major leagues were even more impressive. He received the most valuable player award three times in the 1950's.
Campanella's widow, Roxie, decided it was time to send his memorabilia to Hunt for sale, saying that a portion of it would go to the Roy & Roxie Campanella Foundation for physical therapy. Hunt said he would also give a third of his commission to the foundation.
The August 22 and 23 sale grossed $1.8 million for just over 1180 lots, the most ever for a Hunt live auction.
The 80 lots from the Campanella consignment brought in more than $600,000 of the total. It began with autographed balls and included bats, framed awards, trophies, and autographs. The MVP awards evoked the most excitement for the 50 or so collectors in the salesroom and seven bidders on the phones. The octagonal sterling plaques mounted on black stained wood have the words "Kenesaw Mountain Landis Memorial Baseball Award" in raised block letters around a baseball diamond. Under a 10k gold bust of Landis are the words "Most Valuable Player National League," and in gold is "Roy Campanella." Under his name in silver is "Brooklyn Dodgers," and under that on a gold baseball on crossed bats is the date of the award. All three plaques are the same, but the dates on the baseballs are 1955, 1953, and 1951.
Cognoscenti in the salesroom considered the most significant one to be the 1955 award, given to Campanella the year the Dodgers beat the Yankees in the World Series. That was the year he had a .318 batting average, hit 32 home runs, had 107 RBI's, and committed only six errors all season. The first of the three plaques offered, it was knocked down for $99,000 (includes buyer's premium) to a bidder in the salesroom, who said he was Ron Leff, a collector from the Philadelphia area who has been collecting since he attended the Barry Halper sale at Sotheby's four years ago. "I am looking to build a world-class collection of significant historical pieces," he said.
Leff said for a moment he thought he had paid too much, but when the next MVP award, for 1953, came up and sold for $104,500 to a phone bidder, he felt better. After Campanella's first MVP award with the date 1951 was knocked down for $170,500 to another phone bidder, the auctioneer, looking at Leff, asked, "Do you want to re-offer yours?" He knew he made a good buy.
All three prices broke the previous record price for an MVP award, $27,077.90, paid for Orlando Cepeda's 1967 NL MVP award sold on the Internet in April 2003 by MastroNet.
"Campanella's 1955 MVP is worth double what his others were because fifty-five was the only year Brooklyn won the series," said Zane Burns, a dealer from Brentwood, Tennessee, who came to the sale. "It's the best, and he paid the least?he's got to be feeling good about that," he said.
Leff, 49, said he retired from his family's vitamin business and is collecting baseball memorabilia with his 19-year-old son, who is away at college. He bought two Campanella items to go with his MVP trophy. One was a Roy Campanella game-worn catcher's mitt that cost him $41,800 (est. $5000/7500). "That mitt earned him his award," said Leff. The other was an autographed 8 inches x 10 inches black-and-white 1948-49 photograph of Campanella in a Dodgers uniform taken by Cecil Layne, a highly respected African-American photographer. It is boldly signed "Best Wishes Roy Campanella" and came from another consignor. Estimated at $2500/3500, it sold for $6600.
There was plenty left for other bidders. Zane Burns bought Roy Campanella's bronzed catcher's mitt, an award attached to a wooden plaque given by Wilson Sporting Goods, for $9900, but he didn't get Campanella's Brooklyn Dodgers warmup jacket that sold for $34,100. "He used to wear it when he cut the grass," said Burns. "There are just no Campanella jerseys or jackets around."
A New Jersey collector paid $29,700 for Campanella's 1941 East-West MVP trophy with a figure of a batter on top, a rare trophy from his days playing in the Negro League. It was estimated at $2000/3000. A phone bidder got the last of the Campanella lots consigned by his family, the bronzed cleats said to be the ones he wore in his final game against the Philadelphia Phillies on September 29, 1957. Hunt believes he also wore these cleats in his last game at Ebbets Field on September 24. Campanella never played in L.A. A tragic automobile accident in January 1958 left him paralyzed and ended his baseball career.
Hunt's next event is a "sports immortals" auction on October 25 and 26 to be conducted with Guernsey's, New York City, to be held at the new Borgata hotel, casino, and spa in Atlantic City. It is primarily a single-owner collection put together by Joel Platt, a Florida collector who has been accumulating sports memorabilia for 40 years and is selling a portion of his hoard to fund a museum for the rest of it. There are some other significant consignments of baseball memorabilia as well as the personal collection of Joe Frazier. For details, call (610) 524-0822 or go to the Web site (www.huntauctions.com).