Russ Havens, longtime ticket collector and expert about the bullish ticket market.
Conducted by Collectable’s Senior Editor, David Seideman.
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I love vintage ticket stubs. There may be no other type of vintage sports memorabilia that links you to the past as much as a ticket stub does. Old tickets excite all my senses at Shea Stadium where my dad and I once rooted for the Mets. I can smell the vendors’ steamed hot dogs they served in paper napkins and the stale beer that came in paper cups. And that pungent, ubiquitous odor of cigar smoke. I can visualize the emerald field beneath the deep blue sky. And I can hear the crowd thunder when Tom Seaver fanned a batter.
Fortunately I saved a few of these precious objects. I felt as though I owned my Field Level box seat ($4.00 in 1972!),)! even if only for a few hours during a game. No two tickets are alike because each has its own section and seat number. Mine from the early 1970s show a disconsolate Mr. Met holding an umbrella up during a shower as a reminder to fans to keep their stubs as “RAIN CHECKS.” (Could the historically hapless Mets have chosen a sorrier symbol?)
Games watched on TV come back to life in full color. On Mother’s Day, 1972, I remember jumping up and down, yelling with joy, in the family room after Willie Mays hit a home run in his first game as a Met. My grandmother came from the kitchen to see what all the commotion was about. I now treasure the stub from that game, which I bought along with a New York Daily News from the next day featuring full-page photos of Willie swatting his blow for $100 a decade ago.
Many are creased or have mustard stains. I call that game used, like a cracked baseball bat loaded with pine tar. Mostly, tickets were discarded, except those from World Series and All Star games which have mostly, but not always, remained static in value because they are so plentiful..
I have taken a special interest in a stub from Mickey Mantle’s first Yankee game in 1951. About 20 years ago, I bought one for $15 at a Salvation Army rummage sale in Brooklyn. I then flipped it for $2,100 in a Lelands auction, a pretty darn good return on my investment. The ticket rose to $7,500 and remained there for years.
Then shock! Classic Auctions just fetched $141,000 for one shortly after Lelands sold an example for $101,000. It’s not just Mantle, either.
Here are some other mind-blowing auction results.
- In November Mile High Card Co. sold the ticket from Wayne Gretzky’s debut for $102,000, one of eight PSA has graded.
- In May, Heritage sold Michael Jordan’s first NBA preseason game ticket stub from 1984 for $35,000.
- In December, Huggins & Scott sold a ticket stub from Michael Jordan’s 1984 debut NBA game $264,000 Thursday, the highest price for a sporting event ticket sold at auction.
- Last May, Wilt Chamberlain’s 100 point game 1962 changed hands for $44,400 in a Heritage auction. (PSA has graded 13.)
- In November, Heritage sold an autographed gem mint Tom Brady first-career touchdown ticket sell for $144,000. It was his Foxboro debut and not even his first game.
- I recently spoke to Tony Giese, Heritage consignment director, about the blazing hot ticket market for Collectable.
- But I wanted to dig deeper to understand the meteoric rise of this memorabilia niche that is virtually unparalleled in the history of the industry. To my amazement, there is very little written on ticket stubs, though they have been collected for years. Even the encyclopedic PSA lacks a web page giving context, despite giving invaluable population reports of graded examples showing just how scarce they are. Rich Mueller, the editor of the indispensable Sports Collectors Daily, wrote an excellent story in 2019 on collecting popular World Series ticket stubs from the last 50 years that serves as an excellent primer.
True to form, he followed up on January 15 with a take on the current market. “Even as they’ve become a virtually extinct method of entry into stadiums around the world, the market for collectible vintage sports tickets has never been hotter,” Mueller wrote. “Trading cards picked up steam just prior to the start of the current decade and then exploded during the pandemic. Now, it’s the turn(stile) of the once lowly ducat that’s driving hobbyists to seek out sports ticket stubs for sale on eBay, via major auctions and elsewhere.”
Fortunately, I also found Russ Havens, the creator and manager of TicketStubCollection.com.
“TicketStubCollection.com dedicates itself to the history of ticket stub artwork and ticket stub collecting,” Havens writes. “The site hosts over 25,000 ticket stub images from the sports and entertainment worlds, and each ticket is tagged enabling visitors to search by year, venue, artist, city, league or team. Upload a jpeg of your favorite ticket stubs and I’ll add it to the collection!”
Havens has posted a riveting presentation chronicling the history of ticket stubs, admissions passes and accompanying artwork dating back to ancient Greece. He published“The 2016 Illustrated Ticket Stub Price Guide,” a 136-page book that was way ahead of its time.
David: What inspired you to start collecting tickets?
Russ: For over 40 years I’ve thought ticket stubs are the perfect collectible. They boast a timestamp, refer to a potentially historic event, and unlike sports cards, population numbers are maxed out by venue capacity.
I grew up 35 miles away from Dodger Stadium before the freeway was completed. I’d go four or five times a year. There was the long school bus ride on Little League Night. Or I used to have to go to a local department store to order Dodger tickets through Mutual of Omaha. You would place your order with pencil and paper months ahead of the game, from there they sat pinned to my bulletin board acting as a playbill (handbill?) of sorts. As much as they serve as a reminder of history, it was the anticipation of the event. They acted like handbills for me. Later I started realizing I was incredibly nostalgic about being a kid. And you have to realize that the Dodgers’ home games weren’t televised, so being in person was so special.
Tickets are vastly undiscovered as a collectible. They have yet to really catch on. The scarcity issue is what’s going to drive them. No one throws them away. Everybody keeps everything now. You can buy some recent World Series tickets for five bucks. You can buy a nice Kirk Gibson 1988 World Series home run ticket for less than $875. Then barcoding beget digital tickets, which beget digital, which beget no ticketing at all. Today it’s all electronic or print at home.
David: Do the big sales surprise you? Here are some explanations for their appeal: PSA grades them and they’re difficult to grade. They transcend generations. Again, there’s not a huge population. And they don’t print tickets anymore.
Russ: This is crazy big-boy stuff. Covid kicked off a lot of collections. People started getting obsessed again. We were home a lot going through closets and keeping track of what’s posted on eBay. Ticket listings went from 70,000 to 120,00 to 130,000 at a time. The overall awareness did a lot.
David: Russ, you single out a few Holy Grails. Baseball ticket stubs from Don Larsen’s perfect game in the 1956 World Series, Babe Ruth’s called shot from the 1932 World Series, and ticket stubs from the 1919 Black Sox scandal arguably make up the top three ticket stubs from baseball. What are other suggestions?
Russ: Super Bowl 1, the gold variation. (In 2019, Heritage sold a full PSA NM-MT 8 for $66,000. PSA has graded 35). The blue variation is less desirable.
Giannis Antetokounmpo. His debut was October 13, 2013, when he was 18. (eBay has a full PSA 5 for $7,950. PSA has graded 57).
Tom Brady’s NFL debut. I would rather have a season ticket than the Ticketmaster version. I love the graphic design. The commercial art. They’re full color and they’re glossy. ($101,000 through Collectable IPO. Population estimated to be 30.)
The colorful 1974 Ali vs. Foreman Rumble in the Jungle Full is tough. (A full one in poor condition sold for $2,700 in Huggins and Scott in 2018. PSA population: 8).
The Lou Gehrig Memorial 1941 ticket featuring his photo. (On eBay for $6,999, Make Offer. PSA has graded 127).
Babe Ruth’s 1943 WW2 War Bond Game ticket when he his last home run, against Wallter Johnson. (A PSA 2 is on eBay for $2,995. PSA population: 8).
Hank Aaron passed Babe Ruth with home run 715. I remember watching the game when I was 11 and hearing Vince Scully. I was 11. He was getting harassed. It was one of the most moving moments of my childhood. (Stubs go for $2,000 on eBay. Despite a sellout, there are only 110 stubs and 35 full tickets graded by PSA).
Wayne Gretzky’s 1994 802nd goal passing Gordie Howe as the all-time leader has become a sought-after ticket. (There are 31 stubs and seven full graded by PSA). My friend had season tickets, but didn’t make it to the game. Everyone went to the game, so a stub is $90-$100. But a full is $8,000, assuming the edges are clean.
David: That’s an interesting case of making a mint from missing history! Speaking of Gretzky, you have a good story about his 1979 debut ticket as a symbol of the sizzling market.
Russ: I believe this ticket stub transcends condition and style. Obviously one wants a Season Ticket style stub graded an 8, but most would kill for a Ticketmaster style today. (The $101,000 ticket stub at Mile High was a season version graded a PSA 3 with a mark.)
Yes, there’s an amazing story. Richard Hill was a huge collector and hockey fan as a kid growing up in Brantford Ontario. His grandfather, grandmother and his grand uncle attended Gretzky’s debut game and kept the tickets individually. One was doused in a spilled tea incident. The other, the grandmother’s, was kept in a pencil cup on her desk. Over the years, Richard asked her to better preserve the ticket but she refused. For whatever reason, she wanted that ticket in her pencil cup. I believe she passed on before the grandfather, and the grandfather gifted it to Richard. The third ticket stub? Just plain missing. It’s been years and no one knows where it went.
A week before the Mile High sale on November 11 he told me he was thinking of asking $2,500 but got an offer of $4,000— still a far cry from the $11,400 in December 2020, I told him. He put it on a Canadian classified sale website called Kijiji with Best Offer. On November 9, the two highest offers for the Gretzky debut ticket were $14,000 and $15,000 as Mile High’s ticket soared.
“My phone is blowing up, as are my emails and text messages,” Hill wrote Havens. On November 10, the day before Mile High closed, the highest offer was $22,000 (almost a fifth of Mile High’s hammer price) but Hill had a huge lot of significant ticket hockey stubs from the era and was working with auction houses to sell them as a lot. Just an amazing story!
David: Wow! No seller’s regret here, as is so often the case. I’m curious about ticket stubs and full tickets with holes punched.
Russ: Sometimes those were comp tickets or done instead of ripping a stub, so the ticket is full. It is not universal. There are so many different situations. It varied from venue to venue.
David: Are counterfeits an issue as they are in the rest of the industry.
Russ: No., they are not that common.
David: Vintage full tickets command a premium, as much as twice or three times stubs because the population is a fraction of the stubs.
Russ: Overall, of course, you want the full one. But since 1986 teams slowly began adding barcodes and within two decades the ticket itself became less meaningful. Why? Because fans and collectors could use digital tickets for entry yet have a perfect full “unused” ticket at home. So having a ticket was no different than having a stub.At least there were printed tickets available. Fast forward 20 years and very few paper tickets are being issued. Some teams have emergency stock for generic tickets, but they’re not used ubiquitously as they once were.
David: I see a lot of full “proof” tickets without seat numbers for sale.
Russ: Proofs are acceptable to a small number of collectors. They pop up often enough on eBay. (For example, a proof Babe Ruth War Bond game ticket recently sold for $150 on eBay, compared to $2,999 for the real deal.)
David: I’ve watched two extremely rare last game Jackie Robinson and Mickey Mantle tickets languish for some time for $10,000 on eBay.
Russ: Final appearance games are indeed collectable but debuts, 1st goal/home run etc and even numbered milestones are more desirable in my experience.
David: I’ve seen some of the six figure tickets in auctions autographed by the likes of Tom Brady. Should ticket collectors try to do that if it’s possible? Two other ticket experts I spoke to say no.
Russ: I am a straight purist. I don’t believe in anything other than tickets. Autographs have no interest to me because they are ugly. An autograph didn’t matter to getting into the game. That’s all I care about. A Brady NFL debut ticket (from facing the Lions on September 23, 2000, $100,000 unsigned) is so unique who wouldn’t want that? I think handwriting actually detracts from the value because it makes the ticket less attractive. It wasn’t designed to have an autograph. Some graphic designer spaced it just right. I’m sure he wasn’t keen to have an autograph. I’m also sure those guys were pissed when they added bar codes.
David: So, what general advice can you give novice ticket collectors?
Russ: Do your meticulous research. It doesn’t take a creative thinker to figure out milestones like 500 homers or 3,0000 hits. Years ago, I put a Willie Mays 3,000th hit ticket on eBay for $14.50. Somebody wrote,“do you realize what you just did?” It was flipped for $571 on eBay. (In 2019, Mile High sold one for $1,000. Amazingly, PSA has only graded eight.) I’m really glad that I had another one.