Interview with Love of the Game Auctions’, Al Crisafulli.
Conducted by Collectable’s Senior Editor, David Seideman.
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Love of the Game Auctions is the industry’s biggest small auction house. As a periodic buyer and consignor since Al Crisafulli launched the company a decade ago, I have enjoyed the special treatment that is customary for all his clients. Crisafulli’s encyclopedic knowledge and way with words enables him to do some of the best write-ups in the hobby. He treats every consignment like it’s his most important. Whether it’s a ’52 Topps Mantle or an obscure Honus Wagner issue you’re seeing for the first time, Crisafulli has an unerring eye for valuable cards and rare memorabilia.
Of course, you find your typical Babe Ruths, Mickey Mantles, and Honus Wagners in a LOTG auction, but there are also much scarcer issues with upside potential. Many are just plain cool. Ironically, when so much of the industry is caught up in the ultra modern card frenzy, Crisafulli is a big advocate of the earliest cards from the 1800s and has record sales to prove it.
Crisafulli has enjoyed his share of historic finds, and if you had assembled a portfolio from his choice pieces over the years, you would be enjoying very handsome returns. Let’s dig in to find out more.
David: How long have you been in the hobby? And as one of the smaller auction houses, how many employees do you have? And how many auctions per year do you hold?
Al: I’ve been a collector for more than 40 years and have always focused on vintage baseball. Love of the Game is entering its tenth year in operation, prior to which I owned an advertising and marketing agency that counted among its clients some of the most important auction houses and authentication companies in the hobby. So I’ve been on the business end of the hobby for about 20 years, with about a decade of high-level corporate marketing experience before that. We have a small staff of employees and creative professionals that produce three auctions with full-color printed catalogs each year. We’re also nimble enough to be able to produce smaller, bespoke auctions for special collections or high-end sets.
David: So are these the most desirable cards listed on your auction house’s want list for consignment?
- 1920s-30s Ruth (PSA 5+)
- T206 HOFers (PSA 7+)
- High-End Goudey Ruths
- 1950s-60s Mantle (PSA 8+)
- M101-4 Babe Ruth
- Key 19th Century Rarities
- CJ Matty, Cobb & Jackson
- HOF Intro Class
- PSA 8, 9, 10 HOF Rookies
Al: In a lot of ways, the hottest cards in the hobby right now are ultra-modern rookie cards, special rare insert cards and parallels, Pokemon and rookie cards of elite recent players like Mike Trout, Tom Brady and Michael Jordan. We certainly can speak that language, it’s just not where we focus.
We often solicit specific cards based on what we feel will perform best in our auction at the time, and not necessarily based on what’s hottest in the hobby.
The hobby is obviously super hot right now, which is fantastic. But the hobby has been here for a long time and has a lot of depth. We’re built to focus less on what’s hot, and more on what’s interesting to our customers and more difficult to find. There are a lot of auction houses that are great at presenting investment-quality material that’s super hot in the hobby, and while we do offer a lot of that type of material too, we sort of view ourselves kind of as a museum that’s across the street from the giant investment bank.
David: So, give me a few examples that are museum worthy and could belong in an investment bank?
Sure, last April we handled a gorgeous 1952 Topps Mantle which had been tucked away in a trunk with the patriarch’s childhood belongings for decades untouched by anyone and not even exposed to light. It graded a PSA 5.5 and sold for $$169,000, a very good return for this grade.
But we also sold a beautiful 1910 E105 Mello-Mint Gum (a colorful candy set) Honus Wagner throwing pose, which for $46,000 and was a museum-caliber piece due to its rarity.
To put things in perspective, PSA has graded 17 examples of the ’52 Mantle in PSA 5.5 alone— they’ve graded more than 1,8000 ’52 Mantles in total. They’ve only graded six examples of Wagner in total. Both are great cards. But we think the Wagner is the type of card that works really well in our auction in comparison with some of the other auction houses out there.
David: One of the things that makes great memorabilia is the great story behind it, not just solid provenance but exciting context. You’ve had some amazing stuff that has stories worth telling.
Al: Probably our best-known example of this is the Lou Gehrig game-used bat that we sold a few years ago. The bat was owned by an elderly woman, and for decades, was the “weapon” in her house — the one we all have, the “if somebody ever breaks in, hit them with this bat” bat. Except hers was a Lou Gehrig gamer. While we were researching the bat, we were able to photo match the bat. It’s the only photo-matched Gehrig bat in the hobby, and it sold for $438,000.
But my favorite example of this is from a small advertising display calendar from a 1902 town team in Honesdale, Pennsylvania. In the team photo, I noticed an African-American player. When we did some research it turned out that the player’s name was Billy Miller, and he played in a league where he was the only nonwhite person. All the other teams wanted to get him banned from the league – not because he was Black, but because he was great, so they tried to get him banned because they claimed he wasn’t from Honesdale, a claim he consistently denied. He eventually left Honesdale and played in the Negro Leagues, and then went to fight in WWI, where he was part of the Harlem Hellfighters – an African-American infantry unit that spent more time in combat than any other American troops. He lost an arm and a leg there, came back a hero, and when he died, he was buried in his hometown – NOT Honesdale, but Dingmans Ferry, PA! The calendar only sold for a few hundred dollars, but the story? To me, that’s a priceless piece of baseball history.
There are a lot of people who are recent entrants into the hobby, and a lot of those people like to seek out items that are rare, one-of-one or serial numbered items. As they dive deeper into the hobby, some of them learn that there are also items in the hobby that are rare not because they were manufactured that way, but because very few examples have survived.
David: How hot are Jackie Robinson’s Leaf and Topps cards?
Jackie Robinson is one of those players who has always received respect in the hobby, but nothing close to what he deserves. One could easily make the argument that Jackie Robinson is the most important figure in the history of American sports, and perhaps one of the most important figures in the history of the country. How can you undervalue the baseball cards of a person like that? So they’re hot for sure, but I also don’t see any reason they should cool off. I’d also add in his Bowman cards and his Bond Bread cards.
David: How hot has the Mantle market been?
Al: Mantle is always the bellwether for postwar baseball cards, and I don’t see that changing. Mantle cards are always a solid investment. For folks seeking to move into vintage collecting on a budget, I also think Mantle has a lot of cards that are overlooked and still affordable —not his standard Topps and Bowman issues but some of the regionals, inserts, postcards and such.
For instance, the Topps inserts from the 1960s, as well as the special cards like the 1964 Topps Giants and 1964 Topps Stand-ups are popular, but relatively inexpensive. Some of the regionals and smaller issues like 1954 Red Heart Dog Food, or 1954 Dan-Dee Potato Chips remain affordable – and cards like his Exhibit cards, Dormand Postcards, Jay Publishing, 1964 Requena Yankees, even 1964 Rawlings Premiums – are downright cheap!
David: What other players fall into this category?
Al: In baseball, I think the obvious postwar players besides Mantle are Mays, Koufax, Clemente and Aaron. Obviously you can add players from other sports to that list, like Wilt, Jordan, Gretzky, Kobe, Lebron, Tom Brady, maybe Tiger Woods.
In terms of a second tier, I’d say Nolan Ryan, Tom Seaver, Reggie Jackson, players like that seem to fall into that category. In other sports perhaps Dr. J, Larry Bird, Walter Payton, Joe Namath, Kareem.
For me personally, the top tier is the first five baseball Hall of Famers. You could build a collection with nothing but Ruth, Cobb, Wagner, Johnson and Mathewson, and it could be a world-class collection. With those players, grades are much less important than rarity.
David: Is what you are seeking what astute people are collecting?
Al: The main point that I want to get across here is that it’s a huge hobby, and there are a lot of different things and ways to collect. There’s room for everyone, regardless of how astute they might be, at every age, income, and level of knowledge of the sport they collect. Some of the most knowledgeable collectors I know have had some of the smallest budgets. Some people collect purely for the investment potential. Some people collect purely for the passion they have for the history of the sport they collect. If you look at those two things as extreme ends of a spectrum, most collectors fall somewhere along that spectrum, balancing the investment potential with their love of the game.
But for the purposes of this question, I think there are places where serious investors and advanced collectors converge, and other places where they’re pretty far apart. For instance, I’m not sure advanced collectors have a lot of interest in some of the speculation in the ultra-modern arena that is frequently seen with serious investors.
Similarly, I don’t think a lot of serious investors have a ton of interest in common players from obscure prewar card issues. But there are places that the two types of collectors meet, and those areas tend to be the kinds of material that you see highlighted in our auctions when we can. Things that we’ve featured in various auctions, like 1925 Exhibit Gehrig Rookies (ranging in price from $18,000 to $210,000), the 1917 E135 Collins-McCarthy Ruth ($111,000 in poor condition) we featured in our last auction, or the N695 1887 Kalamazoo Bats Jim O’Rourke ($90,000 in 2019) are the types of cards that fall smack in the middle of that spectrum, with appeal to both investors and serious collectors.
How is memorabilia such as tickets and autographs compared to cards?
Cards will always drive the market, price-wise.
But I think memorabilia items are extremely strong, and have a certain appeal because you can surround yourself with them – they display well.
There are a lot of different types of memorabilia, and the hobby tends to get cluttered with material that was made to be collected because it might be worth money someday. I had a consignor who owned a bar that closed —he brought me a truckload of sports memorabilia that decorated the bar — everything was a ‘limited edition’ print, signed by the subject. One of 500, one of 1,000, one of 25. In his truck were about a hundred different pieces, most of them ‘limited edition,’ all signed by one the same 20 or 30 players.
When there are 100 different ‘limited edition’ items, and each of them is signed by the same players, how rare are they? So for memorabilia, I tend to prefer items that were originally intended for purposes unrelated to collecting, like advertising display pieces, news service photos, scorecards, tickets, that sort of thing. I love selling that kind of material, and I can never get enough of it.
David: You spoke about tickets. They are booming. I have my own story. In late 2019, I paid $400 in an auction for a ticket stub from the 1976 game in which Dodgers outfielder Rick Monday saved an American flag from two fans who had run on the field and tried to set it on fire. A month later, you did such a good writeup for this “milestone” ticket that the ticket from the adjoining seat sold for $1,200!
Al That Monday ticket was a good example because it’s one I think everybody knows about, a story that is about more than just baseball. Having a ticket like that come across my desk —even though it just sold for $1200 or so —that’s a great piece. Writing about that sort of thing is my favorite part of running an auction – being able to say, “Okay, how can I present this piece in the right historical context?” It’s more than just dollar signs.
Another fun example of this is the 1976 Chicago White Sox ticket stub we sold in our last auction. ($480). Everybody knows that there was a White Sox team that had shorts as part of their uniforms. Most people don’t realize they only played three games that way. The stub we sold in our last auction was for the first game — the first time a major league team actually wore shorts on the field. What was fun was that the winning bidder was Darren Rovell, who tweeted about it after the auction ended. Darren is an avid ticket collector and a very prominent hobby journalist.
Recently the market for ticket stubs from meaningful games has been skyrocketing. (Classic Auctions just sold the ticket from Manttle’s 1951 debut for $141,000. For years it hovered around $3,000. In December a ticket from Michael Jordan’s debut fetched $264,000 in an auction)
As far as display materials, I like items that were meant to advertise products by hanging in retail stores —things like the Tuxedo Tobacco advertising pieces, Reach Sporting Goods signs, or some of the Lucky Strike display signs —those are just beautiful pieces that were produced to sell products. They’re pretty tough to find today.
In the case of those pieces, I think they’re tremendously desirable, and often hard to find, particularly in presentable condition. Important Type 1 photos, and original photography from legendary photographers like Conlon, Thompson, Bain, Horner and the like have been really hot.
David: What kind of game used memorabilia is doing well?
Al: Bats and jerseys of vintage Hall of Famers are always desirable. We recently had a lot of caps, and I was surprised at how much interest there was in them, even common players.
David: What’s moving markets?
Al: What’s happening in this hobby is unprecedented, and it’s really exciting to be a part of. I think at some level, the pandemic is responsible for a lot of the new demand. We actually had the first auction after lockdown started, in March of 2020. There were a lot of people who were concerned that people would start circling their wagons, saving money in case of some nightmare scenario. Instead, the opposite happened —a lot of people wound up working from home at full salary, but without the costs associated with going to work every day, like commuting, food, work clothes, etc. On top of that, they were unable to go out — no concerts, movies, restaurants, sporting events, and things they typically spent money on.
Pandemic-related boredom combined with disposable income led a lot of people to rediscover the hobby. This created a huge demand —for material, for services, for new types of products. There’s been a huge increase in new hobby-related businesses that have started since the pandemic began, even types of businesses that didn’t even exist before the pandemic. It’s been pretty amazing to watch.
Has there been an increase in fraud? How do you spot it?
There’s always been a lot of fraud in the hobby. It’s a function of there being so much money, particularly when there are a lot of people excited about the opportunity to acquire and own something that is both interesting and valuable, but where it’s possible to spend a ton of money without having a lot of knowledge about the material.
Just this week, I looked at a collection from someone who spent a fortune on counterfeit cards. If the cards were authentic, it would be a world-class collection. Without getting into too much detail, some of the most iconic cards in the hobby — the kind of cards someone new to the hobby with an unlimited budget would buy —were part of this collection. But every one of the most “valuable” cards were fake. There were authentic cards sprinkled into the collection, but all low-grade, lower-dollar cards. The collector found people who could get him the things he wanted, and he trusted them without taking the time to learn about the material he was buying — which can be fine, as long as you’re buying from reputable people.
That’s sort of my mantra in this hobby: deal with reputable people. If a company or dealer or collector doesn’t have a strong reputation, don’t work with them. There’s almost nothing they can sell you that’s so rare that you can’t find it somewhere else with a little patience. If nobody bought from people who were known to commit fraud, they’d either go out of business or they’d straighten up.
One of the things that concerns me right now in the hobby is that there are these relatively recent entrants, like Collectable, that are staffed by knowledgeable people who’ve been in the hobby and who are doing interesting things, moving the hobby in interesting directions. But then it seems like there’s another crop of startup businesses where it’s tough to see who the people are that are behind them. The foundations seem shaky, and they’re doing things like giving investment advice, or doing grading and authentication. I worry that a lot of newcomers to the hobby don’t have the ability to discern which are the reputable companies, and which are not.
David: At the National, I asked you to highlight three items that are undervalued and have investment potential.
“Frank Robinson. The most underrated guy in history. Frank Robinson is Superman. He had a legendary career. He won the Triple Crown, MVP in both leagues, and hit 586 home runs. He was the first Black manager. He was also an assistant general manager. He is the most affordable of the great players. I am a big fan. As the hobby is starting to give players of color— Aaron, Mays, (Jackie) Robinson—their due, they have all skyrocketed, Robinson has not moved.”
“19th century Hall of Famers and rare issues. Right now 19th century has not gotten caught up in the hobby boom. Once, their prices were really high. The N173s (Old Judge cabinet cards) Hall of Famers sell for considerably less than 10 years ago. I feel the same about Kalamazoo Bats (an extremely rare 1886-`87 rare issue). How about the infamous Hoss Radbourne N173 with him giving the finger? $11,000. That’s lunch money in this hobby.”
“Premium issues that can’t be graded because they are too big. Two examples are the 1899-1900 M101-1 Sporting News supplements (filled with Hall of Famers such as Cy Young and Nap Lajoie) and 1898-99 National Copper Plate Co. Portraits (Cap Anson and Buck Ewing). Any large newspaper supplements. (They measure 11×14” and 10×13”, respectively.)
They are big and beautiful. One day, the grading companies are going to connect these with holders. Nat Turner, the new PSA CEO, will be looking for news streams of revenue. There’s oddball sized stuff that you cannot grade now. As you can see with Type 1 photos and oversized cards, customers are demanding oversized holders.”
I still think all those things are undervalued and have potential. But I think if we’re going to evaluate them in terms of explosive investment potential, maybe my suggestions aren’t as enticing as giving you the name of some major league prospect that’s waiting in the wings and about to become the next Sandy Koufax, or some already-valuable thing that’s going to continue to escalate in price. But I think those three answers definitely still qualify as things I would recommend collectors investigate, because they are undervalued, either relative to the greatness of the player (in the case of Robinson) or the scarcity of the material.
As for 19th Century material in general, I think there’s nothing in the hobby that’s consistently more rare, more difficult to find, more beautiful, and frankly, more historic. I hate to use a term like “bullish” when discussing the hobby, but I’ve never been more enthusiastic about 19thCentury items as I am today. It’s currently a massively overlooked part of the hobby, but even the most common 19th Century Hall of Famer is impossibly rare in comparison with the cards that are hottest in the hobby right now.
Finally, does the hobby’s future look bright?
This is the greatest hobby in the world. The hobby’s future is as bright as it’s ever been. As long as there are kids dreaming of hitting home runs or scoring touchdowns, there will be sports cards and memorabilia. Andas long as there are adults, there will be nostalgia. As long as those two things exist, there will always be a hobby. I don’t have a crystal ball, so I can’t tell you what the long-term investment market for baseball cards looks like, but the hobby will always be here.