The quest for collecting completism

Originally Published: August 5, 2009
By Paul Lukas | Page 2

Joe Charboneau is sitting at a table and signing autographs. A bunch of really fat guys are sitting on the floor and poring over baseball cards. And a few brave souls are sitting in what's billed as the world's largest indoor Ferris wheel and going around in circles.

Welcome to the 30th annual National Sports Collectors Convention, which took place last week at the I-X Center in Cleveland. Collectors from around the world flew in to see the memorabilia being peddled by over 700 dealers. And I flew in too, to check out the scene and try to find out what drives a person to pay $380 for a Milwaukee Braves ashtray. (I also shot some amateur camcorder footage, a bit of which you can see near the top of this page.)

Uni Watch

I'm not knocking collectors, mind you. I collect all sorts of old stuff myself, including bowling-themed beer ads, salesman sample catalogs and coin-operated gadgets (yes, it works). So I'm speaking from experience when I say the key to a happy collecting life is the moment when you accept that you can never collect everything in a given category, because there will always be at least one thing out there that you can't afford, can't find or don't know about. The feeling of completism will always be out of reach. Once you admit that to yourself, the world becomes a fun museum and you can cherry-pick some nice items that push your buttons without the pressure of having to acquire all of them.

But most of the collectors at the National didn't appear to have experienced that epiphany. This was especially true of the baseball card collectors (by far the largest contingent of attendees), a disturbing percentage of whom seemed to fit all the worst collector stereotypes: nerdy, overweight, socially awkward. As I watched these guys -- and believe me, all of them were guys -- feverishly flipping through bins and albums of cards, trying to cross out items on their want lists, it occurred to me that they seemed to take very little pleasure in the act of collecting. They were more like addicts trying to cop a fix, and I found their frantic, joyless movements from dealer to dealer rather depressing.

Fortunately, I did encounter a few card collectors who were much more inspired. My favorite was a guy from Massachusetts named Spike Glidden, who has a very specific, very personal collection. You know how baseball cards are numbered on the back? Glidden collects card No. 5 from each set.

"Why No. 5?" I asked him.

"Because it's my lucky number," he said.

"And are you the only No. 5 collector out there?"

"As far as I know, yes. Actually, I don't know of anyone else who's collecting any particular number."

There's something brilliantly singular about Glidden's numeric fixation. Anyone can collect full sets or particular players or teams, but it takes a certain kind of eccentric genius to have a collection as narrowly targeted as Glidden's. And when I spoke with him, he'd just dropped $200 on a major find: this card, originally part of a nine-card series produced by Sub Rosa cigarettes in 1886. (The 5 is on the left side of the front, because this series was blank on the back.) "It's the earliest No. 5 I'm aware of," he said, with evident satisfaction.

Personally, though, I was more interested in the non-card offerings. Amid the blur of programs, helmets, jerseys, trunks, pins, pennants, mini-pennants, ads and other assorted ephemera, a few things stood out:

• I knew the Bears had worn some pretty wild shoulder striping back in the day, but I'd never seen one of those uniforms in person before. Interesting rear view, too.

• Speaking of the Bears, check out this awesome jacket. So strange to see even a little bit of green in anything Bears-related, right? And look at the tag -- George Halas was outfitting his own team!

• One of the pennant dealers had a few of these throw blankets made of vintage pennants. Very cool.

• This was my favorite baseball jersey of the entire show. Unfortunately, the dealer didn't know anything about its history. Even more unfortunately, he wanted way more money for it ($450) than I was willing to spend.

• If you're into hardware, there was one dealer who was selling Bobby Czyz's championship belt, Robin Ventura's Gold Glove, the Yankees' 1999 championship trophy and a bunch of championship rings. I tried on one of the rings; it was only about 13 sizes too big.

• I don't usually get too excited about game-used bats, but I really liked the story behind this one. If you look closely above Roy Campanella's name, you can see that "World Series 1951" was originally printed there and was then typed over. That's because 1951 was the year the Dodgers and Giants played a tiebreaker series culminating in Bobby Thomson's famous homer. Louisville Slugger had prepared World Series bats for both teams and then obscured the Series lettering from the Dodgers' set so the bats could be used the following season. "As you know, the '51 Dodgers collapsed in September, and this epitomizes that collapse," explained dealer John Taube, waxing philosophical (or maybe just trying to drive up the price). "This bat really is a metaphor, and symbolizes the futility of the entire Dodgers season." I'm fairly certain that's the only time the word "metaphor" was invoked at any time during the convention.

• I'm not much into autographs either, but I got a kick out of Michael Ono, who came to the National just so he could add Troy Polamalu's signature to his USC helmet signed by famous Trojan alums. Polamalu was the 25th player Ono had gotten to sign the helmet, and by now he's probably up to 26, because after the National he was heading to Milwaukee, where Al Carmichael was scheduled to do a signing.

• You know what isn't rare at all? Pete Rose checks made out to "Cash." I spotted at least a dozen different dealers selling them. One guy told me Rose wrote most of them at racetracks and bookies' offices.

• And hey, speaking of Rose, this was the best T-shirt I saw during the whole convention. A shirt depicted on a shirt! I wanted to talk with the guy wearing it, but he disappeared into the mass of humanity before I could catch up with him.

After two days of this, I started to feel a little numb, so I headed home and began working on this column. As I was double-checking a few things, I discovered that Spike Glidden -- the No. 5 guy -- has a blog in which he documents his obsession. For some reason I found this extremely disappointing, and I couldn't figure out why.

And then it hit me: For a few days there, I thought I had a very special collection, a collection of one, which consisted of Glidden himself. I had collected The Guy With the Most Specific Collection Ever. He was my discovery, my obscure find. But then it turned out that he wasn't obscure at all; anyone can collect him, so to speak, via his blog. And that felt like a letdown, because I no longer had him all to myself.

Which means, of course, that I'd fallen prey to the fallacy of completism, just like all those collectors at the National.

Live Chat Alert

I'll be doing a live Web chat Friday, Aug. 7, at noon ET. We can talk about uniforms, collecting, the National or whatever else is on your mind (but pleeeeaaaase don't submit your questions until the chat session actually begins at noon -- thanks). Talk to you then.

Paul Lukas also collects vintage uniform catalogs but didn't find any of them at the National. His Uni Watch blog, which is updated daily, is here, and his Uni Watch glossary is here. Want to learn about his Uni Watch membership program, be added to his mailing list so you'll always know when a new column has been posted, or just ask him a question? Contact him here.