LOS ANGELES -- Gary Cypres didn't set out to build a sports museum. It just kind of happened organically.
Well, as organically as amassing more than 10,000 items worth more than $30 million inside a 32,000-square-foot downtown Los Angeles warehouse could be.
"This is sophisticated hoarders," Cypres said as he walked around the Sports Museum of Los Angeles, a private collection he has built over the past 25 years. "This is hoarding with a design. I love it. It's my home away from home."
It's also home to the world's largest collection of Dodgers memorabilia, with an emphasis on the team's New York roots.
"When the Dodgers moved to Los Angeles, they auctioned most of their stuff from their time in Brooklyn," Cypres said. "In the old days, they just sold everything. I have a video of the auction in front of Ebbets Field. ... I looked at the auction and I wanted to travel back in time and be there. There was no value placed on their own history. In fact, even today, I'm not sure how much value they place on it."
Cypres, a New York native who has lived in Los Angeles for over two decades, has developed a special affinity toward the Dodgers and preserving their scattered Brooklyn history. Whenever an item from that era pops up at auction, he's usually involved. Many sellers of Dodgers items, aware of Cypres' collection, bypass the auction process and go directly to him.
As a result, while the Dodgers are back in New York this week to face the Mets in the NLDS at Citi Field -- a ballpark designed with former Dodgers home Ebbets Field in mind -- much of the team's Brooklyn history resides in Cypres' Los Angeles warehouse.
Former team owner Peter O'Malley has called Cypres' Dodgers collection "the best that I know of." Frank McCourt, who bought the Dodgers in 2004, was in talks with Cypres about creating a museum at Dodger Stadium before he sold the team three years ago. The current ownership, Cypres said, is more interested in duplicating old artifacts than acquiring authentic ones.
The centerpieces of Cypres' collection are two handwritten letters from Charlie Byrne, who was the president and one of the founders of what would become the Brooklyn Dodgers. The first was a request for membership into the National League ("Said club is duly organized and officered with grounds thoroughly prepared and equipped") on Nov. 14, 1889. The second, written on "Brooklyn Base Ball Association" stationary six days later, accepts the league's unanimous election of its new member.
"That's the birth certificate of the team," Cypres said. "That's where it all begins."
The framed letters can be easy to miss inside Cypres' cavernous museum, which includes 12,000 square feet of space on the second floor. He also has plans to expand the building by another 14,000 square feet.
Cypres owns the first baseball thrown out at Ebbets Field, which sits in a wooden case along with a scoop of infield soil and the top of a broken champagne bottle from Opening Day on April 9, 1913. There's a large brass plaque from the Ebbets Field rotunda along with turnstiles and seats from the stadium, which was demolished in 1960. He has the jersey and hat worn by Babe Ruth when he was a coach for Brooklyn in 1938, as well as authentic home and road Dodgers jerseys dating back to 1913. And that's only scratching the surface.
Producers of the movie "42" borrowed Jackie Robinson's jersey, glove and travel bag from Cypres' collection to recreate it for use in filming. Shortly after the movie was released in 2013, Cypres acquired Don Newcombe's Cy Young and National League MVP awards from 1956 and his 1949 Rookie of the Year award. They had previously been owned by director Spike Lee.
"The Dodgers' history and the value of the franchise was created in New York," Cypres said. "They became one of the signature franchises when they played the Yankees in the World Series six times and beat them for their first championship in 1955. The world knew about the Dodgers, they knew about 'Dem Bums.' They knew about their losing streak. They were the precursors of the Mets and their losing. They had loyal fans. There's a value to that history."
Cypres, 72, grew up in New York during the city's golden age of baseball. The Yankees won eight titles from 1947 to '57, beating the Dodgers five times, while the Dodgers and Giants each won once. Cypress, like most Bronx kids, cheered for the Yankees, but he grew to appreciate the team from Brooklyn.
"I loved the Dodgers," Cypress said. "You love someone you beat all the time. It wasn't a rivalry; we beat them every year other than 1955 when they were both in New York. Wouldn't you love an opponent that you beat all the time?
"But seriously, I knew everything about the Dodgers. They were our archenemy, but I became familiar with the 'Boys of Summer.' Those were great Dodgers teams. If it wasn't for the Yankees, they would have won most of those championships. I actually did love the Dodgers."
Cypres had always been a modest collector, but after receiving a financial windfall when the holding company for which he was the chief financial officer was acquired in a merger in 1985, his hobby turned into a full-fledged obsession. Seven years later, he purchased a shopping center that had burned down during the 1992 L.A. riots and built in its place his warehouse, which sits less than two miles from Staples Center. That gave him the means and the space to collect just about anything his heart desired.
"I went to the bank and made them a cash offer on this space, and they accepted it," Cypres said. "That was the hook. I thought maybe I can build a building for my business and I can use some of the extra space for my collection. Well, you can see what happened. Once you start, it's like a drug. You can't stop."
Cypres' obsession goes beyond the Dodgers. His collection also includes such iconic items as Ruth's uniform from 1934, his last season with the Yankees, Lou Gehrig's warmup jacket on the day he ended his consecutive games streak in 1939 and Joe DiMaggio's record‐breaking ball from his legendary 56‐game hitting streak. There's also a cornice stone from the original Yankee Stadium, a T206 Honus Wagner card (aka the holy grail of trading cards) and Barry Bond's record-tying 755th home run ball.
The collection has grown to encompass football, basketball, hockey, biking and tennis items that are housed in 30 galleries spread out across the warehouse. Cypres is in the process of assembling a Los Angeles Rams collection from the team's nearly 50-year history in the city in case the franchise moves back from St. Louis.
"There are various levels of collectors," Cypres said. "I'm obviously on the far nutty side of it all. I'm completely nuts. People ask me why I do it, and I don't know why. All I know is that I get a great sense of joy in collecting. It's like a holiday all year round for me. I get presents all year round. Every day, Federal Express comes with another goodie I've bought."
Cypres plans to open his museum to the public in February. He's made it available occasionally for charity functions, but so far it's been a private collection other than a six-month public stretch in 2008 that didn't go well.
"We had it open six days a week, which economically doesn't make any sense with security and employees, and I didn't advertise, so the people who came loved it but nobody knew about it," he said. "I didn't understand how a museum worked, but subsequently my wife and I were on the board at MOCA [Museum of Contemporary Art] and I've worked with the Ronald Reagan Library to display some of my collection.
"If I'm going to do it, I have to do it now. I don't have that much time left. You never know when you're going to go, but statistically I'm heading in that direction. I'm in my early 70s now, and all collectors have a fundamental problem. You can't take it with you. The coffin would be too big, and my wife isn't paying for it."
While Cypres can't take his collection with him, there is one part of it he will still have control of after he's gone.
"I'm going to put the Dodger collection in a trust," he said. "The Dodger collection cannot be replaced. There are no duplicates of what I have. Gloves, balls and bats can be replaced, but the history of a franchise which took me 25 years to assemble, that's impossible to replace. That's a treasure, and I don't want my kids to blow the treasure. It's my love, and even after death, I'm going to be looking down saying, 'No, no, no,' if they want to get rid of it. You can't do that. It's history, and that means something to me."