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SI's 25 Lost Treasures

July 11, 2005
July 11, 2005

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July 11, 2005

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SI's 25 Lost Treasures

In an age when Ty Cobb's dentures have gone up for auction and even checkers has its own hall of fame, you might think every sports collectible had already been collected. But the whereabouts of some key items remain a mystery. A fortune awaits those who can find these Holy Grails

JOHN L. SULLIVAN'S TITLE BELT

This is an article from the July 11, 2005 issue Original Layout

In 1887, Boston fans presented bare-knuckle boxing champion and native son John L. Sullivan with a solid gold title belt encrusted with 397 diamonds, known as "the $10,000 belt." The Boston Strong Boy declared that the token would be "held and handed down to the generations of my future relations," but he later chipped out the diamonds and sold off the stripped belt. According to boxing historian Bert Sugar, the prized item made the rounds at pawn shops but hasn't been seen in a century. The Smithsonian has a Sullivan belt, though no one knows whether it's the original or a replica made in 1901. ESTIMATED VALUE: $500,000.

BLACK SOX CONFESSIONS

At the heart of the prosecutor's case in the People v. Edward Cicotte et al. were the signed confessions of three White Sox players—Cicotte, Joe Jackson and Lefty Williams—who had admitted to fixing the 1919 World Series. But before their trial on conspiracy charges started in '21, those confessions mysteriously vanished from the Illinois State Attorney's office; the prosecution's case collapsed, and the players were acquitted. (Known as the Black Sox, they, along with five teammates, remained banned from baseball for life.) Three years later, when Jackson sued the team for back pay, the lawyers for owner Charles Comiskey countered by producing Jackson's signed statement; it was the last time any of the confessions appeared in public. "The documents were probably destroyed because they implicated a lot of corrupt politicians and gamblers," says RM Auctions director of memorabilia Simeon Lipman. "But you never know what could be tucked away in a briefcase." ESTIMATED VALUE: more than $1 million.

POLO GROUNDS WAR MEMORIAL

After the Giants' final out in 1957, 11,000 New Yorkers ran on to the field to pillage—their beloved team was forsaking the Polo Grounds for San Francisco. In deep center, three teens pried loose a plaque that memorialized third baseman Eddie Grant, the only major leaguer killed in World War I. Police nabbed the kids, but the plaque was never turned in to the precinct. ESTIMATED VALUE: $20,000.

FRANCO HARRIS'S TD FOOTBALL

Is there a more famous NFL play than the Immaculate Reception of Dec. 23, 1972? Losing 7–6 to the Oakland Raiders in the AFC divisional playoff with 22 seconds remaining, Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Terry Bradshaw heaved a desperation, fourth-down pass from his 40-yard line. The ball ricocheted off at least one player and was inches from striking the turf when running back Franco Harris snatched it and raced 42 yards for the game-winning score. "It was pandemonium," recalls Harris. "Fans rushed on the field, and the ball was knocked out of my hands. No one paid attention to the ball." Jim Baker begs to differ. "I saw Franco circle around after the catch and hand the ball to the referee," says Baker, 58, of West Mifflin, Pa. "Immediately afterward, the Steelers kicked the extra point, but they [the Three Rivers Stadium crew] never put the net up. That same ball went through the posts, bounced off a concrete wall and I grabbed it. I have the Immaculate Reception ball." Harris, however, is not convinced. "It's too hard to verify," he says. "I would love to have the ball, but listen, it's gone." ESTIMATED VALUE: $80,000.

HONUS WAGNER'S BASEBALL CARD

Collectors call it the "Mona Lisa of baseball cards." Between 1909 and 1911 the American Tobacco Co. gave away a card packaged inside each of its products. Known as the T206 series, it included legends of the day such as Ty Cobb, Cy Young and Honus Wagner. But because he either wanted to be compensated for his image or didn't want to promote smoking to kids, Wagner threatened to sue the company. Production of the card was halted after a few hundred were printed; now only about 50 are known to exist. Five years ago a T206 Wagner in near-mint condition fetched $1.265 million, the highest price ever for a baseball card. The dream find for a collector: a Wagner card in similar condition still tucked into an unopened pack of cigarettes. ESTIMATED VALUE: $1.5 million.

LESTER PATRICK'S GOALIE STICK

With the second game of the 1928 Stanley Cup finals scoreless at Montreal, 44-year-old New York coach Lester Patrick replaced goalie Lorne Chabot, who had been hit in the eye by a puck. Patrick made 18 saves over the final 40 minutes to lift the Rangers to a 2–1 overtime win; New York would defeat the favored Maroons in five games. Experts fear that Patrick's goalie stick—which would be the most valuable in existence—was used until it was broken, then thrown away. ESTIMATED VALUE: $15,000 to $20,000.

O.J. SIMPSON'S HEISMAN TROPHY AND USC JERSEY

On June 17, 1994—the day O.J. Simpson's white Bronco led the LAPD on an hourlong chase—USC officials, fearing vandalism or theft, removed the replica of his 1968 Heisman Trophy and the 32 jersey he wore that year from a display case at Heritage Hall. While Simpson awaited trial on murder charges (he would be acquitted), the trophy and jersey were returned to the case—then stolen a week later. ESTIMATED VALUE: $40,000 to 50,000 for the trophy; $20,000 for the jersey.

WILT CHAMBERLAIN'S 100-POINT BALL

It seems that for each of the record 100 points Wilt Chamberlain scored in Hershey, Pa., on March 2, 1962, there's a conflicting story surrounding the whereabouts of what Leland's auction house then deemed "the most important piece of basketball memorabilia on the face of the earth." Kerry Ryman, now a crane operator, claims that as a 14-year-old he snatched the ball out of Chamberlain's hands after the Knickerbockers-Warriors game, then used it on playgrounds for years. "Wilt scored 100 points with that ball," Ryman has said, "and I scored a couple hundred thousand." Harvey Pollack, then Philadelphia's publicist, and Chamberlain's backup, Joe Ruklick, each say they placed the ball in Wilt's gym bag. Even the Big Dipper had his own account: He'd given it to Warriors teammate Al Attles and wasn't interested in tracking it down. (Attles has denied ever having it.) "It's a mystery," says Basketball Hall of Fame head curator Matt Zeysing, "but not all that surprising. Since 1962 we had what we thought to be Wilt's 25,000th-point-game jersey—and someone recently auctioned off what he claimed to be just that." ESTIMATED VALUE: $600,000. (Ryman's relic went for $551,000 at a Leland's auction in 2000. Because of suspicions about its authenticity, the house suspended the sale; the ball was reauctioned six months later for $67,791.)

SECRETARIAT'S DERBY SADDLE SILK

In 1973, when Secretariat won the Triple Crown in charismatic fashion, it was a good bet that Big Red souvenirs would be of value. Many items sold in a '99 Sotheby's auction, but some key pieces have never turned up. The most coveted? The saddle cloth Secretariat wore at the Kentucky Derby. According to Leonard Lusky, the president of Secretariat.com, jockey Ron Turcotte handed the cloth embroidered with 1A to a Churchill Downs valet after the race. Three years ago a man calling himself Gus phoned Lusky and Turcotte claiming to be that valet, but he has yet to set up a meeting. Says Lusky, "Maybe he's just too sentimental to sell it." ESTIMATED VALUE: $250,000.

EVANDER HOLYFIELD'S EAR CHUNK

Trailing Evander Holyfield in the third round of their 1997 WBA heavyweight title fight at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas, Mike Tyson, while in a clinch, spit out his mouthpiece and took a bite out of the champ's right ear. After referee Mills Lane disqualified Tyson for taking a second bite, the employee in charge of maintaining the ring scooped the inch-long otic chunk off the mat and into a latex glove, which was put in ice. Holyfield and his ear traveled in an ambulance to Valley Hospital, but along the way, the glove was misplaced. The ear hasn't been seen since. ESTIMATED VALUE: $5,000.

FIRST SUPER BOWL TAPE

Although 77 million viewers tuned in at the time, it's believed that only a two-minute clip remains from the broadcast of Super Bowl I at L.A.'s Memorial Coliseum on Jan. 15, 1967. Both CBS and NBC aired the Green Bay Packers' 35–10 rout of the Kansas City Chiefs on kinescope, but the four reels of 16-mm film were recorded over shortly afterward. There remains a slight possibility that one of the networks' affiliates taped the game—and saved the recording. ESTIMATED VALUE: more than $1 million.

BABE RUTH'S PIANO

The stories about the upright piano that's supposedly resting at the bottom of Willis Pond in Sudbury, Mass., are legion. One is that in the winter of 1918, then Red Sox pitcher-outfielder Babe Ruth, while blotto during a party, pushed the piano off the porch, down a slope and into the water. Another: While hosting a sing-along for children, the Bambino tried to enliven the festivities by relocating both kids and instrument to the frozen pond, then left the piano there to sink in the spring. Three years ago underwater searcher John Fish looked for fragments using sonar equipment and a magnetometer. He, like others, turned up nothing. ESTIMATED VALUE: "If you can prove that something is a part of the piano, then it's one of those quirky type of things that could go for a thousand dollars or a hundred thousand," says Simeon Lipman, vice president of RM Auctions. "There's nothing really to compare it to."

MUHAMMAD ALI'S GOLD MEDAL

When Muhammad Ali (then Cassius Clay) returned from the 1960 Summer Olympics in Rome, he was so disgusted by racism in his native Louisville that he stripped the light heavyweight gold medal from his neck and threw it in the Ohio River—or so he said in his 1975 autobiography, The Greatest. A short time later, however, he admitted that he had done nothing of the sort. In either case, the medal remains missing (though at the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta, IOC president Juan Antonio Samaranch did present Ali with a duplicate gold ). After Ali's oft-told tale about how he disposed of the original, it would be a significant find. ESTIMATED VALUE: $1 million.

HAMILTON TIGERS JERSEY

On the eve of their 1925 playoff series, 10 Hamilton (Ont.) Tigers went on strike, prematurely ending the team's fifth and final NHL season. (The franchise became the New York Americans for 16 seasons, then the Brooklyn Americans for one before folding.) To the knowledge of the Hockey Hall of Fame's coordinator of cultural services, Izak Westgate, no Tigers sweaters remain today. He says that to find one—like that worn by star center Joe Malone—"would be to find a true one-of-a-kind." ESTIMATED VALUE: $20,000 to $25,000.

NOT HAVING A BALL

Each of the 80 or so baseballs major league umpires put in play during the average game is worth about $15 in pristine condition. But as soon as those balls get belted over fences in critical situations, their value rises, fights erupt, and lawsuits get filed. Here are a few baseballs so renowned that fans would no doubt line up to see them—if anyone knew where the darn things were.

BILL MAZEROSKI'S HOME RUN

In the ninth inning of Game 7 of the 1960 World Series, Pirates second baseman Bill Mazeroski beat the Yankees 10–9 with a homer at now defunct Forbes Field. A plaque on Roberto Clemente Drive marks the spot where that blast left the park, but the ball has never surfaced. "Eight or nine people came back that day and said it was the real ball," Maz told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. "I didn't know. Everyone wanted a hundred dollars for it." ESTIMATED VALUE: $100,000.

BUCKY DENT'S HOME RUN

It is a memory that haunts Red Sox Nation: the seventh-inning, three-run homer by shortstop Bucky Dent that cleared the Green Monster at Fenway Park and lifted the Yankees to a 5–4 win in the 1978 AL East playoff game. "It has to either be with a Boston fan with voodoo pins stuck in it or sitting quietly on a mantelpiece in the home of a Yankees fan," says Leila Dunbar, director of collectibles at Sotheby's. Seth Swirsky, a collector and the author of Baseball Letters, has a more plausible theory: Because the grounds crew had failed to clear some 20 balls from the leftfield netting after batting practice that day, Dent's home run ball could never have been identified. ESTIMATED VALUE: $250,000.

AMERICAN LEAGUE FIRST PITCH

The first American League ball pitched—by White Stockings righty Roy Patterson at Chicago's South Side Park on April 24, 1901—has never been found. But the home plate ump, Tom Connolly, had a habit of pocketing milestone baseballs. "He had a keen sense of history," says Sotheby's Leila Dunbar, noting that Connolly's daughters, who inherited his collection, gave out some items as gifts. ESTIMATED VALUE: $150,000.

BOBBY THOMSON'S HOME RUN

The ball flew out of the Polo Grounds (Pafko at the wall!) and into the hands of a fan—a fan who held what would become one of the most sought-after collectibles in sports. On Oct. 3, 1951, Bobby Thomson launched his Shot Heard Round the World: a ninth-inning homer that foiled the Brooklyn Dodgers and clinched the pennant for the New York Giants. Last year Leland's put a $1 million bounty on the ball. The auction house verified that one of the dozens of submissions was used in the game but couldn't call it the Shot. It still went for $47,824. ESTIMATED VALUE: $1 million.

RAY CHAPMAN'S FATAL BEANING

In the top of the fifth at the Polo Grounds on Aug. 16, 1920, New York Yankees righthander Carl Mays plunked Indians shortstop Ray Chapman (left) on his left temple with a curve ball. Chapman, 29, died the next day—the first and only death from an on-field incident in major league history. Joel Platt, the executive director of the Sports Immortals Museum in Boca Raton, Fla., claims to have the fatal ball, though, as Leland's CEO Josh Evans says, "the piece has not been acknowledged as being real." According to Platt, Cleveland centerfielder Chuck Jamieson picked up the ball on his way to check on Chapman. In 1969, Jamieson gave it to sportswriter Bob Curley, who donated it to Platt in '83. ESTIMATED VALUE: $100,000 to $200,000.

BYGONE BLING

Note to athletes and coaches who believe that it don't mean a thing if you ain't got that ring: Cherish your championship, because the jewelry that goes with it can suddenly disappear.

ROCKY BLEIER'S SUPER BOWL RINGS

For 13 seasons undersized running back Rocky Bleier charmed Steelers fans with his perseverance and clutch play. He still has the Purple Heart and the Bronze Star he earned during his yearlong tour with the Army in Vietnam. But while he was giving a motivational speech in Charlotte last year, someone snuck into an unlocked dressing room and pilfered three of the four Super Bowl rings he won with Pittsburgh between 1975 and '80. ESTIMATED VALUE: $20,000 to $25,000 each.

GENO AURIEMMA'S HOOPS RINGS

Last November two teenagers stole four championship rings from the unlocked car of UConn women's basketball coach Geno Auriemma. The teens allegedly sold the rings (1995, 2000, '02 and '03) for $160 apiece to Javier Lugo of Hartford, who would not speak to the jewelry's whereabouts in court last February. "It's not something that I'm in a hurry to figure out," says Auriemma, who still has his '04 bauble. "I don't put as much emphasis on those things as others do." ESTIMATED VALUE: $800 each.

ARTIS GILMORE'S ABA TITLE RING

With his massive Afro and 7'2" frame, Artis Gilmore was one of the ABA's leading men, a dominant post presence who held the league's alltime record for blocked shots. He was also the centerpiece of the Kentucky Colonels' 1975 title team—a triumph somewhat muted by the theft of his championship ring. He had it swiped from a hotel room while playing for the Bulls in the late '70s. "It brought up sensational memories," says Gilmore. "It was irreplaceable." ESTIMATED VALUE: $15,000.

RARE JORDAN

When you reign for a decade as the world's greatest basketball player—not to mention retire three times and unretire twice—you tend to generate a ton of memorabilia. Here are some of the more elusive pieces in what figures to be the increasingly valuable Michael Jordan collection.

STEAK DINNER COUPON

In 1998 a Chicago Chevrolet dealership offered a promotion: Buy a Blazer for $26,000 and receive a limited edition Michael Jordan trading card. On the front of the card was a portrait of His Airness; on the back, a coupon for dinner in an exclusive, glassed-in room at Jordan's steakhouse. No one knows how many cards were given out; Oscar Gracia, author of Collecting Michael Jordan Memorabilia, has seen only two of them in seven years. He has one of those. "People turned in their cards, and the restaurant hosts trashed them," he says. "That's why they're so hard to find." ESTIMATED VALUE: $2,000.

DOUBLE A BASEBALL CARD

In 1994, after Michael Jordan first retired from the Bulls to join the Birmingham Barons, a White Sox Double A farm team, Fleer made his baseball card. But the company wasn't happy with his photo, so it destroyed the 90,000 cards it had printed—except for the dozen or so kept by Fleer employees. Only three have surfaced in the past decade. Says Gracia, "They are so limited that most collectors don't even know they exist." ESTIMATED VALUE: $1,200.

YUGOSLAVIAN STICKER

Items bearing Jordan's image were produced all over the world. By far the hardest to find is a sticker made in 1989 by CAO, a Yugoslavian publication. "They disappeared because of the war," says Gracia, who knows of only a half dozen. "I have friends who have traveled to Yugoslavia three times trying to find them." ESTIMATED VALUE: $3,000.