Thursday, June 19, 2003

Collector's items

Baseball, apple pie, heroes

This story is as American as apple pie.

It begins on Ravogli Avenue in Westwood in the 1950s when Tom Finkelmeier pledged allegiance to the hometown team. Even after his family moved to northwestern Ohio, Tom still tuned the radio to Waite Hoyt and made pilgrimages to Crosley Field, sitting in the stands with his dad and brother, Lou, keeping score on the program with a pencil stub.

The boys just flat loved baseball. And the players. "They were our heroes," Tom says. Johnny Temple. Roy McMillan. Ted Kluszewski. Not to mention heroes on other teams - Ted Williams, Mickey Mantle, Hank Aaron, Willie Mays. Tom and his pals would stop at the corner grocery after school with their allowances to buy RC Cola and slabs of bubble gum, which were incidental to the Topps baseball cards inside the wrappers.

Mint Mickey Mantle

After a while, Tom had thousands of cards. Lou carelessly fastened his cards on the spokes of his bicycle to mimic the sounds of a motorcycle, but Tom put Warren Spahn, Frank Robinson and the others, carefully cataloged, in shoeboxes.

Lucky for him.

A 1952 Mickey Mantle rookie card in pristine condition sells today for $50,000. "I took care of my cards because I loved them, and I was lucky Mom didn't throw them away while I was in Vietnam." He still has his best cards and, better than maybe anybody else on earth, he knows what they're worth.

Not the sentimental value, which is considerable, but what they'd bring on the market. His company, Cornell & Finkelmeier, insures more than $100 million worth of sports memorabilia. In 1981, he wrote the first policy in the industry, and in 1987, he linked up with Travelers Insurance. "You need a giant underwriter, one that's licensed in every state," Tom says.

Ty Cobb's teeth

Boys today may not love baseball the way Tom and Lou did, but big boys surely do love a good investment. And some have made a killing in the sports memorabilia market. Dot-com bite you? You could have bought Ty Cobb's teeth for $5,000 instead and maybe doubled your money. Some of Tom's policyholders have names as famous as the those on the cards. Entertainers. Newsmakers. "People who normally wouldn't give you 30 seconds will call you and talk forever about their collections," Tom says.

I've sworn not to mention their names, which if you went to the little town of Wapakoneta you could see on autographed pictures in his office. I am allowed to notice one inscribed "Thanks for insuring my sports collectibles. Theodore Samuel Williams."

A Ted Williams 1954 card just sold for $95,338. So what's the autographed photo worth? "Priceless, of course," Tom says. "At least to me."

The rest of it is just business. "These days no kid could afford to be a real collector," Tom says. "Even if they wanted to, which they probably don't."

The players sell their autographs and charge big money to hit the ball. If the money is not big enough, they will refuse to play in the palaces financed by an increasingly disillusioned public. Tom says greed ruined a great American tradition.

And America's most famous apple pie baker is Martha Stewart.

E-mail or phone 768-8393.

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