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June 2002: Relics

Extra Fine Points Index  ]

BY DON FLUCKINGER • Seeing the new Krone “John Hancock” pen gave me pause. A piece of the patriot’s historic desk, in every pen! As a freelance writer, I had the dubious honor of reporting on the Luis “Gonzo” Gonzalez game-used gum saga for several magazines. What a mess. I’m here to tell you, fellow pen collectors, if you don’t learn the lesson from this fable, you’re doomed to experience the same jeers heaped on the sports memorabilia world.

I had the dubious honor of reporting on the Luis “Gonzo” Gonzalez game-used gum saga. If you don’t learn the lesson, you’re doomed to the same jeers heaped on the sports memorabilia world. Extra Fine Points

For those who didn’t follow this story in the news, here are the Cliff’s notes:

Minnesota sports memorabilia dealer Jason Gabbert acquired a piece of gum he saw slugger Luis Gonzalez spit on the ground at an Arizona Diamondbacks spring-training game versus the Athletics at Tucson Electric Park last March.

Gabbert put the gum up for auction at his Wood Lake, MN, store’s Web site as a charity benefit for Lakeview High School in nearby Cottonwood, where the funds would be earmarked for student athletics. The story caught like wildfire on radio, television, and the Internet, and bidding hit $10,000 by the auction’s close.

While the auction was underway, a couple of publicity-seeking radio jocks in Phoenix challenged the gum’s authenticity, and Gabbert responded by demanding DNA testing. Luis Gonzalez, for his part, played the part of unwilling but stand-up participant by chewing another piece of gum before TV cameras and donating it to the cause. It was an embarrassment to him, but he didn’t want to torpedo a charity effort that would net thousands of dollars for kids’ sports.

No sports collector had ever thought about selling already-chewed gum before; it was a rather disgusting notion. Yet, to the public at large, we as collectors and dealers were lumped in with this outsider Gabbert, who has some sort of fan fetish that once drove him to open a checking account in big-league pitcher Aaron Sele’s name. (He was convicted of forgery in North Dakota for doing it.)

The whole escapade made all of us in the sports memorabilia industry look like idiots. Sports collectors in general were lampooned on Letterman and Leno, in the Tank McNamara newspaper comic strip … in all the usual outlets where cultural observers are paid to finger this week’s buffoon and flog him until someone new makes a fool of himself.

I took my lumps. Why? Because we had it coming. Sports collectors, for years, have been buying cards containing slivers of game-used bats, swatches of game-used caps, jerseys, pants, hunks of shoes, balls, and hockey sticks. We’ve made the relic business big business. One quite legitimate trading-card company went as far to issue cards that each contained a hank of a Michael Jordan-worn business suit to commemorate his ownership of the NBA’s Washington Wizards. “Holy smokes,” I thought at the time that one came out, “we’re getting mighty close to the game-used jockstrap card.”

Or Luis Gonzalez’s gum. Or worse yet bone chips removed from Mariners pitcher Jeff Nelson’s elbow. Yes, he tried to auction them off, for charity. eBay shut down the auction because it was too disgusting even for their famously loose policies, even though the bidding hit $23,600.

Every time someone buys a fountain pen with a relic embedded in it, the hobby takes one step closer to this kind of nonsense. Do you want to be a part of this?

The worst part is that each Babe Ruth or Mickey Mantle bat-relic card represents a real, rare, game-used bat that was destroyed, at least when the card is manufactured by a legitimate company who does things honestly. Those cards containing a swatch of a Willie Mays or Yogi Berra game-used rookie jersey? That would represent one fewer shirt for the Hall of Fame.

Some people blame the card companies for popularizing such stuff by marketing to children and creating an “upgrade path” to more expensive product as their customers get older. Some people blame the economy; the theory goes something like this: since we gluttonous Americans have so much disposable income, we have to spend it on something, and left to our own devices, we want Luis Gonzalez’s gum.

Jason Gabbert, in an email to me, blamed the media.

“Why this gum is so important, I have no idea,” he wrote. “I am stunned by this. As Gonzo said, it is a runaway train. This just shows that the media is capable of driving home any story they feel like, a point that is almost frightening. If the media can take an insignificant piece of gum and make it the most scandalous item in recent memory, no wonder people say that they can make or break a political candidate.”

They’re all wrong. It’s completely the fault of collectors. If they didn’t ask for this stuff, it wouldn’t be profitable to manufacture and profitable to sell.

Which brings me to the pen world — specifically, relic pens. Not limited editions; I have no beef against well-crafted pens in general, be they serial-numbered or not.

It’s the relics that worry me. I’m not, per se, against them, but I fear that if we support this part of pendom, we’re setting ourselves up to be the butt of the next Leno joke.

Topps, Fleer, Upper Deck, and Pacific are in it for the money when they manufacture relic cards. So was Parker, which during the last illustrious century issued pens featuring silver from a Spanish galleon, brass from RMS Queen Elizabeth, and wood relics from the room in which the Declaration of Independence was signed. More recently, Krone manufactured pens with relics relating to William Shakespeare, Apollo spacecraft, Honest Abe Lincoln, Harry Houdini, and — taking a page from my fellow sports dealer Jason Gabbert — Babe Ruth. And of course, right now, the Krone John Hancock is one hot ticket.

What, you say, I’m about to hammer on Krone, Parker, and the others? No way, never. They’re not the culprits. You can’t blame these companies for giving the people what they want. They, like Topps (which as a company dropped a $3,000 bid on the Gonzo gum) are just practicing good, old-fashioned capitalism. They’re not to blame for the tastes of the market — in fact, they’re to be commended for taking advantage of it.

We as collectors constitute the market, and ultimately we dictate tastes. As long as we keep buying relics, they’ll keep making ’em. Cynics who live in democracies are fond of saying, “The people elect the government they deserve.” And pen companies make the pens that we deserve — because we demand them. If we haven’t learned our lesson from the Gonzo Gum story, and we keep buying the relics that are offered for sale, mark my words: similar embarrassment will soon befall our hobby.

cover Further Reading: Bubblemania: A Chewy History of Bubble Gum, by Lee Wardlaw, et al.

The market for baseball cards and pens can’t hold a candle to the $500 million we annually spend on bubble gum.

Freelance writer Don Fluckinger lives in Nashua, New Hampshire, and is the son-in-law of Richard Binder. His articles have been published in Antiques Roadshow Insider, The Boston Globe, and on the collectibles Web site. Please note: Any opinions stated in this column are Don’s alone and do not necessarily reflect those of Richard Binder or this Web site. Don Fluckinger
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