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Invest in Bonds? Better off betting on classics

Sports memorabilia collectors aren't exactly looking ahead with rabid enthusiasm to Barry Bonds' record 756th home run ball hitting the auction market.
MLB Photos Archive
Most of the credit for the continued rise in value of memorabilia from older-era players’ goes to Babe Ruth, an almost mythological figure who represents the dominance of baseball in America's sports history.MLB Photos via Getty Images file
/ Source: Forbes

Sports memorabilia collectors aren't exactly looking ahead with rabid enthusiasm to Barry Bonds' record 756th home run ball hitting the auction market.

Now that Bonds has passed Henry Aaron's career home run mark, memorabilia dealers are resigned to the reality that the historic ball won't be worth nearly what they would have expected a few years ago. And steroid suspicions, which have cast a pall over the accomplishments of the recent crop of home run hitters, are only part of the story.

A market that was already bubbling over thanks to the dizzying pre-steroids hype that surrounded the Mark McGwire-Sammy Sosa chase of Roger Maris' single season home run record in 1998 has crash-landed with a loud thump.

The $3 million that McGwire's 70th home run ball fetched that year is now estimated at less than a million. The fastball that Bonds smashed over the fence in right center field at AT&T Park for career homer No. 756 figures to go for about $500,000, according to auction house experts. That's far less than what they would have guessed a few years ago, not to mention $150,000 below what Aaron's 755th went for in the mid-'90s.

The Bonds ball was retrieved by Matt Murphy, a 22-year-old from Queens, New York. Experts say that if he wants to make maximum bank on it, the time to sell is now. As Bonds' retirement nears, speculation will rest on what number homer will be his last. And that ultimate record ball will hold the most long term value, just as Aaron's 755th homerun ball outweighs his 715th, the one that broke Babe Ruth's record.

"When fans figure out it'll end at say, 789, that's the ball to own," says Doug Allen of Mastro Auctions, the biggest sports auction house in the U.S. The expected pursuit of Bonds' record by Alex Rodriguez, according to Allen, isn't a big factor in the value of the 756th ball right now, given that Rodriguez is still 256 homers away. But as he creeps closer over the next few seasons, the Bonds' ball could drop in value. All the more reason for Murphy to get the ball to the highest bidder immediately.

As for lending the ball out to a museum while maintaining ownership, it may be a nice public gesture, but it's not an attractive financial option. Historically, the public just hasn't paid a premium to see collectibles under glass, at least not enough to generate a residual for the lender.

That doesn't mean money can't be made from bats and balls from the recent homer-happy era. But bids figure to come from aggressive investors willing to bet that the market will eventually rebound. To some, the late-'90s hype over home runs had the market overheating, leading to the $3 million sale of McGwire's historic ball.

A few years later, steroid hysteria sent the market on a downward spiral. The question now is whether it's spiraled too much, and whether the passage of time will bring a different perspective, placing the value of Bonds and McGwire's accomplishments somewhere in between the levels of nine years ago and today.

"Once the dust settles, Bonds still goes down as the dominant player of his era. Even without steroids he was going to hit 600 home runs," says Allen. At this year's All-Star Game, he notes, the ball Bonds hit for his 749th career homer was auctioned off with an estimated value of $4,000 from which to start bids. It got no takers. That's negative overkill, according to Allen.

"I said I would have paid $4,000 or $5,000 in a second," he says.

In the world of sports memorabilia, old classics are the safe bet. Think of Babe Ruth, Joe DiMaggio or Lou Gehrig bats and balls as Hamptons real estate or blue chip stocks. Their value will fluctuate every now and then, but will steadily climb over time.

"For those guys, the market is set, while for guys still playing, it's more volatile," says Chris Ivy of Heritage Auction Galleries. Indeed, there's always image risk involved with an active player, whether it's Barry Bonds fighting off steroid accusations or Kobe Bryant defending himself on a rape charge.

Most of the credit for old-timer strength goes to Ruth, an almost mythological figure who represents the dominance of baseball in America's sports history. While the NFL and NBA have largely caught up to the national pastime in terms of current popularity, no memorabilia item goes for anything close to the top baseball items. Only a few Heisman Trophies, according to Allen, come close to matching top baseball merchandise. ESPN may have dubbed Michael Jordan the greatest athlete of the 20th century, but he's got a long way to go before his game-worn uniforms catch up to Ruth's in value.

"Our industry is driven by baseball," says Allen. "A longer history, more games, all driven by Babe Ruth."

Another reason, ironically, is that the notion of a lucrative sports memorabilia market didn't really exist years ago, so players and collectors weren't saving artifacts. That makes them more rare and, in turn, more valuable. For example, Heritage recently sold a 1950s Mickey Mantle jersey for $141,000, a price it could get based on players having only two home and two road jerseys to use during a season back then.

Today's memorabilia-conscious era saw Roger Clemens change jerseys in the middle of a game in which he was going for his 300th win, creating more overall cash but diluting the value of each individual item.

Popular Ruth artifacts aren't limited to Yankees gear. Two years ago, Mastro sold the Babe's 1934 World Tour uniform, which he wore during an off-season barnstorming trip that year and occasionally dusted off for other various exhibition games, for $771,000. Altogether, the Bambino accounts for five of the 10 most expensive sports items ever sold. His fellow baseball legends — and fellow Yankees — Mantle, Lou Gehrig and Joe DiMaggio are also perennial blue chippers.

A 1939 Gehrig uniform went for $451,000 at Leland's auction house recently, up from $306,000 two years ago. A bat used by DiMaggio during his 56-game hitting streak in 1941 was sold for $345,000, while a personal diary he kept long after his playing days is being put on the block by Steiner Sports with bids starting at $1.5 million. And that's for a reportedly bland set of notes in which DiMaggio does little more than complain about signing autographs and the cost of food.

No juicy Marilyn Monroe gossip here. And no juice, either.