June 2008

Ball Game Today! And Every Day...

Author: Frank Dunne Jr.

Never forget us, for we live on by those that carry on the Tiger tradition and who so proudly wear the ‘Olde English D,” said Elden Auker to a Tiger Stadium crowd in Detroit on September 27, 1999. On that night, the Detroit Tigers would play their final game in the yard that had been their home since 1912. Auker was among the former Tiger players invited to take part in ceremonies celebrating the end of nearly a century of baseball at an old ballpark affectionately known as “The Corner.”

Recently, I learned that Auker had passed away a few years ago, but not before sharing a lifetime of baseball stories with the world in a book called Sleeper Cars and Flannel Uniforms. Despite having lived in Detroit for most of my life, I’d never heard of Elden Auker until a few weeks ago when I was talking to Jerry Glenn at Legends Sports Gallery.

I was there to talk about the store and the sports collectibles business—stuff like the business is 60 percent baseball, 20 percent golf and 20 percent all other sports. In Jerry’s workroom, where he does his ordering, inventory and design work for enshrinement-worthy items to be sent out for framing and mounting, we examined some of the shop’s thousands of sports cards. “The business has changed a lot,” said Glenn, citing the steroid era’s effect on baseball card values as one example. He showed me a Barry Bonds rookie card with a 10 mint grading, the highest possible rating. The card’s book price is $350. “Today it’s worth very little,” he said. And Bonds owns baseball’s most hallowed record. “Roger Clemens? I can hardly give ‘em away. I tell people that you should purchase for your enjoyment, not for investment. One bit of bad news can destroy an item’s value.”

“Excuse me, Dad. Some friends of Elden Auker are here.” It was Jerry’s daughter Lori, who owns the store, interrupting as Jerry showed me his plans for an autographed photo of Sandy Koufax. Our conversation turned instantly from card values to a glorious piece of baseball history.

Joe and Joyce, a couple from Vero Beach, Florida had just dropped by to say hello and talk about their late friend and neighbor, Elden Auker, and a gap in my knowledge of baseball lore was closed.

“Elden Auker was a pitcher for the Tigers, the Red Sox and the St. Louis Browns,” Jerry explained. “What happened is, he dislocated his shoulder playing football for Kansas State. Well, he wanted to play baseball and found that he could throw underhand with a dislocated shoulder, and he became one of the greatest ‘submarine style’ pitchers.” Auker won two American League pennants and one World Series with the Tigers. His book is filled with stories that include names like Babe Ruth, Ted Williams, Hank Greenberg and even Joe and John Kennedy.

“I picked up his book and couldn’t put it down!” said Jerry. In fact, he and Lori loved the book so that they have sold some 300 copies. Auker himself took notice and called Jerry, who recalls the conversation this way:

“Why are you selling so many of my books?” Auker inquired.

“Elden, I’m somewhat of a baseball historian and this is the greatest baseball book I’ve ever read.”

“Oh, well thank you.”

“You were pretty nasty to some of these guys!”

“Well, when you’re 90 years old, you can say whatever you want to anybody!”

“He was 95 when he called. Three weeks later I picked up the New York Times and read that he had passed away,” said Jerry. I listened to a few more stories about Auker before Joe and Joyce said goodbye and went on their way. “This kind of thing happens all the time,” Jerry told me.

We took a walk around the Gallery, a profusion of cards, autographed balls, banners, posters, books, over 400 framed items, toys (including more Cooperstown Bears than you can shake a Louisville Slugger at), furnishings, jerseys and more, representing any sport, team or player you can think of. “We can speak intelligently about any sport,” said Jerry, alluding to his and Lori’s years of experience in the business and the shop’s diversity. Baseball is dominant, obviously because it is the largest memorabilia market; but there is no trouble finding stuff for football, basketball, hockey, and boxing. And an entire gallery is dedicated to golf.

Another change in the collectibles business is that shops like Legends have declined in number from over 8,500 in 1997 to fewer than 1,000 today. The business is shifting from the retail stores to the Internet and major auctions. That’s understandable from a purely economic viewpoint, but to a lifelong sports lover like me, being a fan is about experiences, moments and sharing stories, like Joe and Joyce dropping by to chat about Elden Auker. In my time spent with Jerry, Lori, Joe, Joyce and Elden, I wasn’t in a store; I was in a place where father, daughter and a dog named Duncan share a common enthusiasm with their visitors. You can’t get that on the Internet.

Besides, where else are you going to go where an autographed baseball is an extension of personal relationships with legends like Bob Feller, Stan Musial and Yogi Berra? That’s right. Jerry and Lori know those guys personally, and have close relationships with the PGA through Heritage Golf Shots, the Atlanta Braves and the estates of Ted Williams and Clete Boyer. “If you ask Bob (Feller) what’s the best shop in the country, he says, ‘Hilton Head. The one with all the teddy bears,’” said Jerry.

I left with a gift from Jerry and Lori—my own copy of Sleeper Cars and Flannel Uniforms. Maybe one of these days I’ll tell you all about Elden Auker.

Legends Sports Gallery is located at 1505 Main Street, Hilton Head Island, SC 29926. Phone: (843) 681-4444 Fax: (843) 681-7627 Online: www.legendsportsgallery.net.

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