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Sports Collectibles: What's It Worth?

By Ray Schulte,

Thousands of people are captivated each week by television programs such as History Channel’s “Pawn Stars” and “American Pickers” as well as PBS’ “Antiques Roadshow.”

Whether it is an antique clock, vintage jukebox, piece of folk art or a Babe Ruth-signed baseball, the story behind each item fascinates viewers. Was the collectible passed down from a family member? Was it found at a garage sale? Was it acquired from an estate sale? 

What some may consider junk, the appraisers on these programs consider potential value and possible gold mines, and it translates into great television. However, so many compelling stories are never broadcast.

Recently, I traveled to Frederick, Md., to meet with a man who owned a unique item -- a 1958 Baltimore Colts football signed by more than 30 players, in pristine condition. He was passionate about this vintage football. And the memories that came with the ball were evident as he held it in his aging hands.

Bill Wolfinger, a retired master sergeant in the United States Air Force, was born and raised in Maryland. Like many youngsters in the late ’50s, he asked for a football for Christmas. In 1958, he opened a gift from his parents, hoping it was an official NFL “The Duke” football. But as the 13-year-old opened his gift, he saw the tip of a Spalding Eddie LaBaron Official 388 white football, and it was difficult to hide his disappointment from his parents. 

But, Wolfinger then began to notice there were quite a few signatures on the white football and couldn’t believe his eyes. When he was finally able to speak, he asked his dad if they were real. Yes, a friend of his dad’s received the signed football from Don Kellett, the general manager of the Baltimore Colts. The players personally signed the football just days before heading to New York for the most famous game ever played, the 1958 NFL championship.

Three days after that Christmas, Wolfinger and his father watched their beloved Colts defeat the New York Giants. Like all football fans in Baltimore, it was a day he will never forget, a memory that will last a lifetime. 

Wolfinger’s dad was a Baltimore Colts season ticket holder from 1958-1965, and Wolfinger can still vividly remember walking beside his father to Memorial Stadium to watch their beloved Colts. As for the football, his dad told him to hold on to it for 50 years and then see what you can get for it. Wolfinger did just that, keeping the ball in a box, in his closet, for all those years, never seeing the light of day.

“Ray, with your help I’m keeping that promise,” Wolfinger said.

The ball is a pristine piece of sports history, signed by greats like Johnny Unitas, Alan Ameche, Jim Parker, “Big Daddy” Lipscomb, Artie Donovan, Raymond Berry and Lenny Moore, to name a just a few. recently had the football’s 33 signatures authenticated by JSA Authentication. 

I’ll continue to watch “Pawn Stars,” “American Pickers” and “Antiques Roadshow,” but I prefer to get out on my own to meet and discover great people and unique collectible items, especially if the story is as compelling as Wolfinger’s.

What is the football worth? Only time will tell.

Check out as Wolfinger’s team signed 1958 Baltimore Colts football will highlight the May online auction.

Issue 148: April 2010