Peoria-area fan has Thome artifacts in his collection
The days of getting Jim Thome memorabilia on the cheap are likely over.
With one swing of the bat Sept. 16, the native Peorian and Chicago White Sox designated hitter not only became the 23rd member of baseball's 500-home run club, his stuff — game-worn caps and jerseys and bats and his autograph on anything — became more valuable.
I know a guy named Steve who is a serious collector of baseball artifacts. For years, I tried to interview him. He always declined, because he didn't want his home to become a target for thieves. So I gave up.
But Steve contacted me after Thome's milestone homer, and after some negotiating, he consented to talk on the record, as long as I revealed only his first name and gave no clues as to his whereabouts.
Steve is a huge baseball fan. His favorite team is the St. Louis Cardinals. Beyond that, he has a bunch of favorite players: Frank Thomas, Ken Griffey Jr., the banished Hit King, Pete Rose. And Thome.
Like a lot of kids, Steve collected baseball cards. But he didn't venture beyond that until he was well into adulthood. His first major acquisition was a White Sox game uniform worn by Frank Thomas in 1994. Now Steve has more than 200 items, not counting cards.
Steve is choosy about what he buys. He looks for very specific items and, like a lot of collectors, has a hankering for the unique. Like the arcade-worthy Frank Thomas pinball machine he bought.
Steve's interest in Thome was what we call 'hyper-local.' Like Thome, Steve is a graduate of Limestone High School. Thome was first called up by the Cleveland Indians in 1991, and after he finally stuck in the big leagues, Steve decided to acquire some of his fellow alum's stuff.
'Nobody knew then if it was a good investment,' Steve says. 'That just kind of worked out.'
He has a 1991 Indians home jersey, which Thome signed at a Peoria fundraiser: 'Jim Thome #25 Rookie.' He has 1992 Indians home uniform pants, a road cap, a home batting helmet and a pair of Thome's cleats. He also has one of the slugger's bats.
'The one item missing is a pair of red socks,' Steve says to complete the Tribe ensemble. 'I've tried for years to find a legitimate pair.'
Legitimacy is critical. There are lots of scam artists out there, peddling lots of bad stuff. Steve says the majority of memorabilia he has seen posted for sale online is fake. And you can't always trust certificates of authenticity, he says, because crooked dealers are known to purchase an authentic jersey to obtain the certificate, then affix the desired player's name and number to the uniform.
'Collectors should be careful who they buy Jim's equipment from, because when there's an increase in demand, there's likely an increase in fake items,' Steve says.
Know the source and research it, he says. Research the player and the items he uses. Learn how he wears his uniform, what special treatment he gives his bats and glove, stuff like that.
'Each player has certain characteristics,' Steve says. 'For example, in the mid-1990s, Jim started taping the handle of his bat. His uniform sizes have also increased during his career. People familiar with his equipment will know the real items.'
In his quest to complete the authentic, game-worn Thome uniform, Steve sought help from a manager in the Indians farm system. The guy was interested in a vintage Bob Feller glove that Steve owned.
'I offered to trade him the glove for a pair of Jim's red socks,' Steve says. 'He attempted to get a pair for me at spring training, but he was only able to get a pair of blue socks.'
No deal, Howie!
Steve says he had expected the value of Thome stuff spike after the 400th, or at least the 450th, career homer. But it didn't happen.
'Now, though, you're seeing it,' Steve says. 'There's sudden interest. That bat he used to hit 500 is worth $4,000.'
Steve says he doesn't know Thome, though they met once on an autograph line in Atlanta. Thome was coming off the field after batting practice, and Steve hollered at him from the front row of seats at the ballpark: 'Sign an autograph for an old Limestone alum?'
'He came over and personalized it for me,' Steve says. 'The usher was laughing, asking if I really went to the same high school as Jim.'
Despite the recent hike in value, Steve says Thome's memorabilia is a smart investment. Milestones like 500 tend to be just the first in a series of jumps. Expect another increase when Thome retires, another when he is inducted into the Hall of Fame. 'And, not to be morbid, but when these guys pass away, they get one last jump,' Steve says.
Steve won't discuss the value of his collection, and he refuses to sell. His interest is primarily that of a fan who treasures the game itself.
'But,' he says, 'my wife will be wealthy when I'm six feet under.'
is Journal Star executive sports editor/columnist. Write him at 1 News Plaza, Peoria, IL 61643, call (309) 686-3216 or e-mail email@example.com.