Before the cost of ignorance jumps as high as the price of your morning eggs, there is this to know about sports memorabilia:
•The Polo Grounds home plate that Bobby Thomson crossed after hitting his home run in the 1951 playoff is not in the baseball Hall of Fame. Neither is the Boston Braves' uniform Babe Ruth wore when he hit the last three home runs of his career.
•The contract that Bronko Nagurski signed to play for the Chicago Bears in 1934 is not in the football Hall of Fame. Neither are Pudge Heffelfinger's Yale pants and pads.
•William (Lone Star) Dietz' baby curls from his first haircut are not in Los Angeles' Citizen's Savings (née Helms) Athletic Foundation Hall. Gene Tunney's "long count" gloves were not among the keepsakes Jack Dempsey took home when he closed his New York City restaurant last month. And Muhammad Ali's 1960 Olympic Games sweatshirt is neither buried forever like his former name, nor is it being mass-reproduced in order to hype that hoped-for $10 million purse.
All of these things—along with more than one million similar items—are sitting in the lower level of a house on Orion Drive in a suburb of Pittsburgh. They belong to Joel Platt, the self-styled "King of the Collectors." But, as Platt is the first to agree in the case of his dazzling accumulation of baseball bats, boxing gloves, hockey sticks, football helmets, golf clubs, team uniforms, pictures, trophies, letters, medals and every other form of athletic minutiae, a house is not a proper home for such treasures.
This is not any ordinary run-of-the-mill conglomeration of junk Platt has down there filling up eight rooms. He has spent 31 of his 35 years collecting his memorabilia, traveling the country and accosting famous athletes and/or their relatives to acquire the goods. Platt has more than 20,000 autographed pictures, 15,000 programs, hundreds of pieces of sports equipment dating back to 1865. He has one room lined with racks of autographed baseballs. It is called The Ballroom. Along the way to acquiring these mementos, Platt has also latched onto a dream.
It is Platt's idea to use his vast collection as a nucleus in the establishment of a "Sports Immortals Museum." This would be a national shrine similar to the Citizen's Savings Hall but, as Platt puts it, "without the dull, musty atmosphere of most museums.
"My museum would provide the nation with the most extensive and imaginative displays of sports memorabilia ever assembled," Platt says. "Audio-visual displays, wax figures of the stars, voice tapes of athletes describing their great performances, IQ computer quizzes, movies depicting classical moments in sports, a restaurant, motel and theater complex. Most museums don't live or breathe. The Sports Immortals Museum would come alive right before your very eyes.
"This project is no longer just me. I promised the people who gave me their mementos that they would be in a museum one day. And Joel Platt keeps his promises."
Platt routinely lapses into such euphoria when discussing his grand plan. But most of his efforts to attract state, foundation or private-corporation funding have fallen on deaf ears.
Representatives of the legislatures of North Carolina and Oklahoma have expressed interest in the museum, but only as an adjunct to a sportswriters and broadcasters hall of fame or a Jim Thorpe memorial. Disney World has also investigated, but found that Platt's collection is "too good" for its site in Orlando, Fla. "Their problem isn't getting people," says Platt. "It's moving them. They told me that people wouldn't want to move out of the sports museum once they got inside of it."
Recent developments have evoked some optimism, however. A prominent oral surgeon who visited Platt's collection not long ago came away stunned; he suggested the $70 million federally funded Raystown Dam Project area near Altoona, Pa. as an ideal site and promised to seek federal aid to that end. Two months ago a Pittsburgh city councilman called on the local citizenry to save "this treasure" from leaving their midst.
Such reactions to the magic of Platt's downstairs' extravaganza are not untypical. The former Duquesne baseball player keeps telling people, "You won't believe what you're going to see," and he is pretty much right. If the sheer volume of mementos isn't enough to stagger the imagination, the historical importance and nostalgic charm of many items surely are. At least that seems to be the effect the memorabilia has on Pirate Pitcher Dock Ellis, who says he would like to sit in the Platt rooms prior to each pitching assignment "just to get psyched up bathing in nostalgia."
Space limitations force the collection into jumbled disarray in Platt's basement, but that did not prevent Carl Scheele, chairman of the Smithsonian Institution, from recognizing its value. "It is difficult to convince my people in Washington that such an enormous collection exists in somebody's residence," Scheele says. "President Ford should be made aware of it."
Platt, who describes himself as "just a jock's jock," originally became interested in collecting sports items at the age of four when he was injured in a gas-tank explosion and almost burned to death. Bedridden for nearly two years, he amused himself with the hundreds of baseball and football cards his parents brought home.
Platt's father, an inveterate boxing fan who was in the vending-machine business in Pittsburgh, went 30 years without missing a major heavyweight championship fight. Once, at a baseball game, Platt senior spotted Heavyweight Ezzard Charles and suggested that his son ask for an autograph. With that encouragement, Little Joel was off and collecting. He staked out local hotels where visiting football and baseball teams stayed. Later he made out-of-town forays to obtain athletes' signatures and whatever other mementos they would sacrifice.
Through all of this, the young Platt found time to become an outstanding shortstop. His big-league ambitions were terminated by an arm injury suffered while playing at Duquesne. Long before then, he already had become a major-leaguer in amassing mementos.
When Platt was 16, he made a trip to New York and located the apartments of Mrs. Babe Ruth and Mrs. John McGraw. Boldly he marched to their doors, introduced himself and announced his plans to build a sports museum someday. To Mrs. Ruth he presented a wooden ashtray he had carved to resemble the Babe. She in turn came across with a bat and plaque. Mrs. McGraw furnished a unique autograph—her husband's canceled check made out in 1923 to the Internal Revenue Service for an amount of more than $4,000.
Enough "bonanza trips," of this type, as he calls them, soon followed that Platt became convinced he had a sound formula: encounter the quarry unannounced. "If I call ahead or write that I'm coming, people have a way of avoiding me," Platt says. "If I get them eyeball-to-eyeball and they see the sincerity in what I'm doing, they believe in me."
Seeing Platt's wife Marcia eyeball-to-eyeball also has been the clincher for some gifts, such as those acquired on a journey to the Lewisburg, Pa. home of Mrs. Christy Mathewson. Platt, by himself, was turned away at the door while the pitcher's aged widow was having tea, so when he returned an hour later he brought his wife along. This time Mrs. Mathewson was willing to read Platt's brochure and the story of his accidental burning. It evoked emotional memories of her own son who had died in a fiery crash. The Platts spent the day with Mrs. Mathewson and brought back, among other things, a cherished picture that Christy had autographed for his Bucknell fraternity brothers and a war medal Mrs. Mathewson had taken from her husband's chest as he was being lowered into the grave.
Platt no longer considers himself a mere collector, a species he describes as "bedbugs, generally lacking in the social graces and having innate personality defects." He thinks of himself more as a museum curator.
His primary occupation is in real estate. He owns some buildings in downtown Pittsburgh and he has prospered enough to hire others to watch over his holdings while he indulges himself in the planning for the museum. Keeping up to date on new records, corresponding with teams' equipment managers for uniforms and autographs, and hustling the collection take most of his time.
Even a quick look at the basement rooms reveals a range from fascinating nostalgia to inconsequential trivia: Red Grange's No. 77 jersey and a Riva Ridge shoe; Jesse Owens' commemorative Olympic medals and Henry Armstrong's shoeshine brushes; Henry Aaron's Milwaukee Braves uniform and tickets to the Corbett-Sullivan fight in 1892.
Platt has a piece of wood chopped by Cy Young just hours before baseball's most prolific winner died of a heart attack, not to mention a picture of him chopping it. He has the only ball Curt Simmons ever hit for a home run; a photo of Edgar Allan Poe's second cousins wearing their Princeton football suits; a timing bell used in the bantamweight championship fight in 1912 between Kid Williams and Johnny Coulon at Doyles Arena in Vernon, Calif.; and a picture of the 1922 Oorang Indian team that went 2-6 in its only season in the NFL even though it featured such players as Stillwell Sanooke, Baptiste Thunder, Xavier Downwind and Jim Thorpe.
On a trip to California a few years ago Platt made the important contacts that have led to his fondest acquisitions, a wealth of memorabilia left by Thorpe. Earlier he had called on Thorpe's daughter, Grace, in Pearl River, N.Y. She had refused to come to the door. He had talked to hundreds of people in the Pennsylvania towns of Carlisle and Jim Thorpe for information on the great Sac and Fox Indian. Finally the trail led to Cabazon, Calif., where Thorpe's third wife, Patricia, was living in a trailer and caring for retarded indigents. That first visit and several subsequent ones failed to interest Mrs. Thorpe in contributing to the future museum. Then, out of the blue three years later, a telegram arrived on Orion Drive. It said simply, "Am confined to bed. Come and get Jim's things." Joel Platt did. Now all he needs is someplace to put them all so he can clean out his basement.