A 1931 Lou Gehrig Jersey Is Sports Memorabilia’s Latest Big Swing

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Next week, a jersey worn by Lou Gehrig during his record-setting 1931 season with the New York Yankees could sell for as much as $1.5 million at auction.

The uniform is part of a sale offered by Christie’s and Hunt Auctions in New York titled “Home Plate: A Private Collection of Important Baseball Memorabilia.” The auction comprises 152 lots and carries an estimate of $4 million to $7 million. It includes a Louisville Slugger baseball bat used by Babe Ruth sometime between 1916 and 1918, which is estimated to sell for $500,000 to $1 million.

The auction comes at a time when sports memorabilia sales continue to shatter records. “The last two and a half to three years has just been staggering,” says Dave Hunt, owner of Hunt Auctions. “An item that sold for $1,000 to $2,000 for years all of a sudden is $25,000 or $100,000. A Lou Gehrig jersey that we’d sold at auction maybe in 2007, for $450,000, we sold privately for nearly $3 million.”

Setting Records

At the onset of the pandemic, Hunt and his peers anticipated a crash. “The opposite happened,” he says. “It’s gotten even stronger.”

Besides the famous sales—Michael Jordan’s game-worn 1985 Air Jordans, which sold for $560,000 at Sotheby’s in May, and the LeBron James rookie card that hammered for a stunning $1.8 million at Goldin Auctions in July—prices for more esoteric sports memorabilia have risen across the board.

A 1931 Lou Gehrig Jersey Is Sports Memorabilia’s Latest Big Swing

In September, for instance, Hunt sold a collection of baseball memorabilia assembled by Hall of Fame broadcaster Vin Scully. The sale included a baseball signed by Ronald Reagan ($11,750) and a Los Angeles Dodgers scorebook from 2016 ($82,250). Heritage Auctions is currently hosting a sports memorabilia sale that includes a 1971-72 Boston Bruins jersey worn by Bobby Orr; as of Thursday, bidding had already reached $97,500, or $117,000 with the premium.

Memorabilia, it seems, is being pushed by the same tailwinds as the rest of the online luxury and collectibles market. People with a healthy disposable income have more of it than ever, without many places to dispense it.

A 1931 Lou Gehrig Jersey Is Sports Memorabilia’s Latest Big Swing

“People are at home,” Hunt says, “and they’re not spending money on travel and leisure and tickets to games. So they’re spending it elsewhere.”

A Lot of Money

The highest-priced items in this single-owner sale will require a significant amount of cash.

Hunt predicts that the 1931 Gehrig jersey, which is officially listed as “estimate on request,” will sell for $750,000 to $1.5 million. The range is “a touch wide,” he acknowledges, “but frankly it’s due to positive reasons in the market—it’s a little hard to determine, in a good way, where [the hammer is] going to fall.” Although the Yankees didn’t make it to the World Series in ’31, Gehrig batted in 185 runs that season, a record that amazingly still stands (in the American League, at least).

A 1931 Lou Gehrig Jersey Is Sports Memorabilia’s Latest Big Swing

Beyond the jersey there’s an archive of Gehrig’s correspondence, including an exchange of letters about his “mysterious” now-eponymous illness, also known as amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), the progressive nervous system disease. One letter between Gehrig and Dr. Paul O’Leary of the Mayo Clinic includes the passage “From what I am going to write, please don’t judge me a cry baby, or believe me to be losing my guts,” and continues: “There is definitely something going on within my body which I do not understand …”

That archive alone is estimated to fetch from $400,000 to $600,000.

There’s also a 1909-11 Ty Cobb baseball card estimated at $225,000 to $425,000. The 120-year-old card has “virtually non-existent” wear, according to Christie’s website.

Unlike other collectibles auctions, where estimates are set deliberately low to generate interest and stimulate headline-grabbing results, these are “conservatively accurate,” Hunt says.

It’s easy to take these giant numbers for granted, he cautions. “It’s the nature of all of us to be a little bit blasé about ‘a million this,’ ‘2 million that,’” Hunt says. “It’s a lot of money.”

©2020 Bloomberg L.P.

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