Sports

The World's Largest Private Sports Memorabilia Collection Is On Display—For Now

After more than two decades, super collector Gary Cypres finally opened his legendary memorabilia collection to the public. But the display, and the collection itself, won't last forever.

by Louis Keene
Sep 9 2016, 1:00pm

Courtesy LA Sports Museum

When I asked Gary Cypres, the owner of the largest private collection of sports memorabilia in the world, what had been the One That Got Away, he gave me a befuddled look.

"That's never really happened to me," he said. "When I want something, I tend to get it."

This was months ago at a fundraiser for Etta, a nonprofit that provides services for kids with special needs, hosted at the Sports Museum of Los Angeles, which Cypres built to showcase his collection. Until July, charity events were the only occasion for people to explore his 30,000-square-foot theme park of sports history. Now the same Downtown Los Angeles warehouse that has housed the museum for the past decade is open to the public every Saturday.

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Inside is the most essential baseball archive this side of Cooperstown; in some respects, Cypres provides a richer history than baseball's Hall of Fame. The museum features the most expensive baseball card in the world—that would be the 1909 Honus Wagner T206 card—along with the first one ever made. It's got ambidextrous 19th-century gloves, bats with mushroom-tipped handles, and an 1889 letter from the president of the Brooklyn Dodgers formally accepting the invitation to play in the National League. It's got game-worn jerseys from Jackie Robinson and Babe Ruth—and both are Dodgers uniforms.

But the museum won't be around forever, and when it's gone—when the pieces are auctioned off and dispersed among new owners—it will be impossible to reconstruct.

For now, though, it provides a surprisingly democratic view of sports—baseball in particular—revealing how everyday people have experienced the game in addition to how its stars have played it. You won't find the cleats Johnny Podres wore when he pitched the Dodgers to their first World Series win in 1955; what you'll see instead is the program from that Game 7, the ticket stub, the next day's sports pages, and several artistic representations of the series' iconic moments. (There is a Podres jersey worn on some other occasion, for good measure.) Sports articles aren't clipped from newspapers but, rather, left on the page, so you can read them in true historical context. (The Dodgers–Indians World Series snuggles up against the Mexican Revolution!) And the folk art adorning the walls—not just paintings but quilts and tapestries, too—puts the sport's mythology into fan-created terms rather than game-used talismans.

Scale model of Fenway built exclusively for the museum. Photo by Louis Keene

The sheer volume and diversity of its contents give the Sports Museum astounding breadth and depth. (Around 80 percent of the museum is dedicated to baseball, with football and basketball exhibits in the back.) It could easily be a design museum, with hundreds of old advertisements, game programs, and posters from the last century. Or it could be an art museum, with countless paintings, photographs, and even sculptures. Hell, there are enough cards here to describe the growth of that industry, and so much newsprint you can see not only how sports journalism has changed but how journalism has changed, full stop. (I'm saying this because I saw the word "obdurate" in a 1950s headline.)

Lined with untold thousands of artifacts—comfortably clearing ten million dollars' worth—and curated into a cohesive, informative palace of sports history, the Sports Museum is as much a tribute to the passion of collecting as it is a shrine to the players, stories, and traditions that make a game into a national pastime.

Cypres, 72, an unassuming Bronx native who still bears the accent, started collecting thirty years ago on a trip to London, when he found a vintage store selling tennis and golf memorabilia, and never looked back. After purchasing the downtown lot in 1992, he sat on it for a decade before breaking ground on the museum. A former investment banker and accountant, he now runs a travel business out of the building's second floor.

"Collecting is kind of funny," he told me. "You have to understand the mentality: Does the collector love having all this, or is the real love the chase to find it? The fun of collecting is always looking for new stuff, adding to the collection, hunting it down, then displaying it ... learning the history of whatever you're showing." On top of all that, he added, "part of the fun of collecting it ... is sharing it."

He has chosen to share it at a time when it seems like private memorabilia collections are moving farther from public view. The National Pastime Museum, at this point a digital-only archive, recently announced that Christie's would be auctioning off its collection.

"Given my age and such, it was the last chance for people to see it before I have to decide what to do with it," Cypres said. How long it will stay open, he says, depends on his health and the value of the property. "Long term, the museum won't be here."

In the meantime, he is opening it on Saturdays essentially as a favor for the general public. Cypres' collection is so vast and meticulously curated that it was written up in major publications years before it was widely accessible. And yet, it still has all the quirky, arcane miscellanies of a private collection. There are old chalk liners from the hardball era, and the wooden demolition notice posted outside Ebbets Field—an advertisement for the stadium's executioner, with baseball seams painted on it no less. There is a column solely dedicated to Casey Stengel, who comes across as a Joe Maddon type with some bourbon in him, and a trove of Yogi Berra stuff. And there are several large-scale models of classic ballparks past and present, commissioned especially for the museum.

When the time comes to part with his treasure, Cypres is happy to see the bulk of it auctioned off to the next enthusiastic collector, and doesn't have any preference for it being kept in a museum. Some of it will be passed down to his two sons. "I'm not sentimental" toward the idea of a museum, he told me. He's a collector at heart, and wouldn't want to rob someone else of the thrill of the chase he's enjoyed over the past three decades. "The next collector will have a great time just like I did." He's not really interested in digitizing the collection, either.

The folk art adorning the walls—not just paintings but quilts and tapestries, too—puts the sport's mythology into fan-created terms. Photo by Louis Keene

What will be lost when the museum closes is a unique, valuable approach to understanding the game of baseball. Fundamentally, the Hall of Fame assumes a Great Man theory of history, celebrating the achievements and impacts made by individuals who make the cut. On the other hand, Cypres says, "[the Sports Museum] is more thematic." To that effect, he has curated exhibits on the evolution of bats, balls, and mitts; on the Negro Leagues and integration; and on major league baseball's westward expansion. There's a smoking section, so to speak, where you can get the sense—through cigarette-pack cards, cigar boxes, and myriad other promotional materials—of the extent to which the tobacco industry bankrolled baseball through and even beyond its infancy. Each of those collections has an hour's worth of perusal in it.

What's more, since it's been open on Saturdays for the past eight weeks, the Sports Museum has been more accessible than any shrine in upstate New York could ever claim to be. You could pay the $15 admission and spend a full day making your way through each exhibit. Nearly every square inch of every wall is covered, and every piece is thoroughly explained; the challenge is either getting to everything or absorbing all of it.

The museum has been drawing 100 to 150 people weekly since opening, its owner says. He's not sure the endeavor of opening it will be a break-even financial proposition—he employs a dozen or so kids to watch the rooms on the weekends—but also, he doesn't really care.

"People have said it'd be nice if other people could see it. So if they come, they come. If they don't, they don't," Cypres shrugged, content. We were sitting in a row of old stadium seats, one of the few unidentified relics in the museum, the paint faded and chipping away. "You gotta remember: primarily, I did this for me. For my love."

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