"Be here tomorrow, kid, and I'll give you something to stop bothering me for autographs."
The next day Novikoff handed Halper a grocery bag. Inside was the Detroit Tiger road uniform that Barney McCosky had worn in 1940. Soon word got around the International League that a kid in Newark was stockpiling uniforms. Visiting players began making donations. By the time Halper graduated from high school, his inventory of baseball haberdashery had reached 75 uniforms.
He kept his urge to collect in relative check until 1974, when he attended a baseball-card show in Manhattan. He went straight from there to his mom's house, where he gathered up his old cards, programs and uniforms. And he began to accumulate an amazing amount of...stuff.
Much of the stuff is handsomely mounted on the walls. Some of it—the glove and spikes Bill Buckner wore when Mookie Wilson's grounder rolled between his legs in the sixth game of the 1986 World Series—is displayed in convex glass reliquaries like the bones of a saint.
The actual can of Oriole Pine Tar from which George Brett took the glop he smeared on his notorious pine tar bat in 1983 is in a case along with the pine tar ball Brett hit into the rightfield stands of Yankee Stadium, as well as the ticket stub of the fan who caught it and the signed business card of Orest V. Maresca, the magistrate who made the initial ruling in the ensuing controversy. Halper had the pine tar bat, too, but Brett wanted it back. So the Sultan swapped it for Brett's pine tar uniform and the bat he wielded to hit three homers for the Kansas City Royals against the Yanks during Game 3 of the '78 American League playoffs. (K.C. fans will be pleased to learn that Gossage inscribed the pine tar ball, Barry, I threw the——ing thing.)
Whenever possible Halper has players authenticate his collectibles. He has piles of index cards with handwritten testimonials, such as, To my pal Barry—This is the uniform I wore on June 18, 1947 when I pitched a no-hitter against Boston. Proud to have it in your collection. Ewell Blackwell.
Some comments are almost touching. On the back of Pete Rose's 1984 lifetime donor's pass to Cooperstown, the tarnished star wrote, Barry, I shouldn't need this pass to get into the Hall of Fame.
Sometimes the material arrives preauthenticated. The lock of Ruth's hair, for example, came with a signed letter to one of his admirers: In all my years in baseball, I have received many requests for autographs, bats, balls and equipment, but you are the first person to ask me for some of my hair. Therefore I feel I am obliged to comply with such a request at least once.
Of course, once is rarely enough for Halper, as Cy Young discovered at a 1955 Old-Timers' Game in Yankee Stadium. The 14-year-old Halper was standing outside the ballpark when he spotted two elderly gentlemen emerge from a car. One of them was Young, then a spry 88. Crawling under a police barricade, Halper brandished a ball and said, "Mr. Young, would you please autograph this for me?"
Young braced the ball against the boy's left shoulder and signed it. But while Young was bending over, his meerschaum pipe fell out of his vest pocket and cracked on the pavement. "This pipe's no use to me anymore, kid," Young said. "You can have it."