The Sultan of Swap is on the speakerphone. He's haggling with a guy who wants to sell him Christy Mathewson's New York Giant uniform from 1900, the great pitcher's first season in the big leagues. The guy is willing to throw in Mathewson's uniform from 1913, the year he threw a 10-inning shutout in the World Series.
"How much you asking?" says the Sultan, known outside dickering circles as Barry Halper.
Halper asks the haggler if he'll trade the Mathewson uniforms for ones once worn by Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig. Halper can afford it: He already has eight Ruths and seven Gehrigs.
The haggler doesn't bite. "What's the matter?" he asks. "You don't like Christy Mathewson?"
"It's not that," says Halper. "You've got nice pieces, but I already have Mathewson's minor league uniform from 1899, his 1911 Giant uniform, his monogrammed teapot, three of his monogrammed handkerchiefs, his wallet, his dinner crystal, his binoculars, his sterling-silver trophies, his slate checkerboard, two of his gloves, first editions of all his baseball novels, his contract and canceled signing-bonus check from 1902 and his wife's lifetime National League pass." Presumably Michael Jackson has Mathewson's bones.
And the Mathewsonabilia is just a small part of a remarkable cache of baseball artifacts and memorabilia spread through eight rooms of Halper's house in northern New Jersey. There's a bit of everything: dozens of mitts, posters, statues, high school yearbooks, 19th-century photographs; scores of programs and ticket stubs, including at least one from every World Series and All-Star Game; hundreds of bats, from Heinie Groh's bottle-shaped model to Shoeless Joe Jackson's Black Betsy; thousands of signed balls, from Gabby Hartnett's Homer in the Gloamin' to Ruth's 500th career dinger; more than a million cards, including, Halper says, an example of every one ever printed until Halper lost interest in 1976.
The collection not only rivals that of the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y., but in many ways surpasses it. Besides owning the largest trove of uniforms west of the Kremlin, Halper has the first catcher's mask, worn by Harry Thatcher of the Harvard Crimson in about 1860; the earliest known player contract, that of E.B. Sutton of the Boston Base Ball Association in 1879; and the oldest copy of the rules of baseball (1846), drawn up by the Knickerbockers of New York, the first organized club. Suspended in an apothecary jar in a secret compartment behind a wall of Halper's study is a soft stuffed sphere dated 1859. "It could be the oldest baseball in existence," says Halper with the wide-eyed wonder of a boy approaching 56. Halper also has the signature of every man who is in the Hall of Fame and of Abner Doubleday, who is not. "Somewhere I've got a letter signed by Abner Doubleday's father," Halper says. "What's he, the Grandfather of Baseball?"
The Hall of Halper is a lot more intimate than its counterpart in Cooperstown. Where else could you try on the cleats and running gloves Rickey Henderson wore while stealing his record 939th base? Or bang the gavel of Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis, baseball's first commissioner? Or browse through the pages of a hotel register containing, Halper says, the signatures of every major leaguer who played in 1894? Or play catch with the ball Cookie Lavagetto hit to break up Bill Bevens's no-hitter with two out in the ninth inning of the fourth game of the 1947 World Series? "You've gotta understand," says Halper, punching his fist into Gehrig's last glove. "You're seeing a lot of illness here."
Halper is not some fatuous middlebrow seeing metaphors instead of a game. You won't hear him rhapsodizing about geometric elegance or generational arcs. To Halper baseball is gossip, daydreams and Dad. Leaning against a bench built of Louisville Sluggers (with bases as cushions), he opens a notebook bulging with Carl Mays's private correspondence and wonders why Mays, a pitcher of the teens and '20s, isn't in the Hall of Fame. Probably, he says, because Mays's 207 victories were overshadowed by a pitch he threw in 1920 that resulted in the only death of a hit batter in big league history. Halper reads aloud from one of Mays's letters: