Ty Cobb died in 1961, but his dentures still speak to Karen Shemonsky—if not literally, in the manner of windup chattering novelty teeth, then emotionally. "I first saw them in a color photo in my husband's copy of Business Week," says the 54-year-old daughter of a dentist. "The teeth were open, and the caption said, 'Ty's teeth could be yours for $300 to $500.' I thought, Five hundred dollars? For Ty Cobb's teeth? That's a steal."
Naturally, Cobb's choppers were coveted by countless Americans, who gazed upon his partial plates—three teeth on the lower, six on the upper—and felt a Fixodent bond with the great man. Hence Shemonsky had to pay, at a 1999 Sotheby's auction, $6,500 for the not-so-pearly off-whites, which she enshrined for a month beneath a glass dome on a table in the living room of her home in Clarks Summit, Pa. "I surrounded the teeth with a glove and a ball and books about Cobb," says Shemonsky. "Made a real nice display with the dentures."
Since at least 326 A.D., when the One True Cross was discovered and promptly splintered into keepsakes for Christians, man has longed for a piece of every historical colossus. So, increasingly, the auctioneer's gavel beats a funeral march for good taste, having signaled the sale of Bill Veeck's wooden leg, Mickey Mantle's hair clippings and Art Modell's private Cleveland Stadium toilet (whose buyer, like the object itself, is—presumably—flushed with pride).
Americans' inability to discard anything to do with sports is most starkly in evidence on eBay, on which Dick McAuliffe's game-worn 1975 Red Sox home pants—"with working zipper"—were last week on offer for $24.99. I am not, I must confess, immune to the double-knit call of these dirtied trousers.
For years I have rented a walk-in storage locker in a terrifying building with concrete hallways, lit by single bare bulbs, in which are cast the long shadows of my fellow patrons—serial killers, most of them, who have come to warehouse their victims. My 10-by-10-foot unit is also filled with items that I have no use for but cannot dispose of: press passes and commemorative pins; official blue pucks from the old World Hockey Association, relics that resemble disinfectant urinal cakes; a fringed piece of paper that Julius Erving signed for me at the Mychal Thompson Basketball Camp in 1980; ticket stubs and game programs; a collection of baseball cards that serve as a comprehensive record of big league facial hair from 1974 to '81; and two decades' worth of SPORTS ILLUSTRATEDS, piled everywhere in uneven stacks that form a bar graph of my declining sanity.
That ours is a nation of demented collectors delights and befuddles Malcolm Alexander, 42, who was raised in rustic Moruya, Australia. Twelve years ago the Aussie emigrated to the U.S., where he has become the world's only bobblehead doll magnate. Next month alone Alexander's company, Alexander Global Promotions in Bellevue, Wash., will mint one million sports bobbleheads for an insatiable American public. Minnesota Twins fans have slept overnight outside the Metrodome to get one of 10,000 Kirby Puckett bobbleheads. Adults in Philadelphia bribed fans aged 14-and-under for the Allen Iverson bobbleheads given away at a Sixers game. One Midwestern couple plans to spend 11 weekends this summer driving 1,140 miles round trip to attend games of the Columbus Clippers, the New York Yankees' Triple A farm club, simply to obtain the bobbleheaded doppelg�ngers of their favorite ballplayers.
No one is more obsessive about the figurines than the athletes who achieve spring-necked immortality. "They all want the chins more chiseled and the arms a bit buffer on their bobbleheads," says Alexander, who employs 35 sculptors in China. These artists are heirs to the great Renaissance sculptors, commissioned, as they are, to create the likenesses of modern-day Medicis. "You want to get Derek Jeter's dimples just right," says Alexander. "One athlete—and I won't tell you who—looked at his prototype and said, 'I want my butt lifted and bubbled a bit.' "
Don't we all? But then, "Beauty," as Karen Shemonsky observes, "is in the eye of the beholder. I've been collecting all my life." She was thrilled last week when the Baseball Hall of Fame accepted, on loan, Cobb's disencraniumed dentures, which will be displayed in Cooperstown under glass, like roast pheasant, all summer long. Shemonsky says she will miss the plaster prosthesis, but looks forward to new opportunities in home decor.
"Bobbleheads," she explains. "I'm starting on those now."