This article was written by Stew Thornley
This article was published in The National Pastime: Baseball in the North Star State (Minnesota, 2012)
Bob Evans, a longtime SABR member and avid baseball collector, once bought a jersey with many unknown details for $50. After much research, he discovered that it may have belonged to one of baseball’s all-time greats.
Longtime SABR member Bob Evans has been a collector most of his life. Born in 1935 and raised in West Orange, New Jersey, Evans started acquiring military memorabilia from relatives who fought in World War II and discovered baseball, as a fan and then as a collector, around the same time. His focus in military and baseball collecting were uniforms and equipment.
Evans played baseball at Lehigh University in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania (batting against Dallas Green of the Delaware Blue Hens) and amateur ball in West Orange (batting against Hank Borowy of nearby Bloomfield) and, following college, worked for Economics Laboratory, a company that transferred him to Minnesota in 1967. He acquired more uniforms and spent time at military and baseball collector shows. In 1980 he was at a baseball show at a hotel across Killebrew Drive from Metropolitan Stadium in Bloomington, Minnesota. An elderly man, accompanied by his daughter, had brought a Minneapolis Millers uniform to show to dealers although he had nothing in mind in terms of what to do with it. The man, a former Minneapolis cop, had gotten the uniform when he played in a benefit game between the Minneapolis and St. Paul police in the mid-1950s.
Evans spotted the man with the uniform slung over his shoulder and asked if he was looking to sell. The man said yes in a reluctant fashion and added that he didn’t know what it was worth. Evans said, “It’s worth $50 to me.” The man turned away and said, “It can’t be worth that much.” The man’s daughter, however, convinced him to accept the offer, and Evans came away with the uniform, which included a jersey with 28 on the back.
Evans later determined that the uniform was from 1950 and also that Willie Mays had worn 28 for the Millers, although it was in 1951 when he played 35 games for Minneapolis. Evans found photos of Mays with the Millers and did magnification studies of details—the lettering, the shape of the piping around the yoke of the collar—and could make out anomalies that are unique to individual uniforms. He started to suspect that his jersey had been worn by Mays, meaning that he would have received a holdover uniform from 1950.
One detail in particular could confirm the connection. On the right sleeve of the jersey was a team repair of an L-shaped tear. However, in all the photos Evans had seen of Mays, none had clearly shown the right sleeve. Finally, in 2003, the Halsey Hall Chapter of SABR held its spring meeting at the Minnesota Historical Society, which had an exhibit on Minnesota baseball. In that exhibit, Evans saw the photo he was looking for. He acquired a copy of the photo, which clearly showed the tear on the right sleeve.
In 2004, the Antiques Roadshow came to St. Paul. Evans attended and brought the photo and the jersey to Simeon Lipman for appraisal. “It’s obviously a remarkable piece,” Lipman told Evans. “It’s a remarkable story. It’s in immaculate condition. That helps it. You spent $50 on it. I would estimate it conservatively in the $60,000 to $80,000 range today.”
Evans decided to market it through a national auction company and consulted with his tax adviser. He learned that collectables are subject to a higher capital-gains tax, and he ultimately set up a charitable trust, to which he donated the jersey. The jersey sold through the auction house for an undisclosed amount.
STEW THORNLEY is an author of books on sports history for adults and young readers. He received the SABR-Macmillan Baseball Research Award in 1988 for his first book, “On to Nicollet: The Glory and Fame of the Minneapolis Millers.” He also enjoys visiting graves of notable people and is the author of “Six Feet Under: A Graveyard Guide to Minnesota.” Stew is an official scorer for Minnesota Twins home games and also does the datacasting of games for MLB.com Gameday. He lives in Roseville, Minnesota, with his wife, Brenda Himrich, and their cats, Jeter and Mickey.
Interview with Bob Evans, December 18, 2010; Antiques Roadshow website: http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/roadshow/archive/200401A24.html