Recently, I wrote an article about the liquidation of some 90 percent of my baseball memorabilia collection, and its resurrection as a team-specific man cave, that being the Yankees. The cornerstone for the old collection was Stadia — seats, signs, turnstiles and other related fixtures and artifacts from baseball ballparks. Items can take the forms of everything from railings to urinals, from programs to hot dog vendor carry boxes, from ticket stubs to ushers’ uniforms, and everything in between, including bricks, dirt, and Astroturf!
The cool thing about Stadia is that it’s different, and displays well. The problem is that many of these items are bulky and take up space. In my former home, I displayed some 25 vintage stadium seats, almost all of them wood and iron models, as well as an early 1900s Shibe Park (Philadelphia)turnstile. And I needed all of my basement’s square footage to fit them around the perimeter of the room, whose 7-foot walls were decorated with framed prints of ballparks as well as bats, gloves, nodders, autographed balls, etc.
So then what would you think of the space about that same size that houses more than 70 seats, 88 ballpark signs, 58 framed pieces, numerous stadium models and much more? I would have thought it impossible. But then, my friends, Stadia dealer Richie Aurigemma (collectiblestadiumseats.com) recommended that I look up an old acquaintance, whom we’ll call Richie B., a guy I had corresponded with back in the ’90s and early 2000s as he was amassing his collection. Richie B. would call or write to pick my brain on items he was looking for or buying in this specialized area of the sports collecting hobby. Fast forward to today.
“You’ve gotta see Richie B.’s collection in person,” Aurigemma said. “Photos don’t do it justice.” So, I reconnected with Richie B. and we set up a date for me to take the two-hour ride to his home. I was intrigued and downright excited.
I want to make it clear that Richie B. is just a regular Joe, a retired guy who lives with his wife (who has always supported his hobby pursuits, fortunately) in a modest suburban home. So we’re not talking about a Charlie Sheen-ish high roller, though top-end Stadia pieces can get pretty pricey, especially when you’re talking about the late 1800s and early 1900s parks that were demolished in the ’50s and ’60s, before people deemed their contents collectible.
I figured that before I saw the collection, we’d sit and chat for a while in his living room (like my wife, Richie’s drew the line of display at the top of the staircase leading down to the lower level of the house). Of course, the first question I asked was, “Why Stadia?”
Richie explained that when he first started collecting in the ’70s it was cards, yearbooks, game-used bats, jerseys and autographs. But then in the early ’90s he traveled to Wrigley Field, Fenway Park and the old Comiskey Park for the first time and was captivated by these vintage “Green Cathedrals,” which led to a research of their history. And thus began a quest for knowledge that took him on many library and bookstore trips (he estimates that he has over 60 books on MLB stadiums). Of course, photos of many of the old-time parks such as Cincinnati’s “Palace of the Fans,” the Baker Bowl in Philadelphia and League Park in Cleveland were of the grainy, black-and-white variety. Richie wanted to find their contents — in color. And so, he decided to sell off the bulk of his non-Stadia memorabilia in order to shift his focus.
Richie’s first purchase was a Shea Stadium seat that he bought from an older gent who had been an usher for both the Mets and Yankees. When the Mets had done an early renovation and removed some of Shea’s original wooden seats, he’d taken one home. And this was the seat that got Richie started.
Of course, the challenge of finding a seat from every MLB ballpark in modern history is not for the faint of heart — or wallet. Richie did a lot of detective work, scanning auction catalogs from Lelands, Hunt and other places. He also became friendly with former dealer Mike Seitz, who really was the leader early on in the offering of stadium seats, parts, stands, and display plaques to collectors in this new area. Richie also started traveling far and wide to on-site stadium auctions at soon-to-be demolished facilities such as old Comiskey Park in Chicago. Gradually, other artifacts such as signs, bricks, and just about everything else started finding their way into his growing collection.
Here’s an example of how an eclectic Richie’s collection was becoming. When Three Rivers Stadium in Pittsburgh was being demolished, they had a contents sale that was open to the public. Among the items was a huge, half-moon mirror which had formerly been a window that had been removed from the façade of the Pirates’ previous ballpark, Forbes Field, upon its demolition in the late ’60s. The window glass had been replaced with mirrors, and the fixture was installed in what was called The Allegheny Club in the new Three Rivers Stadium in 1970. Well, this mirror now adorns a large space on one of Richie’s walls. Pretty impressive.
Speaking of impressive, Richie has no fewer than seven turnstiles in his collection, both the rotating type from the early 1900s and the side-sprocket models from the ’50s and later. He had to recruit some help in wrangling these bad boys down the stairs to his room, and would rather not think of what it would take to bring them back up. (The rotating models are particularly cumbersome, as they are welded together and cannot be disassembled. When my sole turnstile, the Shibe Park model previously mentioned, was removed from my basement, it required two brawny professional movers and the detachment of the basement door, as well as its surrounding wood trim.) Of course, a positive in all this is that unlike, say, a card collection, Stadia is tough to steal, unless you’re an Olympic power lifter or NFL nose tackle with a very big truck!
Anyway, after a lot of gabbing it was finally time to see the Stadia man cave. And so, cellphone camera in hand, I followed Richie to the basement entrance, and he opened the stairwell door. “Holy cow,” was my first response, or something to that effect that might have been a bit more off-color. I was immediately met by stadium signs of all types, as well as framed Stadia-related artwork and blueprints, that occupied virtually every square inch of the stairwell.
As I reached the bottom, the room opened up — if you could call it that — to a series of smaller chambers, all of which were crammed with seats, turnstiles, fixtures, you name it. I mean, seriously… foul poles? Upper deck PA speakers? Drinking fountains? Pieces of walls? It was almost too much to take in, so I started snapping away as Richie provided a running commentary on virtually every piece I pointed at, telling me where he’d found each one, how much he’d paid for it, etc. Every story, it seemed, was followed by a better one. Like most Stadia enthusiasts, he had learned to network with like-minded collectors and dealers such as Richie A., Sean Walsh, and the Rozanc brothers while he continued scouring eBay and auction house sites while frequenting stadium demolition sales, which have become more common in recent years.
The signs that covered the walls were made of wood (the highlight being from Weeghman Park, precursor to Wrigley Field), metal, and heavy cardboard stock. Some of these fixtures even lit up!
Seat-wise, Richie is, as previously mentioned, at 70-plus and counting. Some are refinished, but many are not. Like most Stadia collectors, he would rather have an unrestored seat in its original condition. But since many of the seats from the older parks were repainted after being relocated elsewhere, he has restored some of his chairs to their original color — which is not always easy to discern when you’re dealing with the mostly black-and-white ballpark photographs common in the old days. That’s why all Stadia buffs are part historian. You can’t collect this stuff without doing your homework.
And then Richie told me his Superstorm Sandy story. In case you’ve forgotten, Sandy hit the East Coast in the autumn of 2012 and laid waste to all that stood in its path. As Richie’s residence is near the coast, he was extremely nervous when predictions of disaster started rolling in but felt he was a reasonably safe distance from the shoreline. The problem was that at the back of his property is an underground stream, which naturally raised the water table. Well, as Sandy approached, Richie waved goodbye to his wife and son as they evacuated the area, refusing to leave his stuff. At first it seemed he might ride out the storm (he had a drain system and sump pump in the downstairs level) without incident, but then he lost power — as did millions of people on the East Coast — and his sump pump switched off. Before long, water started coming up through his basement floor — saltwater. So, he stripped down to a pair of shorts and spent hours going up and down the stairs, saving anything that could be carried. He ended up with 3 feet of water, and despite having the room pumped out, the nightmare wasn’t over, because the receding tide had left behind a sludgy residue that spawned black mold. The lower half of his walls had to be replaced before everything was eventually put back. “It was a big job,” he told me in the understatement of the year. Fortunately, he has been safe and dry ever since, and has invested in a generator as well.
I asked Richie what he could possibly still be looking for, and he told me he has lately turned his attention to usher and vendor uniforms and accoutrements. I mean, who else has full-sized, fully dressed usher/vendor mannequins in their collection? As far as seats, he’s still seeking an elusive Braves Field floor mount; he already has the attachable figural and piece, however.
Richie is also constantly upgrading his collection of stadium models, which range in size from the 40 or so ceramic molded mini replicas to more involved, hand-crafted kits encased in plexiglass. He is also looking to add to his ticket stub collection which is, likewise, displayed behind plexiglass. And did I forget to mention he has a few actual Astroturf rugs from “Those ’70s Stadiums”? Yeah, he’s got those, too.
Now, Richie has moved around a bit, the current venue being his fourth, and I asked him what might become of his collection down the road. He told me that since nobody else in his family is a baseball enthusiast — to his extent, anyway — he’ll eventually have to let it all go. But fear not; Richie expects to enjoy at least 10 more years of collecting before he’s done.
On the long drive home from my viewing of Richie B.’s “man cave,” I came to the conclusion that he has crossed over into museum territory. I mean, he has more examples of any one type of Stadia item than the “Hallowed Ground” ballparks exhibit at the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown! And I have no doubt that if he had double — or even triple — the size of his current room, he could easily fill it. That’s my only problem here. You see, everything was so expertly and meticulously shoehorned together (especially the seats) that I couldn’t fully appreciate each item, at least not in the limited time I had with Richie. I could easily envision a multi-tiered display stand along all the walls with the opened seats spread out across each level, but that would take a lot more square footage and ceiling height. As it is right now, the collection has spilled over (no pun intended) into the laundry room adjacent to the main chamber, which Richie says is okay with his wife as long as he volunteers to do the wash. Hopefully, my friend will ask me back for another, much longer visit (like maybe an entire week) so I could really examine the contents of his treasure trove.
Hopefully, his room has given you some ideas for your own “man cave.”
Until next time, please stay seated!