David Goodwillie '94

David Goodwillie '94 segues from sports to sports memorabilia

In his new job, David Goodwillie '94 recently assessed what had been displayed as one of Babe Ruth's bats at the Babe Ruth Museum in Baltimore, Maryland.

"In two seconds, I could tell it was a store model bat," says Goodwillie, head of sports collectibles for Sotheby's auction house in New York City. "First of all, it was too small for him. It was a bat I would use," says the trim, six-foot Goodwillie. "Second of all, the number `34' was engraved on the bottom of the knob. That only happens in store model bats, and it stands for how long the bat is-thirty-four inches.

"I have to call the lady who consigned it to me and tell her it's not worth $40,000, but $5,000. It's still worth $5,000 because it was signed by Babe Ruth in 1926, and the signature is good."

Determining whether items are real occupies a lot of time for Goodwillie, who's helped in those decisions by having worked as a private investigator. Other sources of income for the former Kenyon baseball captain since graduating in 1994 have included playing minor-league baseball for a year, writing fiction and nonfiction, and writing catalogue copy for an auction house. His knowledge of sports and writing helped him get hired last December to start Sotheby's sports-collectibles division.

"I had to learn a lot about sports," says Goodwillie. "I can tell you who won the World Series in 1955, but I couldn't tell you the price of a nineteenth-century tobacco baseball card. So you learn. You look at what things have sold for at previous auctions, and what the market is."

The value of an item, Goodwillie says, is determined by three primary factors: "where it comes from, who used it, and whether it came from a magical moment in sports history."

As an example, Goodwillie says the glove worn by Boston first-baseman Bill Buckner in the 1986 World Series against the New York Mets would normally be worth little. "But it was attached to a major error in game six of the World Series. New York was down to its last strike with one runner on base, and because of Buckner's error, they still won the game." The Mets also captured the seventh game and the World Series."

Items such as Buckner's glove are booming in the current market. Goodwillie recently helped Sotheby's auction Lou Gehrig's last baseball glove for $387,500 and Ty Cobb's last major-league jersey for $332,500. Those were the most expensive items in an auction where entertainer Billy Crystal paid $239,000 for Mickey Mantle's 1960 baseball glove. The pieces of equipment were part of the largest sports memorabilia auction ever, with a total sale of $21 million.

Prices are rising partly because Sotheby's now uses the latest in electronic advertising. "We put a catalogue on the Internet," Goodwillie says. "Instead of twenty-five thousand catalogues going out, you have millions of people who can look at it and bid on it."

Seventy-five per cent of the sports items people bid on are baseball-related, Goodwillie notes. Baseball cards became valuable in the 1970s and 1980s, followed by the gloves, uniforms, and other items.

"People grow up idolizing certain players and following certain teams-say, the Brooklyn Dodgers," Goodwillie says. "There are people in Brooklyn to this day who love everything about the Dodgers-the fact that they signed the first black players, the fact that they were in the World Series almost every year and almost never won.

"People come to a time in their lives when they're financially stable and have a little money. And they think, what better way to recapture their childhood? It kind of harkens back to a time when there was a certain innocence."

Goodwillie works to make sure those buyers get authentic items. "You assume it's fake until you can prove it's real," he says.

-Gary Libman

Editor's note: Libman is a freelance writer who lives in Altadena, California.

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