I have mixed feelings about men like Brandon Steiner.
On the one hand, I sorta hate what sports have become. I mean, I still love the games and the action and the beautiful moments. But the whole collectable business irks me. Why the hell does someone need a swath of Shea Stadium’s old grass? A seat from the Kingdome? Ryan Dempster’s shoe? Why can’t we just enjoy the games, without trying to bleed every dime out of memorabilia? Why can’t we stop propping the players to God-like creatures, whose T-shirts should not be discarded, but encased in glass and sold for $500?
And yet … Brandon Steiner seems, oddly, different. The nation’s best known (and most highly regarded) sports memorabilia guru, the Brooklyn, N.Y. native is probably responsible for more athlete-signing pairings than any person on the planet. Have there been controversies? Sure (you can read the whole deal on his Wikipedia page). But, overall, Brandon’s rep in the business is strong.
Here, Brandon talks about the rise of memorabilia and the death of baseball cards; the goodness (yes, goodness) of Reggie Jackson and his respect for Eli Manning. Brandon’s new book, You Gotta Have Balls, is available now on Amazon and most places where books are sold.
Brandon Steiner, welcome to Quazland …
JEFF PEARLMAN: Brandon, I’ve long been itching to ask this to someone-and there’s no one better than you. In short: Why do people care about sports memorabilia? I get watching a game, I get wearing a Yankee cap, I get meeting Derek Jeter or David Wright and shaking a hand. But why would anyone want a bottle of Yankee Stadium dirt, or a piece of Bernie Williams’ glove? I mean, isn’t that going a bit too far?
BRANDON STEINER: It’s a good question. People care about collecting because it enhances and prolongs their memories of their favorite players and moments. For many people, besides their marriage and the births of their children, a sporting event/moment ranks in the top moments of their lives, and they want to “save” them and be inspired by them on a day-to-day basis. Collecting allows for this. Personally, I like to keep these moments in front of me as much as possible.
I’d like to think I changed the collectibles industry when I realized the answer to this very question, in the mid 90s; when it hit me how seriously people take their favorite sports moments. That was a game changer for me. (I tell the story of the actual aha moment, which came while I was telling my son a bedtime story when he was 4.)
Ah, the dirt. I can see where, from the outside, a capsule of dirt makes you scratch your head, but the rationale is pretty simple. I’ve seen a lot of people walk onto the field at Yankee Stadium for the first time—and most of them grab some dirt and put it in their pocket, or at least reach down to touch the field. You think of all the legends who have made it their home—Mantle, Jeter, DiMaggio, etc—people instinctively want a connection to that. So the dirt is like a good luck charm. Are you going to be able to sell it 20 years from now and send your kid to college with the proceeds? Probably not. It’s not about that, though. Notre Dame, Fenway … there are other special places where people want to have a little piece of that history.
J.P.: You were born in Brooklyn, and attended Dewey High in Coney Island before leaving for Syracuse University. That, I know. But how did you become a memorabilia gugu? What was your path to such a career?
B.S.: You Gotta Have Balls is all about the answer to that question. What a long, strange, incredible trip it’s been. I’ve loved sports my whole life. I went to 25-30 Yankees games every season, when I was a kid. I used to take the train 1 1/2 hours both ways just to sit in a cheap seat with an obstructed view. But back then, I never had ambitions to be in the sports business. There was no sports business, not like today. But I always wanted to be a businessman, running an unusual company that did something original. Now you can get a degree in sports business, but that’s not how you’re going to know your stuff in this industry. You first need to learn how to be a good businessperson, period. For me, that started when I was ten, with my first job. I’ve loved every job I’ve ever had. I’ve taken every job very seriously. I love selling. I think for most people, your career is shaped from the very beginning, from what you did as a kid, and continued to do. I try to get that across in the book—how important all the steps you take are, long before you really hit your stride in your career.
J.P.: Back when I was a kid, I knew-absolutely knew-I’d eventually be rich thanks to my massive baseball card collection. Hell, I had the Upper Deck Griffey, Jr.! Set for life. Well, I’m not rich. What the hell happened to baseball cards? And are they now a dead medium, in regards to making money.
B.S.: The leagues and card companies got greedy, and confused about what gave the cards value in the first place. They began printing too many cards; too many sets came out in the ’90s. A true collectible line has a start and finish and the goal isn’t to print and meet demand—it’s the opposite. To make a true collectible, you have to come out with something very cool and unique and not have that many of it. You have to limit the amount made, so people have to go to secondary markets, and other out of the way places, to find them.
The older, vintage baseball cards are still through the roof in value (cards from before, say, 1985). Also, times have just changed. It used to be that kids related to players through baseball cards, but now it’s through things like video games, and the internet. The “need” for cards is not the same.
J.P.: You’re in an interesting spot, in that you work with athletes (who tend to loathe collectors), yet you also cater to collectors (who surely buy some of your merchandise). It seems like the relationship between athletes and collectors is worse than ever; a truly adversarial bond that borders of disgust. Do you think athletes are right when they say collectors have ruined it for them, and for kids? Is there a happy medium?
B.S.: I’m not sure I agree with that. Athletes don’t, as a rule, dislike collectors. There is some mistrust there—when a person hangs outside a stadium to get something signed, and it’s on eBay 20 minutes later. But most collectors are not like that and the die-hard ones who are really in it for their collections are one of the cornerstones of the industry. Most collectors do it for the “right” reason; they love the players. They want to honor them. And their passion drives value, and is in important ingredient in the massive value of the sports industry as a whole. Players appreciate that, even if, on an individual basis, they don’t love every collector.
And then there are the kids who collect. That’s another story. I’m not sure they’re going to follow the baby boomers in the way they collect: coins, stamps, etc. Kids don’t see things the same way these days; they feel they can save these moments and memories electronically. Oh well.
I think most players want to do right by kids by signing for them, but they’re confused sometimes when a kid asked for an autograph, but there’s a guy with a bag of jerseys standing right behind the kid. They feel protective of themselves, which is understandable.
In 20 years there will be a whole different set of items being collected but hopefully sports collectibles will still be one of the things people want to hold onto.
J.P.: How big of a problem is forgery and deception in sports memorabilia? What is the answer? And how can someone absolutely, positively know the item he’s getting is legit?
B.S.: With the complex ways of authenticating everything, forgery is less of an issue than ever. Buyers don’t have to “beware.” They just have to be educated and if they do their research and go to the right places, it’s a much safer road. Also, stay off eBay; that’s home to a lot of bad stuff.
J.P.: In 2004, you announced the launch of an unprecedented partnership, Yankees-Steiner Collectibles. This strikes me as the gold medal of your business. How did the partnership come to be?
B.S.: Definitely one of my proudest moments—seeing my name linked with the New York Yankees. A dream come true. The way Yankees-Steiner came to be is detailed in the book, but I’d sum it up by saying that any good partnership begins with the intent to help people. That’s what Randy Levine (president of the Yankees) really wanted to do: protect Yankees fans from fake items. The Yankees definitely have more collectibles due to their history than any other team and with all the different Ruth bats, and Jeter jerseys flying around, how could a collector know what was real? Yankees-Steiner was developed to solve those issues. By having their own collectibles program, the Yankees can ensure all the items are authentic, keep prices in line, make sure their fans don’t have to deal with questionable third party sellers. I’d like to think our partnership changed the collectibles industry as a whole; now we’re seeing other teams and colleges do it. The last thing I want to add is that it was amazing how much time the top Yankees brass spent to really understand the collectibles business. There is a reason the Yankee brand is the biggest on the planet and it’s not just their intensity and commitment on the field.
J.P.: How is it determined that some athletes are memorabilia gold and some aren’t? Is it the sort of thing where one knows it when he sees it? Or is there a checklist for what makes someone valuable and someone relatively worthless?
B.S.: I wish I had the answer to this! One of the hardest parts of my job in the late ’90s and early 2000s was determining price. Factors that go into it are: how much a guy signs, if the athlete has a defining “moment,” if he’s part of a winning team with broad popularity, if he’s won some awards, like the MVP or Rookie of the Year. Where does he play? Some parts of the country are more into collecting than others.
J.P.: I’ve heard absolute horror stories about Reggie Jackson at events. Egomaniac, arrogant, dismissive. True? Unfair? Both?
B.S.: Reggie can be a little rough sometimes with people but he is an amazing person in more ways than not, and has had an amazing life and career. People should focus on that and not get caught up in the 30 seconds of meeting a player and hoping it was warm and fuzzy. Reggie is incredibly smart—he knows more about the history of baseball than almost anyone I have met. And he’s donated a bunch of money and time to the two group homes I support in White Plains. Well, I’m biased—I love the guy. But the fact is that he’s done too many great things for them to be outweighed by some isolated incidents that have people perceiving him negatively.
J.P.: Greatest moment in the business? Lowest?
B.S.: One of my best moments was back when I was managing the Sporting Club—the first real sports bar in New York, in the 1980s. I hosted these event nights, where big-name athletes would come to tend bar for charity, or we’d do a party revolving around a big boxing match. (In those days, no one had satellite, so you had to leave the house to see boxing.) During one particularly popular party, with the place packed and lots of great athletes there, my mom came over to me and said, “You’re special—you’re a great promoter and marketer, way above the norm. You know how to move people.” That was a great moment.
Another highlight was having a relationship with Mickey Mantle and also doing a ton of work with Clyde Frazier, two idols growing up. Also signing Mark Messier to our first collectibles deal. So many great firsts and moments over the first 25 years of Steiner.
The lowest moment is any time I lose an employee that has been with me for a while. Also, when we were just starting out, and a check I had paid Phil Rizzuto with bounced because my margins were so incredibly thin back then. And in 1998, when 12 out of 28 employees decided they didn’t like the direction we were going, and they lost confidence in me and left. I had to rebuild quick. Now we have 100 employees or so.
J.P.: You’re not going to love this question, but it’s one worth asking. For many years you owned and operated an ice cream store in Scarsdale, N.Y., Last Licks. It was a hugely popular place, that wisely merged ice cream and sports memorabilia. A couple of years ago you sold the business to one of your employees. Then, shortly thereafter, you opened up your own ice cream shop less than a mile away. I know many, many, many people who refuse to go to your store any more; who think you did the guy wrong; who feel like you took advantage of a young man who unwisely didn’t insist upon a non-compete clause. I want to ask you this, because it’s always good to hear both sides of a story.
B.S.: This is a more complicated story than meets the eye. If I could do the whole thing over again, I wouldn’t do everything the same, but it’s not as cut-and-dry as you put it. Would be happy to go more in-depth off-the-record.
QUAZ EXPRESS WITH BRANDON STEINER:
• Have you ever thought you were about to die in a plane crash? If so, details: All the time, when i fly. And I always think about two things; my family—have I been a good dad and husband; and have I tried to help as many people as possible?
• Does Coney Island have a future as an entertainment kingdom?: Yes, it’s Brooklyn, So many people in that borough, alone. I don’t think people understand how big Brooklyn is; it’s its own city. Hopefully Atlantic Yards will help drive that home.
• How do you know anything about ice cream?: After ten years working with it, I know more than I care to about ice cream. I’ll tell you this: when people realize that yogurt isn’t as healthy as it seems, there will be a move back to ice cream. Talk about a fad. People go and eat a gallon of frozen yogurt and think they are eating healthy? Crazy!
• Rank in order (favorite to least) NWA, Rye, N.Y., 20/20, Pez, Jeff Bridges, Hall & Oates, Nightmare on Elm Street, Mike Pagliarulo, Rafael Santana, jeans, Pearl Washington, William Shatner, Red Lobster, Richard Nixon: Hall & Oates, Pearl Washington, Jeff Bridges, William Shatner, Rye, N.Y., Pez, jeans. Mike Pagliarulo, 20/20, Red Lobster, Rafael Santana, Richard Nixon, Nightmare on Elm Street. What’s NWA?
• Three fastest autograph signers you’ve worked with?: 1. Walter Payton; 2. Lawrence Taylor (You shoulda seen his face when I suggested he just sign “L. Taylor.”—I thought he was gonna give me a kiss. He had been signing his whole name, which took a long time; 3. Derek Jeter when he was starting out. He’s slowed down a bit.
• Five greatest athletes of your lifetime?: Jordan, Magic, The Big O, LT, and Gretzky/Messier. Also: Hank Aaron, Mariano Rivera, Jeter, Pete Rose, Roger Staubach, Jim Brown.
• If you started selling bronzed Derek Jeter chewing gum, could it sell? And for how much?: Jeter’s an elegant guy. We’d never do that, and since it’s so contrary to his persona, it would never work anyway.
• Would you rather spend a month in a single room with Barry Bonds, or listen to Menudo’s Greatest Hits on an endless spool for a year?: Neither, very much. I would like to spend a month getting to know Bonds so I could ask him why he felt the need to juice at the end of an already great career. How he could have still been so insecure as to be jealous of the McGwires and Sosas, who were never in his class as a player.
• Eli Manning strikes me as the most boring (in a nice and friendly way) alive. Am I wrong?: You are dead wrong! He’s one of my favorite guys, period. We should all be so lucky as to have a friend like him: loyal, funny, honest, reliable. If a martian came down and wanted to see one football player to learn the essence of the game from – the character, the discipline, the owning the moment – I’d have them study up on Eli. Just like if they wanted to learn baseball, it would be Derek or Hank Aaron.
• You have your own basketball court. Best guys to ever play there? And did you dunk on any of them?: My dream is to one day dunk. And it’s not gonna happen, ever! Best players have been Mark Aguirre and Tiny Archibald. Hoping Clyde comes to play one-on-one one of these days.