The room is full of baseball relics and Alan O’Connor seems to have a story for each, not only of their place in Sacramento baseball history but of how O’Connor, a local collector, came to obtain them.
There’s the 1930s Solons jersey that O’Connor said belonged to Ernest “Tiny” Bonham, an imposing, ironically named right-hander who would later pitch for the Yankees. Cut by Sacramento’s Pacific Coast League team one season, Bonham kept his jersey, which ended up with his nephew, who offered it to O’Connor.
There’s the 1950s catcher’s mask once worn by Johnny Ritchey, the first black player to play in the PCL, which found its way into O’Connor’s possession after somebody asked him: “I’ve got Johnny Ritchey’s catcher’s mask – do you want it?”
Once, O’Connor said, former PCL pitcher Bud Watkins called him up to say he’d come across his old Phoenix Giants gear bag from the 1950s. The two opened the time capsule to find liniment, socks, cleats – and a protective cup.
“He refused to sign it,” O’Connor said.
A baseball historian and author, O’Connor also lays claim to one of the more extensive personal collections of Sacramento and PCL baseball memorabilia. Until recently, much of the collection was on display at Folsom Historical Museum in an exhibit exploring the history of baseball in the area.
Faded jerseys, black-and-white team photos and game-used gear helped trace baseball’s presence back to the early 1900s. But they also underscored the fact that the sport, perhaps more than any other, offers collectors opportunities beyond standard baseball cards.
It may be one way to explain the relative popularity of baseball collectibles, which David Seideman, who writes a column for Forbes on the sports memorabilia industry, described as overwhelming compared to other sports.
“You look at the baseball card sales on eBay, the auction houses – baseball is like 80 to 90 percent of the business,” Seideman said.
Seideman suggests a couple of reasons: Baseball history lives in a kind of “continuum,” its rules virtually unchanged for more than a century and its early stars still referenced often, while the game itself is “sub-woven into the American fabric as our national pastime.”
The latter especially taps into what Seideman offers as the leading motivation for many collectors: nostalgia. For the last 25 years, for example, Seideman himself has collected store-model gloves.
“I’ve tried meditation, and I’m sometimes successful and sometimes not,” Seideman said. “I asked my meditation teacher how I know when I’m in a meditative state, and he said, ‘What is your happiest memory in your life?’ And I said, ‘Playing catch with my dad.’
“The glove collecting brings back those memories of playing catch, and also getting that new glove, oiling it up, putting it under a mattress with a belt to break it in.”
O’Connor, a McClatchy High School alum who recalls attending Solons games as a boy, said he started out collecting cards before moving to game-used items. He got serious about memorabilia in the 1990s and owns such prizes as a 1922 Solons jersey – the oldest-known PCL jersey around, he said – and a 1942 ring from the Solons team that led the league with 105 wins.
The ring, of course, has a story. O’Connor found it on eBay listed as that of pitcher Hersh Lyons. So O’Connor called Lyons, who said he was wearing his ring as they spoke.
Convinced it was real, O’Connor bought the ring anyway. The seller, he learned, had found it in a trove of old jeweler’s sample rings. The next time he saw Lyons, the two compared rings: O’Connor’s had Lyons’ name on the inside, while Lyons’ ring had none.
“The best we could come up with is they gave him the manufacturer’s sample (in 1942),” O’Connor said, “and put his ring back in the sample case.”
O’Connor said he spent about $2,800 for the ring, one of his larger investments. Since his focus is on Sacramento and the PCL, not the majors, the prices are more minor-league.
“It’s just to keep the history of the Solons alive,” O’Connor said. “Someday I want this in an archive, perhaps in the city museum or something. It’s a resource. Otherwise it’s just scattered all over.”
For Dwight Martinia, another Sacramento collector, the attraction is game-used jerseys. Martinia said he has pursued the hobby off and on for more than 30 years, gravitating toward jerseys as “something that was more personal to the players.”
“The collecting is fun, but you also create friendships,” Martinia said. “And I think those relationships are what makes collecting fun. You get to share what you’ve collected with people that have similar interests.”
Wanting to ensure he’s buying the real thing, Martinia said he has become familiar with the marks of authenticity – where a jersey should show wear, for example, or what teams did with their used jerseys in the past. In that way a collector can become a kind of amateur historian – or, in the case of someone like Richard Macaluso, a published historian.
Macaluso, of El Dorado Hills, collects catcher’s mitts. He has about 150 of them dating from the 1890s up to the 2000s. And he has written a book, “From Buck to Pudge: The Evolution of Baseball’s Catchers Mitt.”
“This is, to me, an important part of baseball – the equipment changes, and the mitt in particular,” Macaluso said. “And I just felt it was important to document that these changes have taken place, and how these changes in the mitt affected the catching style.”
And if that sounds esoteric, consider that Macaluso also collected fielder’s gloves for a while before opting to focus solely on catcher’s mitts.
“They just show up so well in display,” Macaluso said. “I just got hooked.”