By Kevin Glew
Call them the “independent” thinkers of the baseball memorabilia hobby. Yes, beyond the masses of major league enthusiasts exists a small but tenacious group that focuses on independent baseball league collectibles.
“We’re a pretty diehard group,” said Tim Perry, a Frontier League collector and webmaster of www.flhistory.0catch.com.
Known for wacky promotions, recycling ex-big leaguers, and serving as temporary homes for holdouts, these renegade circuits – in their current form – date back to 1993 when the Northern League and Frontier League started play. Since that time, more than 10 unaffiliated leagues have sprouted up and have showcased the talents of players like Rickey Henderson, Darryl Strawberry, Juan Gonzalez, J.D. Drew and Jose Canseco.
Some of these indy circuits have thrived, while others have failed miserably. But all have done their best to offer fans good, affordable fun.
“It’s $8 for the best ticket and there’s no charge for parking,” said Sumner Hunnewell, a Frontier League collector, about attending independent league games.
Gilli Braunstein, a Winnipeg native who collects memorabilia from his hometown Goldeyes (Northern League), says the family atmosphere at these contests is one of the reasons he’s become a fan and a collector.
“I’ve been going to games since I was 9. After you go for so long, you often recognize people in the stands,” he said.
Hobbyists are also drawn to the pureness of unaffiliated baseball.
“These guys are in it primarily – if not solely – because they want to play the game. They’re not making tons of money. They’re making less than I do,” explained Bill Tyler, webmaster of the popular www.nlfan.com and owner of the world’s largest collection of Northern League memorabilia.
Tyler also enjoys the fact that the players are approachable.
“You can make a big summer family with some of the players and coaches,” he said.
Like Braunstein, whose collection boasts game-used equipment, pocket schedules and autographs, many independent league collectors live in a town with a franchise.
“Interest tends to be regional,” said Tyler, who resides in St. Paul and is a regular at Saints (American Association) games.
Of course, with former big leaguers like Strawberry and Henderson, these leagues offer memorabilia that also attracts player collectors.
“I’ve seen some Northern League collectibles sell for ridiculous prices,” said Braunstein.
Bobbleheads seem to be the most popular independent league collectibles. Not only do teams feature limited-edition bobbleheads of ex-big leaguers, but they also produce them of mascots. Tyler has been looking for a Homer the Haymarket Hound bobblehead (American Association’s Lincoln Saltdogs’ mascot) for five years.
“They only made 1,000 of them. They didn’t make any extras and now they’re impossible to come by,” explained Tyler. “They occasionally show up on eBay and when they do, the bobblehead collectors show up like crazy and they bid them up over $100.”
Collectors also covet pocket schedules. Braunstein has acquired a schedule from every Goldeyes’ season except for their inaugural campaign. A review of eBay postings reveals that these schedules are not expensive, selling in the 50 cents to $1 range, but tracking them down and purchasing them before general schedule collectors can be a challenge.
“There are people that just have to have everything (every pocket schedule) from everybody,” said Tyler.
Baseball cards are also popular. And while the demand may not rival that for major league cards, these cards are also produced in significantly smaller quantities.
“They mainly only print 1,000 sets for a club on average,” pointed out Brad Spivack, an Oregon-based dealer who specializes in obscure minor league sets.
And the majority of these sets are given away to fans.
“Most of the stadium giveaway items end up in the wastepaper basket or they get left under the seats,” said Spivack. “They don’t get circulated.”
Recent eBay sales illustrate that these teams sets generally sell in the $8 to $10 range, depending who’s in the set.
To a lesser extent, autographs are also collected. With high player turnover it’s difficult to get a complete team set signed.
“By the time they’ve sent the cards off to be printed there may be five or six guys who have left the team. I probably have well over about 500 or 600 signed cards and that grows every year,” explained Hunnewell.
Hunnewell has also acquired game-worn jerseys from the Frontier League.
“Sometimes I’ve picked up jerseys for like $35. Sometimes I’ve picked them up for $125,” he said.
Hobbyists say that a number of factors influence the value of independent league collectibles. A high-profile player, for example, helps sell a team set. Spivack says that the 1997 and 1998 St. Paul Saints sets often command $15 to $20 each because J.D. Drew was on those clubs.
“The reality of it is that players who have been in the limelight before are fantastic draws,” said Spivack.
The veteran dealer adds that this year’s Fort Worth Cats (independent American Association) team set is also coveted because it includes Luke Hochevar, who was taken first overall by the Kansas City Royals in this year’s draft. One of these sets is being offered on eBay for $20, with another seller even attempting to sell a BGS 9.5 Hochevar for $95.
Items from defunct franchises also sell well.
“Basically the team sets that are worth the most are the clubs that lasted the shortest amount of time and only produced one set from one year,” said Spivack.
Perry agrees, adding that memorabilia from ill-fated Frontier League franchises is difficult to uncover.
“Looking for items from defunct teams is a real crapshoot. Although the Frontier League started fairly recently (1993), some defunct team items are impossible to find. Generally, the longer ago the team disappeared, the harder the items are to find.”
For the most part, however, collecting independent league memorabilia is an inexpensive hobby.
“Interest in independent league items isn’t as intense as it is with a lot of affiliated ball,” said Tyler.
“The benchmark for minor league sets used to be $10. Now sets are $1 or $2. Any set that doesn’t have a star in it is going for below the cost of the manufacturer,” he said.
If you’re looking to start a collection of independent league memorabilia, eBay is a good source. Tyler has also created two independent league websites that boast fan forums (www.nlfan.com and www.aafan.com) where you can converse with fellow hobbyists.
You can view Frontier League memorabilia on Perry’s site, www.flhistory.0catch.com, and visit with fellow enthusiasts on his message board. Another website called www.nefan.net also provides a forum for independent league enthusiasts.
Tyler also recommends contacting the teams directly.
“It’s worthwhile to contact the team because sometimes they have extra collectibles,” he said.
With all of this in mind, perhaps it’s time for you to join this group of “independent” thinkers.
This story originally ran in the May 11 issue of our sister publication, Sports Collectors Digest. Please post a comment about this story or anything else you’ve seen while visiting www.tuffstuff.com.