With his trademark fedora, penchant for colorful pants and ever-present cigar, Bert Sugar was hard to miss. A fixture in the media, especially the world of boxing and baseball, Sugar had a big personality but pulled it off without being annoying. It's just who he was.
A whip-smart guy who liked to talk sports and tell stories, Sugar died Sunday from cardiac arrest at age 75. He'd also been battling lung cancer. To long-time sports collectors and dealers, he was a pioneer.
Sugar was one of the driving forces behind The Sports Collectors Bible, a thick paperback book that was the ultimate reference guide and trip down memory lane in the 1970s. The book was sort of an "after Burdick/before Beckett" reference guide during the days when the hobby first began to gain mainstream acceptance. Information in the pre-internet era was scarce, shared at the few card shows that existed, but more commonly through mailed correspondence. Sugar, with a team of contributors, pulled it together and gave the hobby something tangible to measure prices and spread the gospel of sports collecting. At 200+ pages, it carried an introduction by Roone Arledge and a foreward by Jim Bouton, giving it credibility beyond the hobby.
Sugar's efforts weren't confined to the Sports Collectors Bible, though. Not long ago, he authored Bert Sugar's Baseball Hall of Fame: A Living History of America's Greatest Game. He also produced Hall of Fame Baseball Cards, a glossy paperback that featured full-color, detachable facsimile reproductions, both front and back, of 92 vintage baseball cards.
Rob Lifson, president of Robert Edward Auctions, was one of the senior editors of the Sports Collectors Bible and had counted Sugar as a friend for some 35 years. Here are his thoughts on the passing of a man who made contributions to the hobby that many newer collectors and dealers may not even know about:
“What many don't realize is that Bert was one of the most important figures of his day not just the baseball collectibles field, but of many other fields as well. He was really one of the pioneers and great promoters of the entire nostalgia craze in America. He was one of the great early collectors of pinback buttons, political campaign memorabilia, and autographs. This, of course, is in addition to boxing memorabilia, Babe Ruth items, Yankee Stadium items (he famously bought all the "junk" from Yankee Stadium in the early 1970s), press pins, baseball cards, and really just about every kind of item that collectors have come to appreciate over the years.
“I had the privilege of having many dealings with Bert over the years. There was only one Bert Sugar and he was a true renaissance man. He had a great sense of humor about himself, and when I’d point out how he knew everything, he would always respond with some self-depreciating comment about how he made up what he didn’t know. But the scope of his knowledge and experience was truly unbelievable, and hearing him speak was mesmerizing. He had a way with words.
“Just being around him one could not help but learn about the world of collectibles and American culture. He was a genius. He was endlessly entertaining. Bert was a great inspiration and he was a great help to me personally. In addition to all our baseball dealings, which were many and always fun (everything was fun with Bert), about thirty years ago he got me started with collecting pinbacks and political campaign items. I am active purely for fun in both of these areas to this day. As I told Bert often including when I last spoke with him, I have him to thank for expanding my interests. He had the same enormous impact on thousands of others.
“Bert is one of the true greats of the field. Of course he is a legend in the boxing world, and a member of the Boxing Hall of Fame. But if there was a Hall of Fame for the baseball card and memorabilia world, or the larger collectibles world, he would be an inaugural member.
“Everyone that ever dealt with Bert got more than a deal. They got stories. They got jokes. They learned ideas. They even learned words! Bert was a one-of-a-kind. He was a very special man who was like family to me.”
A few copies of the Sports Collectors Bible were available on eBay as of late Sunday night. Click here to see them.