Having held his share of jobs that fry the nerves, Jimmy Catanzaro always turned to his sports collection to try and relax. Always a huge fan, he collected vintage baseball cards, reveling in the history of the images that stared up from the cardboard. Life is a little simpler these days and his love of collecting is stronger than ever. He is a connoisseur of vintage baseball photographs, with a special emphasis on two Yankee legends. Remarkably, in a relatively short amount of time, he has built what is believed to be the finest collection of original Lou Gehrig photos in the world.
Catanzaro scours auctions, studies baseball history and networks with those who can help him add to his valuable stash. The images portray a player whose life ended far too soon but who remains among the game’s greatest icons—and most photogenic players ever to take the field.
We caught up with him at the National Sports Collectors Convention, where he continued his work with Memory Lane Auctions, and then tossed him some questions via email about his Gehrig collection and original baseball photos in general. Below the Q&A is a photo gallery featuring some of the classic images he’s acquired.
Collecting vintage photographs has been a strong growth area over the last several years. Why so?
JC: I believe that there are a few reasons for the dramatic growth we’ve seen in the vintage photos sector of the hobby. First, I think that many collectors, including me, were starting to get priced out of higher grade cards, especially those of the pre-war legends like Ruth, Cobb, Matty, Wagner, Johnson and Gehrig. I started looking for a vintage alternative, which is how I discovered vintage photos. There aren’t a lot of mainstream issues of those guys either. So not only were the higher graded card prices going up weekly (at that time), the selection of the players’ cards was a little thin.
Finding nice vintage original photos wasn’t the easiest thing to do back in the early part of the 2000s, but by 2005, the San Francisco Examiner sold their archives (the first of several other papers to follow suit) and that had a big impact on attracting new collectors as well.
What made you decide to collect Lou Gehrig photos in particular?
JC: Well, like many of us that share the collector gene, I wasn’t what you called focused at first. But after a few years of collecting HOF’ers I decided to focus of several of my all-time favorites, (Ruth, Cobb, Matty, Gehrig, DiMag, Williams, Robinson, Mantle, Clemente, and Koufax,) A few more years after that, I narrowed it down to basically the four Yankee greats. It was only in the last 18 months that I focused on building the best Gehrig photo collection I possibly could.
Which photo ultimately launched your collection?
JC: I would have to say that there were two in particular. The first was a photo of Babe in uniform, teaching Christy Walsh Jr. (the son of Babe’s pioneering first sports agent, Christy Walsh) how to hold a bat. The photo was still glued to a black paper page from a photo album from 1932. Although I had already been a photo collector for a couple years, that was the photo that really started it all. It came directly from the Walsh family, and they told me that I was the very first person to buy from them since Barry Halper did back in the 1980s.
The second would be an iconic Charles Conlon photo of Lou Gehrig from 1925, purchased on eBay of all places. It had editorial paint applied in a circle around Lou’s head, as it was originally used in some paper or publication. After several years, I finally sent the photo off to a conservator and the result was remarkable, as he was able to clean it up to its original condition. Newspaper editors would often use a water-based paint, along with pencils, crayons, wax pencils, and inks to highlight the images that were going to print, and some paints can be removed, and some can’t.
JC: Well the simple answer can be found in Marshall Fogel and Henry Yee’s ground-breaking book, A Portrait of Baseball Photography
which came out at the National Sports Collectors Convention in Chicago back in 2005. The “Four C’s: Content, Clarity, Contrast, & Condition.”
Content is far and away the most important issue. Photos of famous and historic moments in baseball history are always extremely popular with collectors, as are photos that were used to create baseball cards, or were featured on covers on magazines. Also, who took the photo can make for a big premium in the price. Led by Conlon, Thompson, Bain, & Burke, for the old timers, and Wingfield, Iooss, Stein, & Emmons, post-war.
How do you acquire your Gehrig photos? Any interesting stories behind those acquisitions?
JC: It took me more than ten years to put this collection together. I’ve always been one to sell some off and add some new ones, and as I got more focused, I was willing to sell some nice but lesser photos of Ruth, Gehrig, Mantle, and others in order to buy one or maybe two much more important photos. Believe it or not, the vast majority of my Gehrig photos were acquired via eBay or were photos that were purchased that I later traded for. Collectors should know that good old fashioned trading is alive and well in this sector of the hobby. It’s especially prevalent with the higher end photos, as it’s much easier to get someone to part with a world class photo if you have an equally world class photo to trade for.
My favorite story is how I discovered that I had bought the first photo taken of him in a Yankee uniform, and didn’t know it until a couple of months later. Three years ago, I won a terrific young Gehrig photo from one of Henry Yee’s incredible eBay photo auctions, for about $750. I was thrilled. In my continuing hunt for companion pieces for my photographs, I came upon the “New York Evening Post” sports page dated June 14, 1923, and smack right there front and center was the same photo I had bought just several weeks before! There was MY photo of Gehrig with the caption reading: “NOW WEARS A YANKEE UNIFORM”. He made his debut the VERY NEXT DAY! I had struck gold, now all I had to do was win it. Well, let’s say that there was NO way I was going to lose that auction, and regardless of my astronomical snipe, I won the paper for in the neighborhood of $150. So my total investment of $900 has now been appraised by experts in the $10,000-15,000 range. And only because I was fortunate enough to find proof that it was indeed the first photo of Lou in a Yankee uniform. And the kicker is that Lou was born on June 19, 1903, so my photo was taken when Gehrig was still 19 YEARS OLD! How cool is that?!
Grading and authentication of photographs is still a fairly new concept. Is it important and tell us about some of your best graded photos.
JC: I am COMPLETELY against GRADING photographs! PSA does not grade photos, they only authenticate them, which I agree with 100 %. News service photos, far more often than not have condition issues, which is to be expected for news service photographs that were used in creating newspapers and other publications throughout the country. News services would rent out photos for a single use fee to their subscribers, so these several decades old photos were physically shipped back and forth across the country time after time after time, and mostly in manila envelopes with no support whatsoever, hence the wear and tear the photos endured were simply a product of their environment, and are expected to be in the “game used condition” the majority are now found in. It was the operating method for all of the major news services of the era.
The only PSA/DNA Authenticated photos I have, I’ve acquired them that way. When and if the time comes to sell my Worlds Greatest Gehrig Photo Collection, they will all be authenticated in order to give the potential buyers peace of mind that what they are buying is the real deal. And of course, to maximize the selling price. There’s no question in my mind that my photos will by far realize the highest selling price once authenticated by PSA. Case closed.
What does a photo have to possess for you to consider adding it to your collection?
JC: A good example would be my newest addition. It was a trade that I made at the National. It was an image that I’d yet to see of Gehrig. A posed shot of Lou making his mightiest vertical jump, with his glove stretched as high as he can. A simple request from the cameraman, but the effort that Lou makes in this image really struck me, and it was a fresh image that I hadn’t yet seen, so it was a no-brainer for me.
How do you know what to pay for a certain photo?
JC: Past sales from auction houses are a big help and a valuable tool. And more importantly, a good network of friends who aren’t out to screw you can be an enormous help. I have scanned eBay selling prices for many, many years and have a pretty strong memory when it comes down to it. I’ve even taken notes as well. I have at least two friends that I run a photo by to see what then know about its price history. If that’s not helping, I go to comparable photos and see how they match up. Once I’ve acquired all of the info I can, it comes down to a gut check, what do I feel comfortable paying for it? Can I make payments? Can I make a trade or a partial trade? What do I have to sell in order to raise enough to buy it, and is that worth it? These are some of the toughest decisions I have to make. I also collect Beatles memorabilia, novelties, and vintage TYPE 1 photography, so sometimes I get caught between a Gehrig photo or a Beatles piece. I usually end up getting both!
Are there any specific photos that are high on your want list?
JC: Unlike cards, where it’s simple to make a want list, there are so many different photographic images out there you just never know what’s going to present itself at any given time. I eagerly await the online auction and catalogs, and go straight to baseball photos and hope something shows up, but it keeps getting thinner and thinner. eBay is still a very strong presence. Gehrig’s career is unique in that images from the end of his career are pretty much just as desirable as photos from his early days. You’d be hard pressed to come up with another player where that applies as well.
Jimmy Catanzaro can be reached at [email protected]
Sports Collectors Daily editor Rich Mueller can be reached at [email protected]
Many more vintage baseball and entertainment photos can be found here.