When it comes to restoring stadium chairs, Sean Walsh has never taken a back seat.
Walsh, through his company, Original Stadium Seats, has been selling and restoring seats since 1991. In the last few years, the 58-year-old Cleveland native has changed his focus into restoration, and he could not be happier.
“I got tired of storing 200, 300 seats,” Walsh said. “I had them in the garage, the attic, the basement.”
Without a doubt, Walsh is the chairman of the boards. And he enjoys his work.
“It was my busiest year (in 2019),” Walsh said. “I did 57 (restorations) last year, plus the bench.”
“The bench” is a Cincinnati Reds dugout bench used in Crosley Field that dated to 1934. The redwood bench was in poor shape, but its owner wanted it renovated in time to present it to the team during the 2019 baseball season — the 150th season of professional baseball that was spawned by the 1869 Cincinnati Red Stockings. The owner wanted to donate it to the Reds Hall of Fame & Museum in Cincinnati, and after working on the bench for approximately 10 months, Walsh was able to make that wish come true.
“I was able to restore seven of the redwood boards,” Walsh said. “It was my biggest project.
“It was the one I sweated the most. But it was probably the most satisfying thing I’d done.”
Not that the 1934 Reds were great. In fact, they finished last in the National League in 1934, but had future Hall of Famers Ernie Lombardi, Jim Bottomley, Chick Hafey and Dazzy Vance on their roster. That bench would later provide seating for Cincinnati’s National League champions in 1939, 1940 and 1961.
The bench is a piece of history.
“There’s a picture of Pete Rose sitting on that bench in 1963,” Walsh said.
Although Walsh grew up in Cleveland and attended John Ford Rhodes High School in the Old Brooklyn area of the city, the first stadium seat he obtained was from Cincinnati — a chair from Crosley Field.
“I got it off a collector in an ad from Sports Collectors Digest,” Walsh said of his 1987 deal.
An obsession was born. Sure, as a kid Walsh collected baseball cards and got more than 400 baseballs autographed. He’d spend a dollar for a round-trip ticket to Cleveland’s Municipal Stadium, seven miles from his home (“the 20B downtown,” he said), and beginning in 1974, Walsh attended an Indians home opener for 29 straight seasons.
The old, slatted seats were a different animal, and Walsh’s family helped his collection grow.
“Relatives would give me seats from Cleveland’s Municipal Stadium,” Walsh said. “I had 300 rows of four seats. I’d give them as presents for birthdays, Christmas, bar mitzvahs — you name it.”
Walsh liked working with his hands — after graduating from high school (“just barely” he laughed), Walsh went into the building industry and eventually joined the Building Laborers’ Union Local No. 310.
“I worked with a lot of ironworkers and cement masons,” he said. “We were their helping hands. We were their go-fers.
“But hey, 30 years and you get to retire with a pension.”
Original Stadium Seats was born as a small business in 1987. By 1991, with old stadiums being torn down to make room for more “modern” complexes, Walsh saw an opening and a chance to expand nationally.
“From 1991 to 2000, stadiums were coming down,” Walsh said. “I helped tear down Municipal Stadium and helped build Jacobs (now Progressive) Field.
“I’d work at the stadium and buy between 50 and 100 seats.”
At the 2018 National in Cleveland, Walsh had about 20 chairs on display and did a brisk business. Fans were enamored with seats from Yankee Stadium, Fenway Park and other iconic stadiums.
Having all those seats at home was interesting.
“My ex-wife would say, ‘Are you out of your freaking mind?'” Walsh laughed. “But as fast as I got them, I’d get them out of there. And then I’d get more.”
The stadium seats would beat feet, so to speak.
Walsh is a thorough guy when it comes to restoration, a task he handles by himself.
Walsh takes the chair apart, removes the paint and grime, then sands the wood. The screws are tightened and coats of oil-based paint are applied by a brush.
But are the seats authentic?
“If they can’t authenticate them, I will,” Walsh said. “In 80 to 90% of the cases, I can identify the seats.”
He has a good memory for chairs he renovated, too.
“Twenty years later, I will see one of my seats on sale, like on eBay,” Walsh said. “I’ll tell the seller and he’ll say, ‘How can you be so sure?’ I tell them to look at the chair base and see if my initials are there, and sure enough they’ll say, ‘Yeah, I see it.’”
Walsh said the rarest seat he restored was from the Palace of the Fans park, home of the Cincinnati Reds from 1902 to 1911. Walsh restored a seat from 1902.
“It’s the earliest one I’ve done that I know,” he said.
There are other old seats, like a 1909 chair from Philadelphia’s Shibe Park and a 1910 seat from League Park, the home of the Indians before they moved into Municipal Stadium for good after the 1946 season.
“At one point, the League Park seat the rarest one I had done, since there was only one of them,” Walsh said. “Soon there were eight or nine on the market.”
Walsh likes the seats from old Sportsman’s Park in St. Louis.
“They look like Roman chairs, very ornate,” he said.
But Walsh’s favorite chair comes from Detroit’s Tiger Stadium, which sports a detailed, orange tiger on the side of the seat.
“The Tigers seat is a favorite because it is so intricate,” Walsh said.
Seats from Brooklyn’s Ebbets Field “are getting harder to find,” while seats from the Polo Grounds in Manhattan are “popping up more and more.”
Walsh has customers worldwide, and even sent a restored Yankee Stadium seat to a fan in Sapporo, Japan, in 2009.
“He was a Yankees fan, he didn’t care how much it would cost to restore and to ship,” Walsh said. “He took a picture of himself on his balcony in that seat, giving me a No. 1 sign.”
Other people have used the restored seats as computer chairs, Walsh said.
Stadium seats, Walsh said, are like uniforms. They tend to travel. He talked about major league seats that have popped up in minor league ballparks.
“Orlando had old Griffith Stadium seats at Tinker Field,” he said.
Walsh admits refurbishing seats are a refreshing alternative to cards, autographs and other memorabilia, which have been plagued by fraud.
“I guess people are tired of getting ripped off,” Walsh said. “And someone wants a piece of their childhood.”
What better way to wax nostalgic than to own a stadium seat you might have sat in as a kid? Walsh’s excitement as he talks about his business is contagious.
“I can talk about this stuff for hours,” he said. “In a million years, I never thought I’d be doing this for three years, or 13 years. Let alone 33 years.”