There are some great traditions during Super Bowl week.
Media day. Commercials. The halftime show. And oh, yeah, the game.
But for the last 40 years, collectors in New England have another Super Bowl tradition. It’s the annual Cranston Sports Collectors Show, which is run by the St. Joseph’s Men’s Guild and benefits the Immaculate Conception Church in Cranston, Rhode Island. Held the day before the Super Bowl, “The Cranston Show” has grown from a modest gathering in the parish hall to 120 tables this year at the West Valley Inn, a restaurant in nearby West Warwick that has a large banquet room. Known as the oldest and largest one-day show in the U.S., this year’s gathering is February 6, the day before Super Bowl 50.
Prices are affordable. There’s a $3 admission fee, and dealers are charged $70 per table.
Tom McDonough, who founded the event in 1976 and has been the point man ever since, donates all of the proceeds from admissions and dealer fees to the parish. He said the shows have raised more than $250,000 over the years.
It’s a popular spot for collectors — and dealers, too.
“The hobby is about friends,” said Rhode Island dealer Mike Mangasarian, who annually holds down table No. 1 at McDonough’s show. Mangasarian has set up shop since McDonough started the show (except for a five-year hiatus in the mid-1980s). “It’s such an affordable show. Tom made it affordable for dealers and collectors.”
“You could buy anything and everything there,” said card collector Joel Freedman, who grew up in Cranston and now lives in Massachusetts. “The place was packed with deals.”
Freedman remembers taking a complete 1986-87 Fleer basketball set to the 2006 show to sell. “I bought that set off the shelf for $10 and sold it to Mr. Mint (dealer Alan Rosen) for $700,” Freedman said, “which was stupid.
“I feel bad about that.”
Even though Freedman sold the set that included the iconic Michael Jordan rookie card, he was able to build on his baseball collection, which is considerable now. He needs less than 4,000 cards to complete the Topps run from 1951 to 1980. In 2001, he had his own personal card made at the Cranston show.
Author Robert Fitts, a baseball historian who has written four books (including “Banzai Babe Ruth” and “Mashi”) said his love for the hobby was rekindled by a visit to the Cranston show in 1989. Fitts was attending graduate school at Brown University in nearby Providence, where he would earn his Ph.D in anthropology. Initially, Fitts said he was “shocked” at the high prices of vintage cards, as the costs had climbed since he stopped collecting once he reached high school.
But Fitts won the door prize that day in Cranston — a box of 1988 Score baseball.
“I had a blast opening it that evening, and was hooked on collecting again,” he said. “You might say that the free box of Score led to a career as a collector and dealer in Japanese cards, and a baseball writer as well.”
Cranston predates the National Sports Collectors Convention and many of the hobby’s other recognizable shows. McDonough, now 77, got the idea when he attended a show in Millville, Massachusetts. A clinical social worker by trade, McDonough held a degree in political science from Providence College, a master’s in psychiatric social work from the University of Connecticut, and had spent two years in the Army as an intelligence officer. But when visited that show in Millville, the kid who collected cards re-emerged.
“I walked in and it was instant addiction,” he said.
So McDonough organized his own show. He debuted in 1976 with a setup inside the parish hall of the Immaculate Conception Church.
“And wow, we had a small hall, and 400 people showed up,” McDonough said.
The following year McDonough moved the show to Auction City, a bingo hall in Cranston, but “they passed a law outlawing proprietary bingo and they closed it down.”
The show then moved to a local armory and then to the West Valley Inn, where it’s been staged for the last 24 years.
“It’s a big, sprawling hall,” McDonough said. “It fits our needs.”
It’s still not big enough.
“There’s a huge waiting list (for dealers),” Mangasarian said.
“We sold out before Christmas this time,” McDonough revealed.
Some collectors, like Byron Hicks of Barre, Massachusetts, enjoy the Cranston show more than some of the events in his own state.
“It was a good show. I actually found cards there cheaper than at the Shriners show (in Wilmington, Massachusetts),” Hicks said. “There were not as many dealers there as there are at the Shriners show, but overall it was a good experience.”
Boston area card collector Matthew Glidden said he liked the “homey feel” of the Cranston show.
“It’s like they fit the community of a larger show in a building where the hosts can still walk around and talk to everyone,” he said. “I bet others felt the same, which is why it’s worth driving all the way past Providence – a real trek by Boston standards – to get to Warwick.
Mangasarian splits his time between Rhode Island and New York while he performs his day-to-day duties as a shoe designer (“I make women happy,” he joked). Now 60, he has been a collector since 1966.
“My first show was in a bowling alley in Newport,” he said.
The day before the Super Bowl, Mangasarian is perched right at the front door of the banquet hall, ready to do business and reconnect with friends.
“In the beginning they were gatherings,” he said.
McDonough notes that “you never know who’s going to come through the door” at the Cranston show. One year it was Miss Rhode Island.
” She spent a couple of hours walking around and meeting people, posing for photos, and (if memory serves) drew the numbers for giveaways,” Glidden said. “It struck me as the kind of thing a Miss Small State might do, but perhaps not so much for Miss Huge States.
“I liked the crossover.”
Another time, former Red Sox pitcher Dennis “Oil Can” Boyd dropped by. Current Seattle Mariners catcher Chris Iannetta, a Providence native, is a frequent visitor and mingles anonymously. Former Red Sox general manager Lou Gorman, a Providence native, would visit tables and talk baseball with collectors until his death in 2011.
“He was a good guest and a good friend,” said McDonough, who was a scout for the Mariners when Gorman served as the franchise’s first general manager from 1977 to 1980.
McDonough also enlisted the services of a Babe Ruth impersonator one year (“He was a dead ringer”). He frowned upon securing athletes to sign autographs for a fee at his shows, believing it took money out of the pockets of dealers. He even rebuffed the overtures of Hall of Fame pitcher Bob Feller and former Brooklyn Dodgers outfielder Cal Abrams, who were eager to sign.
Speaking of dealers and money, there is Mr. Mint. Rosen has been going to the Cranston show for more than two decades, and McDonough describes him as “a show within a show.”
Rosen would fly into the area the night before the show, and McDonough said the two would have dinner. At the Twin Oaks in Cranston one night, Rosen met McDonough “wearing a long trench coat and carrying an attaché case.”
“I’m prepared to spend $100,000 tomorrow,” Rosen said. “Have you ever seen $100,000?”
Rosen then snapped open the attaché case to reveal $100,000 in hundred dollar bills. McDonough gasped, then wondered why Rosen would walk around with so much cash.
“I told him that people get jumped for ten bucks,” McDonough said. “Then he pulled back his coat, and he had a gun.
Born in Providence and a Cranston resident for the past 5o years, McDonough has led a diverse life. In addition to his career, he also did radio play-by-play for football and hockey games. His son, Thomas, is vice president of human resources and labor relations at the Providence Journal. And while he’s not related to the late Boston Globe sportswriter, Will McDonough, McDonough said he has met Will’s son, Sean, a well-known sportscaster for ESPN.
But Tom McDonough is all about New England in general and Rhode Island in particular. There is never a date set for the Cranston show, but collectors know.
“It’s always the day before the Super Bowl,” McDonough said. “When the Patriots are in the Super Bowl, we do better.”
But the Cranston show, which runs from 9 AM to 4 PM, is more than dealers and collectors. The money goes to a good cause, and even dealers like Mangasarian who have cut back on trade shows still find a way to the Cranston show.
“I don’t want to do trade shows any more, but Tom I’ve known since the beginning of time,” he said. “For me, the hobby is still fun.”
“It’s not only because it’s a collectors’ show,” McDonough said. “It’s a family reunion.”
The family gets together again on February 6.