Pete Siegel didn’t know the man who walked into his memorabilia shop on 57th street in Manhattan back in 1999. A lot of people were sucked in off the street by the unique name of the place–Gotta Have It! Collectibles—and the often dazzling pieces of sports and entertainment memorabilia that hung on the walls and sat on counters until they were sold.
Jay Baker didn’t know Pete Siegel either. He’d grown up in Queens and had been a fan long enough to have seen Babe Ruth bid farewell to baseball at Yankee Stadium in 1948. They bonded quickly over a shared appreciation for the team’s history.
Baker, a department store executive who was then in his 60s, bought an autographed Mickey Mantle baseball that day. Later, he asked if Siegel had any Ruth memorabilia.
“I said ‘Actually I do. I just bought something today’,” Siegel recalled. “I pulled it out from behind the counter. It was a baseball signed by Ruth, DiMaggio and Gehrig with a photograph of Ruth dressed as Santa Claus signing the ball. He was blown away. He said ‘I really want that’.”
Baker’s childhood baseball card collection had fallen victim to a cleaning minded mom many years earlier. “I had about five or six Mickey Mantle rookie cards because I liked him so much,” he remembered.
Now, he was back in the hobby in a new way, with a go big or go home mindset spurred on by his new friend.
With Siegel serving as his diligent personal shopper for the next 22 years, the community minded Baker built the greatest collection of Yankees memorabilia on the planet and has put it all on display at a Florida museum that bears his name. It’ll be there through May 15.
“Baseball Heroes” exhibit at the Baker Museum in Naples, FL.
While the franchise has some historic pieces inside its own museum in the Bronx, the collection housed at the Baker Museum is “20 times better,” according to Siegel. It may well be the most expensive private sports memorabilia collection in the world.
“I wanted to build it as if I was building it for myself,” Siegel told SC Daily in a recent interview. “We started slowly and we did a lot of diligence.”
The focus would be on the franchise’s greatest icons.
“Anything that had to do with the ‘Big Five’, Ruth, Gehrig, DiMaggio, Mantle and Jeter,” Siegel explained.
Well, not just anything. The best of the best. Only important pieces or those with the greatest stories would go into the collection Siegel was doggedly accumulating.
“We have the original ‘Curse of the Bambino contract’ signed by Harry Frazee when he sold Ruth to the Yankees. We have his 1916 World Series pendant with a beautiful, original diamond in it. We have Mickey Mantle’s three MVP awards, 1956, 1957 and 1962. We have all three of DiMaggio’s MVP awards and Lou Gehrig’s 1934 MVP award. We have Ruth and Gehrig’s pocket watches for winning the World Series in ’32.”
Those items would be a staggering stash for any one person to own. In this collection, there is always something else.
There’s the earliest known Babe Ruth bat, side-written and dated 1916. A baseball signed by Ruth and his Baltimore orphanage mentor, Brother Matthias after they reunited during Ruth’s big league career. The one Ruth famously signed for an ailing young boy named Johnny Sylvester? That’s here, too along with Babe’s letter to the boy.
Through a Steiner Sports auction a few years ago, Siegel snared Don Larsen’s uniform from his perfect game in the 1956 World Series.
There’s Mantle’s lone Gold Glove award from ’56 and his Silver Bat award from what was a Triple Crown season along with his first home run ball—and his 500th— all privately purchased.
There are championship rings and watches from nearly all of the Yankees’ World Series titles, including Miller Huggins’ 1927 ring. There are the two remarkable Ruth-Gehrig signed photographs including the famous image of Ruth hugging his ailing teammate.
There are 20-plus Ruth autographed items, in fact, all with historic significance of some kind. A Gehrig signature, penned while the Iron Horse was just an elementary school kid shares space with his old scrapbook.
Siegel snared Jeter’s first jersey from 1995, but what would that be without adding his last home and road jerseys to the collection, too, the latter purchased during Steiner Sports’ deal with the Yankees. Siegel insisted on getting them signed and dated by Jeter before finalizing the deal.
There are five rooms at the museum—over 3,000 square-feet—full of about 130 Yankee artifacts. The exhibit is called: “Baseball Heroes: Works from the Jay H. Baker Collection.”
“The collection is about the history of those five players and what they brought to society,” Siegel said. “Their lives are really intertwined with American history. We wanted to get the greatest items of those five players that could be available, so we went on an adventure and we did it. It’s just been an incredible dream.”
With the green light—and plenty of greenbacks from Baker—Siegel scoured every major auction, made countless phone calls to countless people while chasing leads and quietly kept at it. He turned over every rock and shook every tree. He shook every hand in case someone knew someone who might have something meaningful.
As word spread within the hobby about the collection he was curating, the calls started coming to him. He found some items he never knew were out there.
One favorite piece—an autographed baseball acquired at the National Sports Collectors Convention several years ago that had originally been obtained at what must have been a light moment during Ruth and Gehrig’s time with the Yankees in the 1920s. Gehrig signed it “H.L. Gehrig” and inscribed it as “The Kid Known as Lou.” Meanwhile, Ruth jokingly writes to the recipient that he would “punch Lou in the nose.”
“You just go ‘wow’ because you never hear of Gehrig goofing around like that. It’s just really cool. I love that ball.”
Some leads sounded promising but didn’t make the cut required for Baker’s collection and that was OK, too.
“There were some seemingly great historic items that I told him we shouldn’t buy because I simply couldn’t prove (they were what they were purported to be),” Siegel said. “I think he respected that.”
The exhibit opened with a soft launch in October and a social gathering or two attended by museum supporters, but other than some local visitors, it’s been a fairly quiet multi-million dollar historic treasure trove waiting to be appreciated. That will soon change as the museum begins a promotional push. Baker, the 85-year-old retired president of Kohl’s Department Stores and noted philanthropist, is excited about showing it off.
Siegel’s business cards are located inside the exhibit and he’s happy to answer questions from those who are able to tour the collection. Of course, it would be nice if one of those guests might have something that has somehow eluded him. After all, the collection ultimately remains a work in progress.
“I would say there’s only one piece missing right now and that would be Babe Ruth’s MVP award. We haven’t located it yet and that’s something we’d be very interested in.”