Jeff Rosenberg has dealt with some of the most famous athletes in the world during his long career in the sports memorabilia business. This summer, his TRISTAR Productions will once again organize and implement signing sessions for dozens of athletes at the National Sports Collectors Convention. However, he’ll never have a more memorable guest than the one he landed in 1992. Muhammad Ali became a regular at TRISTAR card and autograph shows and watching one of the most recognizable faces in modern history interact with the public left a lasting impression on the young promoter.
“I was fortunate to know his agent at the time and we booked Muhammad at our show in Houston, January 1992. It also happened to be his 50th birthday that day,” Rosenberg told Sports Collectors Daily. “I’m not sure at that time I completely understood the magnitude of the signing but needless to say it was a complete sellout and everyone who attended loved it.”
Ali became a fairly regular presence at TRISTAR shows throughout the 1990s. Houston. Dallas. Kansas City. St. Louis. Phoenix. Las Vegas. Cleveland. The East Coast. No matter where you lived, if you could save some money, you could meet one of the world’s most famous athletes and the man most believe to be the greatest boxer in history.
Being in Ali’s presence on a regular basis was a dream come true for Rosenberg who was old enough to have witnessed the last half of Ali’s career.
Ali had always been generous with his time and autograph no matter where he was and whether he was being paid or not, but watching him interact with the public gave Rosenberg a new appreciation for how to handle fame and fortune.
“I learned how important he was to our world. Everyone wanted to touch, meet, take a photo or just catch a glimpse of him. When in St. Louis one time, Ozzie Smith invited us to his sports bar to watch a fight and have dinner. We went in the back door and watched and ate in a private room. We tried to get him out the same way. He wouldn’t allow that and made us take him through the entire restaurant where he took photos and shook hands for over one hour for everyone waiting.”
Ali had already begun suffering from Parkinson’s Disease when he signed with TRISTAR but with the assistance of his wife and others, was still able to make each autograph visit a memorable one.
“That was the most amazing thing,” Rosenberg recalled. “He never seemed to let it bother or change his approach. He always gave everyone a great autograph, smile, handshake and photo.”
“He sold out of autograph tickets and when he found out told us we should sell more because he wanted every person who came to see him to be able to meet him and get an autograph.”
In the mid-1960s, Ali changed his name from Cassius Clay. Rosenberg says the “Clay” signature is very rare, selling for up to ten times as much as a similar item signed with “Ali”. Later in life, Ali was willing to sign “Clay” at times and those signatures can sell for two to five times as much as the same type of item with the “Ali” name.
Parkinson’s did eventually take its toll on the quality of Ali’s autographs and there are major differences in style and quality from those signed in the 1960s and 70s compared to later year signatures. Rosenberg says those signed prior to 1986, when he was diagnosed with the disease, are the most collectible and valuable because they are usually the best quality. “Those from 1987 to 1999 are next best and most valuable,” Rosenberg explained. “Especially those on larger items with larger signatures especially on gloves, shoes, trunks and robes.”
While Ali continued to sign in recent years, doing so became much more difficult as his coordination began to decline. “Signatures from the past 15 years or so are the least valuable as we see most of them shorter in length and much sloppier than previous versions,” Rosenberg stated. “While they are still highly collected, they bring less money than the earlier versions.”
While boxing hasn’t traditionally lagged behind other sports in collecting popularity, Rosenberg says Ali’s global fame and place in sports history forged a significant impact on the hobby.
“We are seeing it now. His signed items sold for more money than any living athlete while he was alive and he was generous with his signature, never turning down a request. In death, the autograph prices have easily eclipsed any athlete of his generation. His fan and collector base is the largest in the world.”
If you went to TRISTAR’s website over the weekend, though, you didn’t see any Ali items for sale.
“We took them down out of respect for the circumstances,” Rosenberg explained. “We have a lot of signatures that we acquired and will be offering those in limited offerings soon. His authenticated real autographs, especially those better pre 2000 signatures are drying up and look to be increasing in value quickly. ”
In 2014, Rosenberg spent $388,375 for Ali’s gloves from the 1971 Fight of the Century against Frazier and put them on display at his Field of Dreams memorabilia store inside Caesar’s Palace in Las Vegas.
“I bought them because he was always my favorite athlete and I thought it was an incredible once in a lifetime opportunity to own the gloves from the most famous fight of all time by the greatest of all time. By the way, he made $5 million for the fight in 1971 when the highest salary for a full season for a baseball player was $250,000. If that fight happened today and he received 20 times more than the highest player he would be paid more than $650 million, which I believe would happen.”
Of course, Rosenberg has also collected Ali autographs on a variety of different items through the years, some of which you can see in the gallery below.
While he hadn’t worked with Ali for a while, Rosenberg did recall the last time he spent time him.
“I remember that he immediately remembered me, asked about my family and he had the same jokes and tricks and even though I had heard and seen them all, they still made me smile. He truly believed that peace on this earth was achievable, and he wanted to do what he could to make that happen.”