$50K for a Babe Ruth button? How a collectors' craze is fueled through Hake's Auctions
He pulled a small metal container of matches from among his peculiar treasures.
Alex Winter leaned over his desk to explain.
The man who sells collectibles from all over the world started to talk fast, adrenaline rolling. He cannot make the best living selling if he doesn't believe in the gathering.
His office at Hake's Auctions in York, Pennsylvania. is a meticulously sourced menagerie of personal finds. Walls lined with framed, autographed album covers, comic book art and concert posters. Furniture filled with decorative skulls, Dick Tracy books and "Star Wars" action figures he got as a kid.
From signed baseball photos, balls and cards to an arcade-sized video game with 4,000 playing options.
He's always looking for the rare and unusual, not necessarily the best deal. He can't help himself.
When he saw that pocket match safe adorned with a broomstick-riding witch he figured on bidding maybe $100. He ended up paying five times that. It's from Salem, Massachusetts, early 1900s.
Winter, 51, said he's never seen another in a lifetime of collecting.
“It spoke to me. ... I like Halloween, I like black cats. So this was just something I thought I have to have. Someone on the outside world might think, 'Are you a lunatic?'
"To me you’re either born a collector or you’re not," he continued on. "If you’re born a collector, this is always in you. … The thrill of the hunt, finding items you always wanted, finding items you didn’t know existed.
"It's still a real rush. We're all just kids in candy stores here."
His passion begins to explain the fuel that runs Hake's, billed as "America's first popular culture auction house." Their latest "premier" online event runs through the end of February and features Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King, Jr. artifacts. Rare sports pieces range from Babe Ruth and Mickey Mantle buttons to Negro League photos to a York County man's collection of Baseball Hall of Fame autographs.
Business, of course, pays the bills and highlights the ever-escalating collectibles market. No matter that the Michael Jordan Fleer rookie cards in this auction won't touch the stunning price rise of those graded in gem-mint condition (selling for more than $700,000 each), they still will bring thousands.
He predicts that the 1915 pinback button of Ruth and his champion Boston Red Sox could fetch up to $50,000 by month's end, maybe more.
The hand-painted 1860 Lincoln campaign banner opens with $10,000 bid.
Some of these items may be the only one known.
"It's hard to put an estimate on anything that's never been sold," Winter said.
His baseball focus: Ruth to Aaron to Jeter
Chuck Bruce truly found his collection niche 20 years ago.
That's when the York Township man began to use his overtime money from his machine operator work at Harley-Davidson to pursue his love of baseball through autographed photos.
He focused on one exclusive Hall of Fame club at a time: hitters with at least 500 home runs, those with 3,000 hits, pitchers with 300 victories.
For each legend he sought an authenticated, autographed photo. The recent stars were easy to find and usually most affordable.
But try tracking down a well-preserved Nap Lajoie (lifetime .338 hitter) who began playing in 1896.
While Ruth is among the most desired autographs of any genre, he's not among the most difficult. He loved to sign for fans. Famous teammate Lou Gehrig did not. So Bruce dropped $9,500 to get his.
He traveled to memorabilia shows and dealers across the country to build his impressive collection, often turning the autograph hunt into vacations with his wife. He's met nearly every living member of the Hall of Fame in the process.
The money always was worth it because he was owning a touch of history.
He still delights in talking about tracking down the earliest, most difficult stars: a signed contract from Cap Anson, a signed letter by Tris Speaker, a signed bank check by Honus Wagner.
He spent around $125,000 for all of this over 20 years, framed, matted and insured.
Now, he's selling.
And he admits being torn about it. He knows it makes sense to let go of everything now at 67, and to do it at auction. He and his wife plan to downsize, and he doesn't have someone to pass it along to, someone with his same passion and interest.
It's not about regret. Rather, there's a sadness in letting go of the history and of this simple endeavor: "The thrill of looking for a specific item and finally finding it," he said.
From comic books to a collecting career
Winter said he always remembers wanting to do this.
It started with a neighbor he saw every day growing up in York City who collected everything from toy soldiers to tokens to mason jars.
"We're in the hub where people saved every scrap of paper, anything," Winter said. "We've got co-ops and flea markets. It’s always been an East Coast thing ... especially in Pennsylvania."
Winter's first love was comic books, which led him to most anything regarding super heroes. Playing baseball led him to collecting cards. Even as a kid he kept his toys pristine and in their original boxes.
Working flea markets eventually led him to a part-time job at Hake's in 1985 as a shipping assistant.
He thought of becoming a D.J. His parents favored accounting, where he took a class after graduating from York High.
But he finally gave in, deciding to try to earn a living doing what he loved most.
Now he's the president of a company that sets world records in collectible sales, like that oversized pinback button of the 1916 champion Red Sox ($62,980 in 2020) and the 1979 Boba Fett prototype "Star Wars" figure ($185,850 in 2019).
He lives his work and hobby. He said he's on-call every hour of each day because he never knows when a text or call will come from some place in the world looking for a place to sell.
He doesn't seem to mind a bit.
He and his wife, Heather, who works as Hake's operations manager, would collect anyway. It's to the point where they joke about needing a bigger house.
His estimates his music collection alone at 10,000 pieces, much of it obscure. His office wall includes the soundtrack of the Steven King movie adaptation "Children of the Corn," signed by three cast members.
"Hot items now: 1980s horror soundtracks," he said. "Vinyl is very, very big."
Where will this all go one day?
That doesn't seem to be a concern, at least for now. Not when this kind of passion runs your days.
Winter sees those feelings regularly, and in all forms, especially from those like Bruce who must make tough decisions to sell their collections. They are parting ways with more than objects.
Always, it is more.
Like the man who came in to finally sell his trove of Franklin D. Roosevelt memorabilia.
Before leaving, he asked the Hake's staff, 'Can I have a little time with it?'"
He sat there for a few minutes quietly handling each piece, lost in his thoughts.
Frank Bodani covers Penn State football for the York Daily Record and USA Today Network. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @YDRPennState.