Tuesday, June 2, 2015

1963 HoF busts were squirt-gun spin-off

This large ad in the April 18, 1964, was the original offering
of a series of 6" plastic Hall of Fame player busts
that remain popularly collected today.
When reading the microfilm of back issues of The Sporting News I am always delighted to find content relative to actual contemporary sports cards and collectibles.

Such was the case in the April 18, 1964, issue that had an article, complete with photo, about the plastic Sports Hall of Fame busts. Not surprisingly, a few pages deeper in the issue there was a 1/3-page or thereabouts ad offering the statues by mail order.

Reading the article and ad added only a few tidbits to what was already known about the 6" white plastic statuettes, and included in the set's listing in the Standard Catalog of Baseball Cards.

While we knew that the issuer of the ballplayer busts was Sports Hall of Fame, Inc., of New York, the article revealed that the man behind the statues was Harry Lodmer, known in the toy business at that time as "Mr. Water Gun." 

In the article Lodmer was quoted, "I was the first to create the automatic water gun and for 15 years I would sell more than 20 million of them a year."

There was only a hint as to why there appears to be two tiers of scarcity for the busts. Lodmer told TSN that one of his biggest challenges in marketing the statues would be the disparity in demand for top-tier stars such as Ruth, Gehrig and DiMaggio, and lesser lights among the Hall of Famers such as Paul Waner, Cochrane and George Sisler. He indicated he'd have to figure out to meet demand for the biggest stars while not overproducing some others.

The SCBC says that the first 12 statues on the checklist, as enumerated on the illustrated box back, are scarcer than the final eight pieces. After doing a little recent research on eBay, I'm now inclined to believe that the split between the two tiers was actually 10-10.

On a random day on eBay there were more than 200 listings for individual HoF busts between the active and completed auctions/fixed price offerings. After de-duplicating the listings I found a distinct difference in the numbers offered per player.

Here's the breakdown, arranged by the pictures on the box:

Babe Ruth           20
Ty Cobb              14
Joe DiMaggio      12
Rogers Hornsby   19
Lou Gehrig           12
Pie Traynor           11
Honus Wagner     10
Bill Dickey           23
Walter Johnson     11
Christy Mathewson 8
Jimmie Foxx            1
Tris Speaker            0
Joe Cronin               1
Paul Waner              2
Bob Feller                6
Hank Greenberg      0
Jackie Robinson      2
George Sisler          0
John McGraw         0
Mickey Cochrane   1

In the TSN article, Lodmer said that becoming a licensee of the Hall of Fame was a time-consuming process, with both the Hall, and for reasons not specified, the office of the Commissioner of Baseball insisting on direct oversight of the statues' creation and marketing.

As a example, Lodmer said it was insisted that the plaques that appear on the statue's pedestals be an exact reproduction of those that hang on the Hall's walls. He said he did get permission for one variance. The original Hall of Fame plaque for Tris Speaker had an archaic position designation as "centrefielder". Lodmer got permission to use the modernized "center fielder" on his bust.

Lodmer revealed that the only player who had a problem with his bust's specifications was Bob Feller, who felt the nose as originally presented was too broad. It was corrected in pre-production and subsequently approved.

Confessing that Joe Cronin would probably not approve of it being made public, Lodmer said that Cronin had directed that all his royalties from statue sales should go to the Cardinal Cushing Centers, a Massachusetts charity.

While the busts' packaging indicated "Many More" statues would be forthcoming, and Lodmer said as much in TSN, no more than the original 20 pieces were ever produced. From that it must be assumed that sales were not spectacular.

In the same vein, while doing my research on eBay it became apparent that "book" values in the Standard Catalog are vastly overstated. 

The catalog lists NM busts at between $75-100 for "common" players and $160-260 for "high numbers" with Foxx at $335 and Greenberg at $350. The catalog says to add $25 for a box and $50 or more as a premium for an unopened box with cellophane.

While there were no reported sales for Foxx and Greenberg in the period in which I looked, all other sales would indicate the values given in the catalog are about 2X too high.

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