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For Love of the Page

"COLLECTOR'S CORNER": July 2002

'FOR LOVE OF THE PAGE'
Baseball Book Collectors

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If a book was written about this group of collectors it might be called "For The Love Of The Page."

These fans are willing to spend months - even years - to add an elusive piece to their collection. A first edition of "The Natural" is spoken about with same reverence that a baseball card collector talks about a Mickey Mantle rookie.

Yes, baseball book collectors are a very passionate bunch - possessing a love for the game that is difficult to match.

"I believe my dad put a bat in my hand before my first bottle," jokes Bernie Esser, whose collection of more than 4000 baseball books has taken over a large portion of his house.

Morris Liebovitz, owner of more than 3000 baseball books (all first editions) - including what might be the world's finest collection of baseball fiction - shares this fondness.

"First and foremost, I'm a baseball fan," says Liebovitz. "I love baseball."

It's this passion that has motivated these collectors to accumulate thousands of books.

"I love baseball history I would find myself wherever I went searching for used book stores," says Liebovitz, who has been collecting for more than 20 years. "It didn't take long for me to realize that I had three or four shelves of baseball books."

Esser's collection started after he decided to get out of municipal politics over 20 years ago.

"I went to work one day and one of my co-workers had set five baseball books on my desk. He said to me, 'You don't know how much time you spent working on city council. You're going to have a big vacuum to fill.'"

Vancouver-based collector, Max Weder, says his interest was sparked on a trip to his in-laws around 10 years ago.

"My father-in-law showed me an old 1915 baseball book from a series written for boys," says Weder, who now owns approximately 2500 books. "At that time, I didn't have any idea that this type of book existed."

In recent years both Weder and Liebovitz have focussed exclusively on baseball fiction.

"My goal is to obtain every fiction book produced before 1980," says Liebovitz. "And I'm going to keep pecking at my wantlist until I don't know what book collecting means."

Esser, on the other hand, prefers non-fiction. His collection consists largely of biographies and an impressive number of autographed books - including a copy of Martin Appel's "Baseball's Best The Hall of Fame Gallery" autographed by more than 100 Hall of Famers.

"I try to travel to Cooperstown each year for the induction ceremony," says Esser. "When autographs used to be free, I would be able to get 25 autographs in half-an-hour. But times have changed, now you have to pay for autographs."

Also changing with the times is the way these collectors have built their collections. Used bookstores used to be the primary source of baseball books, but a lot of these stores have become casualties of the internet. On-line auctions such as eBay have brought baseball books out of people's attics all over the world. And websites like the Advanced Book Exchange (www.abebooks.com) have made the inventories of thousands of book dealers accessible online.

Another key source is a group of dealers who specialize in selling baseball books. Bobby Plapinger, owner of R. Plapinger Baseball Books, has sold books out of his home in Ashland, Oregon for 16 years.

"Everything I sell is a used book and 90% are out of print," says Plapinger. "I send out about 1500 catalogues twice a year and I'd say I have 200 to 400 people who regularly order books from me."

Plapinger deals exclusively in non-fiction books. He sold his fiction inventory to Mike Wickham, of Mike's Baseball Books in California, in 1999. Wickham has been selling baseball books for three years and lists 2400 books in his catalogue.

"My wife laughs at me selling baseball books," says Wickham. "But I tell her that most of my customers are college professors or attorneys."

Since there is no price guide for baseball books, pricing has always been "a dicey question," says Plapinger. But both Plapinger and Wickham base their prices on a number of criteria including a book's selling history, the condition of the book, and the book's availability.

Both agree that baseball book collecting doesn't have to be an expensive hobby - they both list books in their catalogues for $10 and under.

"My recommendation would be to collect what you like - what you want to read," says Plapinger. "Don't collect for investment."

-Kevin Glew

Kevin Glew is a freelance writer based in Toronto, Ontario - he can be reached @  kevin.glew@sympatico.ca


Recommended Reading
Here is a list of essential baseball reading as identified by this story's book experts:


Fiction
Bang The Drum Slowly - Mark Harris
The Southpaw - Mark Harris
Shoeless Joe - W.P. Kinsella
The Natural - Bernard Malamud

Non-Fiction
Ball Four - Jim Bouton
The Long Season - Jim Brosnan
The Glory Of Their Times - Lawrence S. Ritter
The Wrong Season - Joel Oppenheimer

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