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Mudville: May 23, 2024 6:46 pm PDT

The Greatest Collection

There is something about excellence.

If you want to see the greatest personal memorabilia collection of the New York Yankees Fantastic Five, you must head over to the Baker Museum in Naples, Florida.

And since much of New York, New Jersey and Connecticut appears to be in the Sunshine State at this moment – hey, I see all the license plates – this is the perfect time to see “Baseball Heroes: Works from the Jay H. Baker Collection.’’

I’ve been around baseball for the last 46 years as a writer and rarely does something blow me away but what’s in this collection that features iconic Hall of Famers Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Joe DiMaggio, Mickey Mantle and Derek Jeter, did just that.

Here at BallNine we strive to give you the story behind The Story.

This collection started because Jay H. Baker, a native of Queens, NY and a lifelong Yankees fan, followed the advice of his wife Patty, who said he needed to have a hobby. This was about 25 years ago. Jay is the former president of Kohl’s department stores. He is a 1956 graduate of Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania and started working at a young age in his family’s millinery shop.

During his long career he has held management positions at Macy’s, Ohrbach’s, Famous-Barr and Saks Fifth Avenue. He currently serves on the board of the Cal Ripken Sr. Foundation, a group that has helped build 100 baseball fields for youngsters.

Through the years he has sponsored Honor Flights for WWII veterans and has been involved in countless charity endeavors.

“When they set up the collection in the museum, I was just blown away because you don’t see your own collection that good when it is in the house.’’

One of those baseball fields was built in the Bronx and Mark Teixeira was there as well. Baker said at the end of the ceremony about 20 youngsters just came over to thank the foundation for its work and he had tears in his eyes from such a reaction.

Jay Baker values quality and that is reflective in his collection, which includes home plate from the original Yankee Stadium and Babe Ruth’s first All-Star uniform, just one of the many significant pieces of the Yankees Big Five he has collected.

There is DiMaggio’s Hall of Fame ring, Marilyn Monroe’s passport, game-used bats, Mantle and DiMaggio plaques from Yankee Stadium that were on display in Monument Park before their current monuments were erected, a baseball signed by Ruth and Brother Mathias, his baseball mentor at St. Mary’s Industrial School in Baltimore, a signed pair of Babe’s spikes, Mantle’s first contract, his No. 6 and No. 7 jerseys, Jeter’s lineup card from his last home game, Jeter’s road jersey from his first road game in 1995 – and the bookend last road game in Fenway Park – and his last home game. Outside the Big Five box there is Don Larsen’s uniform that he wore when he threw his perfect game in the 1956 World Series.

Have I gotten your attention yet?

Did I mention Mickey Mantle’s 1953 and 1963 World Series rings or a signed Lou Gehrig letter to someone who offered support after his career ended abruptly in 1939 or a Tiffany-designed police medal, the first use of the – as Michael Kay likes to say, interlocking NY- which was adopted by the Yankees?

How about the original ‘Curse of the Bambino contract’ signed by Harry Frazee and the earliest known Ruth bat?

American League 1933 All-Star Game Lineup Card, featuring Lou Gehrig and Babe Ruth, July 6, 1933. Jay H. Baker Collection.

Baker was able to purchase these items with the help of Pete Siegel, CEO of Gotta Have it! Collectibles on 57th Street in New York City. Included in the exhibition in the adjacent galleries is Patty and Jay’s private art collection. Patty graduated summa cum laude from Hunter College in New York City and would later serve the Milwaukee Art Museum as both a trustee and a docent. She is an extremely successful Broadway producer and has earned two Tony Awards for her work on Memphis: The Musical and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf. Her work also includes Diana: The Musical; Hamilton; Ain’t Too Proud – The Life and Times of the Temptations; To Kill a Mockingbird and more.

“The walls in my home in Naples are very unexciting right now, there is nothing on them,’’ Baker told BallNine with a laugh.

Like I said, I’ve been talking to ballplayers, executives, millionaires and some billionaires for a long, long time. When I first got into this business I was lucky enough to sit at press row next to legendary writer Red Smith. I asked Red, why did you become a sportswriter?

His answer was classic Red Smith.

“I wanted to live like a millionaire without the hassles,’’ he said.

Point well taken.

So again, I’ve met a lot of people in this writing game and Baker is the kind of person you immediately feel at home with and can understand why he has had so much success in business and life.

Like the basis of many future collectors, his started when Baker’s mom threw out his baseball cards. It was those moms, in an act of cleanliness and organization, that would plant the seeds to create the future business of collecting sports memorabilia.

“I lost my baseball cards, my comics, everything, but luckily, we were able to do some stuff later on,’’ Baker told me.

Patty and Jay Baker.

“It’s interesting how it all started, I guess I’ve always been a little bit of a collector and I’ve been a Yankee fan since I was six years old. It was my team as a kid growing up in Flushing. About 26 years ago my wife came to me at Christmas time and said, ‘All you do is work.’ I was a retailer, and we all are a little nuts. She said you got to have a hobby. She said, which ball do you want? She had two Ruth and Gehrig balls and what do you think I said? I said, I want them both and that’s how this whole collection started with those two Ruth-Gehrig balls in 1995.

“My wife is fantastic and I wouldn’t have a collection without her.’’

He also collected football memorabilia because he was a Joe Namath fan and he made some NFL connections.

“We were out in Milwaukee and I got to know Brett Farve pretty well. We used him for a while (in advertising) until Nike paid him more,’’ Baker said with a laugh.

In time, Baker reevaluated his collection.

“I’m looking at it and it just meant nothing,’’ he said. “So when I got those two balls I realized it was the Yankees that were my passion so let me go after it. I kind of just thought about it, how do I make something important, something that would make me feel really good. I’m thinking: Ruth, Gehrig, DiMaggio and Mantle, right.’’

“Those are the greatest Yankees.’’

Indeed. Jeter would come later.

“I actually saw Babe Ruth in 1948 when he gave his farewell speech,’’ Baker said. “My sister was eight years older than me. My mother said take him to the ballgame, I had a friend Herbie since I was six years old, so she took both of us to the game to the upper, upper deck in right field. It was like a rainy, misty day. I remember him coming out of the dugout and he had a bat he leaned on and he said something about, ‘My throat sounds terrible, it hurts worse,’ and then he just talked about baseball being a great sport. What a thrill to see Babe Ruth.

“I never saw Gehrig, I saw a little bit of DiMaggio and I saw a ton of Mickey Mantle and that was my guy growing up,’’ Baker said. “Later on I saw Derek Jeter for years and years and then when he got the 3,000th hit and we met him a few times, did something with his charity, met his family, so he became the fifth guy.’’

Derek Jeter's spikes, Jay H. Baker Collection.

The Bill Mazeroski home run crushed him like all Yankees fans in 1960. Mantle hit three home runs in that series. Baker has a Mantle uniform and bat from that heartbreaking World Series.

Baker also has Mickey Mantle’s first home run ball and his World Series rings from 1953 and 1962.

“I met the Mantle family, they had a big auction at Madison Square Garden,’’ Baker said. “I was fortunate to get some things directly from them. Not cheap, but directly from them.’’

Danny Mantle eventually came to see Baker’s collection.

Baker wanted the public to see his collection and that is why it will be on display now through May 15. So spring training, if there is a spring training or not, fans can still see baseball through this stunning collection of memorabilia.

“I’ve never used my name, I’ve never been out there,’’ Baker said. “I never wanted to do that. It’s always Pete’s name if we got something great, Pete Siegel’s name, fine with me. So I had it one time in the museum about 10 years ago, but I didn’t have all the stuff I have now. I didn’t use my name. I’m on the board so they asked me would you be willing to do your collection again and we’d do a great job (exhibiting it). I’ve known the people for years and I respect them, so I agreed this time. And they also took a big part of our art collection.

“They said they would do a great job, and they have,’’ Baker said. “It’s so professionally done, it was so exciting when I walked in when I came back from New York and saw it, it’s really magnificent. It looks phenomenal and my name is out there now so I would like more and more people to see it.’’

The Babe Ruth Section at the Baker Museum. (Photo courtesy of Marty Appel)

Baker then made this smart point.

“It’s interesting when people used to come to our apartment, we’d open up for charitable events or something, and they’d look at the art but they would all gravitate toward the sports,’’ he said. “There is awful lot of art out there, right, but who has many sports collections if you don’t go to the Baseball Hall of Fame, so people never get to see these things.

“I was a lucky guy in life and I worked very hard for it,’’ Baker said. “We worked eight days a week, my two partners and I. It was a work ethic I got from my parents. My mother had a millenary store, so they always ask how did you start in business?

“As a kid, at first I would take hats out of the basement and set them up, they would not let me sell to anybody. When I got a little older I used to take cash, there was this big cash register. And the name of the store was my mother’s maiden name ‘Schissel’ and I still remember saying, ‘Thank you for shopping at Schissel’s,’ I had to practice that before in the mirror. For a little kid, that is not easy to say.’’

That preparation and work ethic prepared him for life.

“I didn’t know it at the time,’’ Baker said. “I just wanted to go out and play. We didn’t have a lot of money, but we had all this love and caring. I grew up with three grandparents, my parents and my sister. I think I had like three mothers, everybody took care of me. It was wonderful.’’

His magnificent collection is both work and play, rolled into one. Quite the hobby.

The Baker Museum in Naples, FL.

Baker has Derek Jeter’s clubhouse chair in his collection, too.

I spent many nights around that chair listening to Jeter’s comments on the game and the art of winning.

“You can still find things,’’ Baker said of the art of collecting. “They are harder to find and they are more costly.

“It’s very hard to name a favorite piece, but if I took three things together that might be my favorite, it might be Mickey’s three MVP trophies,’’ Baker said.

That’s a pretty good choice.

Again, Baker has not one of Mick’s MVP trophies, not two, but all three. He also has DiMaggio’s three MVP trophies, a Lou Gehrig MVP trophy and Babe Ruth’s 1923 MVP; and a ball signed by both Gehrig and Ruth as they playfully inscribe messages to each other.

“I got all three Mickey Mantle MVPs all at different times, that’s maybe my favorite because he was my favorite, that is very exciting,’’ Baker said. “That’s really incredible for me. When they set up the collection in the museum, I was just blown away because you don’t see your own collection that good when it is in the house.’’

Essentially, his house, which is a tribute to the House that Ruth Built with the Big Five of Ruth, Gehrig, DiMaggio, Mantle and Jeter can now be viewed by fans who can see history right in front of their eyes with these amazing 130 artifacts, one home run after another.

45+ years, columnist at NY Post for the last 23 years prior to joining BallNine. Elected to the NY Baseball Hall of Fame. Former SportsTalk Host (KFMB), ESPN’s First Take and Cold Pizza contributor. Frequent guest on radio shows and podcasts nationwide. Author of seven books. Seen in episode 10 of ESPN’s “The Last Dance” (the one with Dennis Rodman). First baseball interview he conducted was with Thurman Munson. Now you know why he is America’s Most Beloved Sportswriter.

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