Gary Cypres of Brentwood owns the original, 1889 hand-written letter admitting the Dodgers baseball team to the National League.
But that's just the beginning of his collection.
There's the 1934 tour Babe Ruth took to Japan. Cypres has got the Bambino's jersey from that trip.
Also in his possession: one of the famous and rare Honus Wagner trading cards, the 1941 Heisman Trophy of the University of Minnesota's Bruce "Boo" Smith and thousands more pieces of sports memorabilia from the world of baseball and beyond.
In short, the 62-year-old entrepreneur has one of the best collections of American sports memorabilia amassed by an individual. "You could not go out and assemble what he's done if you had a blank checkbook," says David Hunt, president of Hunt Auctions. "The materials don't exist."
And they've sat relatively unnoticed in a nondescript warehouse at the corner of Washington and Main streets in downtown Los Angeles at least for now.
While Cypres has offered private tours of the collection, next April, if all goes according to plan, the Cypres Sports Museum will open the treasure trove to the public. And for an expected $15 entrance fee, sports buffs will walk into what resembles the biggest, coolest sports bar they've ever been in, sans the booze of course.
The experience is a mind-expanding stroll through American sports history, from the 19th Century era of fingerless mitts and nickel admission tickets (such as a turn-of-the-century peanut roasting machine) to the present-day steroid era and $100 million contracts. There are more than 10,000 items in all.
Vintage movie posters, such as "The Story of Seabiscuit" starring Shirley Temple, adorn the walls of one room, while another holds thousands of trading cards, dating all the way back to 1887. Game uniforms of legends from Wilt Chamberlain to Sandy Koufax hang overhead, while separate spaces feature vintage prints by photographer Charles Conlon.
There are also antique bicycles, autographed bats, early advertising posters, and Carl Tolpo's remarkable folk-art paintings of baseball's greatest stars. (Cypres keeps his T206 Honus Wagner tobacco card one of the most famous trading cards ever issued in a safe.)
While he won't say how much he's spent, Cypres estimates it would take "north of $30 million" for someone to buy the entire cache, if you include the property and the building.
"To try and get an economic return on this is impossible," Cypres said, "but I thought this would be a pretty neat thing for the city to have."
Born and raised in the Bronx or, as he likes to put it, "in the shadows of Yankee Stadium" Cypres played basketball and studied business at Hofstra University on Long Island. But while he always loved sports, business became his vocation.
He started as an accountant with Arthur Andersen before working as a high-level financial executive for several companies including a stint as an investment banker with Lazard Freres before settling in Los Angeles with his second wife more than a decade ago.
Taking advantage of the changing demographics in Southern California, he now runs businesses that cater to the Latino market, including Centravel Inc., a travel service company aimed at Hispanics. The businesses operate out of the top floor of his warehouse building, which he built after purchasing two acres in the early 1990s when downtown land was cheap.
Cypres' collection is relatively young. He started what he calls his "hobby" in the late 1980s, buying collectibles at auction, through private dealers and at shows like the upcoming National Sports Collectors Convention in Anaheim later this month. And until several years ago much of it was stored at his home before it was overrun.
Meanwhile, with auction houses like Sotheby's jumping on the collectibles' band-wagon, the sports-memorabilia market turned white hot. The 1999 Sotheby's sale of New York Yankees minority owner Barry Halper's collection for nearly $22 million was the "hallmark event that solidified vintage memorabilia as solid gold," according to T.S. O'Connell, editor of Sports Collectors Digest magazine. And prices have only accelerated since.
After first concentrating on tennis and golf, Cypres began to augment his holdings with baseball, basketball and football collectibles. His specialty is baseball with an emphasis on the Dodgers and he was recently featured in the book "Smithsonian Baseball: Inside the World's Finest Private Collections" (Collins), written by Goldman Sachs executive director Stephen Wong. Pieces from his collection were also included in "The Perfect Game: America Looks at Baseball," an exhibit at New York's American Folk Art Museum in 2003-04.
Recent acquisitions more than $800,000 for the uniform worn by Babe Ruth in Japan and more than $350,000 for Smith's 1941 Heisman Trophy demonstrate the top dollar he is willing to pay for unique items.
"What makes Gary's collection great and unique is the fact that he has not confined it to one sport," says Mike Heffner, president of Lelands.com sports auctions. "Gary collects everything, and the breadth of the collection gives viewers an overall scope of sports history. He loves this stuff and the history behind it."
These days, workers are removing walls for fire exits and creating bathrooms to bring the 30,000-square-foot space up to city code. Other changes will display Cypres' personal touch.
He's designed the exhibit space and written the text that accompanies his artifacts himself, with word getting around about its planned opening.
L.A. City Councilwoman Jan Perry, in whose district the museum will reside, is eager for its arrival. "The Cypres Sports Museum is a welcome addition to downtown," she said. "Gary Cypres' keen eye for collecting sports memorabilia has resulted in a world class collection."
Meanwhile, Cypres is already looking ahead toward an expansion to perhaps 50,000 square feet if the museum proves successful. In a nod to his Hispanic customers, he intends to create a soccer wing, while adding Latin-American material to the baseball collection.
"I could go on forever," he says. "It's like the question: 'Do you have enough money?' The answer is: of course not. It's the same thing if you're a collector. The fun is in collecting the next piece."
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