Pricing the Remnants of New York's Baseball Stadiums

Not long after the final outs are recorded at New York's two baseball stadiums this fall, the Yankees and Mets plan to begin the biggest garage sales in the history of sports. With both teams set to open new ballparks next year, the clubs plan to sell to fans and collectors every piece of their old stadiums that holds memories: seats, signs and banners, fencing, telephones, outfield walls and padding, concessions stands, scoreboards, lockers, benches, and pitching rubbers. The clubs could each reap $10 million or more in sales.

Already auctioneers and fans are trying to get a piece of the action. Two fans face larceny charges for attempting to steal bunting from Yankee Stadium's upper deck on Opening Day. Lonn Trost, the Yankees' chief operating officer, said the team is seeking prosecution as a warning to other fans. The Yankees are trying to avoid the kind of pilfering that marred the last game at Metropolitan Stadium in 1981, when Minnesota Vikings fans used wrenches and other tools to take out seats, benches, signs, scoreboard lights, and even the goalposts.

The mining of old stadiums as revenue sources is a fairly new phenomenon, dating back just a few decades. In 1973, when Yankee Stadium underwent a massive renovation, the team virtually gave away the park. In a promotion with Marlboro cigarettes and the Korvettes department store chain, fans could get a seat for $7.50 and proof-of-purchase seals from Marlboro. But as baseball grew as a global business dedicated to monetizing every item and every moment, ball clubs began looking for new opportunities for profit. Both New York teams are reported to be in negotiations with City Hall to buy the city-owned stadiums, which are to be torn down next year. Though previous sales of memorabilia from stadiums across the country have netted as much as $1 million, experts say the history of the Yankees and the size of the New York market guarantees that the New York stadium sell-offs will bring in many times that amount.

The question is how much—and how best to maximize the profit? Steiner Sports, the company that is managing memorabilia sales for the teams, is looking to develop a multiyear plan to avoid a glut on the market. The first step: know the customer. "Two kinds of guys buy things from stadiums," says Kevin Reichard, publisher of Ballpark Digest. "There are people who want to make a lot of money. And there are 45-year-old dudes who are trying to recapture their youth."

George Tahan is in the collector mold. A high school athletic director who has been collecting memorabilia since 1990, when he bought seats from old Comiskey Park in Chicago, Tahan has a basement filled with seats from the homes of all but two of Major League Baseball's original 16 teams, as well as turnstiles from Comiskey and Shibe Park in Philadelphia, signs from Memorial Stadium in Baltimore, retired number banners from Fenway Park in Boston, and a ticket box from Cleveland's Municipal Stadium. Men's room signs from three stadiums hang over a urinal in his bathroom.

Tahan, who sells memorabilia from his Arlington, Mass., home, says he is watching the New York stadium sales with caution. "I am going to try and get some seats," he says. "A lot will depend on pricing. In some instances I have waited and then bought some of the seats in the secondary market, after the initial sale. I did that for Mile High Stadium [in Denver and got] plenty of seats at pretty reasonable prices."

If bunting from Yankee Stadium could sell for as much as $1,000 on eBay, as experts say, then other parts of the stadium could go for many thousands of dollars. The teams plan to promote the soon-to-be-destroyed facilities all season and offer a full range of souvenirs. "They need souvenirs at a price point so everyone can afford something," says Dan Rosenthal, who coordinated the sales of souvenirs from Busch Stadium in St. Louis and Tiger Stadium in Detroit. "You have to sell something for the guy who just has $5, even if it's just pebbles from the infield."

Yankee Stadium has more than just pebbles to sell. Though the 1970s renovation removed much of the old park, the team can still pitch it as the place where Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig, Joe DiMaggio and Mickey Mantle, Derek Jeter and Mariano Rivera made history. And it's not just baseball. Football's New York Giants played there from 1956 to 1973. Other major events—boxing bouts involving Jack Dempsey, Gene Tunney, Joe Louis and Muhammad Ali; concerts; college football games, including the "Win one for the Gipper" game between Notre Dame and Army in 1928; New York Cosmos soccer games with Pele; and masses celebrated by Popes Paul VI and John Paul II—took place in the stadium. Shea has less history, but the Queens stadium has hosted a number of major events, including four World Series, classic games involving Tom Seaver and Dwight Gooden, and Joe Namath's Jets 1968 march to a Super Bowl title. And it was the site of a major Beatles concert on their 1965 tour.

Still, most revenues will come from the sale of seats, which fans use to put in dens and offices. Experts like Mike Heffner, of online memorabilia company Lelands.com, say pairs of stadium seats will "easily" fetch $1,000. If each team sells 25,000 pairs of attached seats for $500 apiece, they'll make $12 million. To get the most profits, the teams will probably space out sales to avoid glutting the market. So they might make $6 million right away and the rest in coming years.

The strangest souvenir might be urinals. When he was selling off Busch Stadium, Rosenthal put a urinal from behind the Cardinals dugout in the inventory "on a lark, as a joke," he says. Bidding started at $100 and increased to a final price of $2,174. A local urologist bought the porcelain for his office. When fans heard about it, they asked about the urinals from public bathrooms. They sold for hundreds of dollars. One fan scrubbed his trough-style urinal and uses it to store beer in his garage. "I told him not to invite me to any parties," Rosenthal says.

Obscure items can fetch a high price if some link can be made to history. One of the most famous moments at Tiger Stadium came in the 1971 All-Star Game, when Reggie Jackson hit a home run off a tower 380 feet from home plate and 100 feet above the field. Auctioneers took down the fencing that surrounded the tower, mounted it, and sold it for $500. Tiger fans also paid hundreds of dollars for powder-blue bricks, the first glimpse of the stadium for fans driving up Trumbull Street. What gives souvenirs value, says Rosenthal, is "anything you can trace back to a player touching or being near."

Stadium sell-offs prompt a torrent of emotions, as Rosenthal discovered when fans came to Tiger Stadium to pick up their souvenirs. "The first man who was there, he couldn't speak," Rosenthal says. "He just cried. And he wanted to see the field. I let him go back. And all day people went back and cried." Among the teary visitors was Willie Horton, who played for his hometown team from 1963 to 1977. He had not been back since the park closed in 1999. He got a pair of bleacher seats, from which his father watched him hit his first home run, off Robin Roberts.

"This was the place where you had Ty Cobb and Shoeless Joe [Jackson] and Babe Ruth," says Rosenthal. "When you walked around, the pigeons had taken over and there was peeling paint and broken timber and a hole in the concourse. But once you walked out and saw that field, the grass was beautiful; there was still a diamond, still a mound. I stood on the pitcher's mound and could see the faces of fans behind the plate."

Not all fans are so sentimental. Neil deMause, author of "Fields of Schemes" and a frequent critic of public financing of sports facilities, says he doesn't want any piece of New York's stadiums. "It would be like taking something off a corpse," he says. "Besides, I already took a seat from Yankee Stadium in 1976."