BOCA RATON — Baseball Hall-of-Famer Christy Mathewson, who pitched three shutouts for the New York Giants during the 1905 World Series championship, stares out from an extremely rare, autographed photo.
Jerseys worn by basketball superstars Shaquille O'Neal, Wilt Chamberlain and old-time great George Mikan bring back memories on the court. The front-end grill of the car driven by Richard Petty in his last race at Daytona International Speedway sits as tribute to his career.
These prized possessions – and those of other famous figures in such sports including football, boxing, tennis, golf, hockey, and track and field – fill Joel Platt's Sports Immortals Museum in Boca Raton.
The museum, which Platt opened in 1994, houses 30,000 of the more than 1 million sports mementos which he traveled more than a million miles to collect. Platt now owns the largest private collection of sports memorabilia in the world, with an estimated value between $50,000,000 and $100,000,000.
"(It is) the largest and most valuable collection of diverse and important sports artifacts ever assembled," says Michael Heffner, president of Leland's Auction House.
Tennis memorabilia anyone? The museum shows off an autographed photo of Don Budge, one of the early tennis greats. Autographed racquets of Pete Sampras and Chris Evert remind fans of their skills serving and volleying.
Baseball fans can see the glove of Lou Gehrig, the iron man of the New York Yankees. Fans also will see one of the most valuable baseball cards in the world – one of three known cards of Honus Wagner, the Pittsburgh Pirates great from the early 1900's. Other baseball memorabilia include the largest autographed baseball bat in the world. Actually, it's a tree hit by lightning and then carved into an 8-foot-tall bat by a Cherokee Indian – with 65 autographs.
"One of the best things about all of this," Platt says, "is that it gave me a chance to meet so many wonderful people. Not only the athletes themselves, but their families and their friends. Often, they've given me their most precious keepsakes ... or helped me track them down."
Platt tracked down an unusual kicking shoe autographed by NFL kicker Tom Dempsey. Actually, it's only half a shoe because Dempsey was born with only half a foot. A football thrown by quarterback Sid Luckman of the Chicago Bears for a touchdown in a 1943 game – one of seven balls he threw for touchdowns that day – also appears in the museum.
"I was lucky enough to get to know Sid Luckman's daughter," Platt says. "And when she gave me the ball, she told me, 'My Dad would have wanted you to have it.' "
For fans of the "Sweet Science," as it is known to boxing fans, the museum holds the gloves worn by Jack Dempsey when he knocked out Georges Carpentier in 1921. There's also a letter written by the immortal Jack Johnson after his fight with Jess Willard in which he complained about bigotry because he had married a white woman. The bell from the Jack Dempsey-Louis Firpo fight at New York's Polo Grounds in 1923 sits here. These items occupy space along with more than 100,000 boxing items, which is why Platt's boxing collection is considered the most comprehensive in the world.
What about golf? Dedicated duffers gaze upon the putter used by Gary Player. And hockey buffs can view Montreal Canadians jerseys worn by the Maurice "Rocket" Richard.
Track and field enthusiasts find themselves transported back the 1950s and 1960s when they see the warm-up jacket worn by Al Oerter. He won four gold medals – in four different Olympics – for the U.S.
Many items and letters of the legendary Jim Thorpe, star in such sports as track and field, baseball, basketball and football, allow a peek into his life.
"I found Thorpe's granddaughter in California, after a long search," Platt says. "And when she found out who I was and what I was doing, she dug up some of her most precious mementoes and gave them to me."
One of the best things about the collection, though, is Platt himself. He's a walking encyclopedia of sports stories, some of which are in his book, Sports Immortals: Stories of Inspiration and Achievement.
His penchant for sports memorabilia came in the aftermath of an accident. When he was four years old, Platt was playing in his uncle's car lot when he found a box of matches. He lit one and threw it in a gas tank. The resulting explosion left him hospitalized for a year.
To keep his spirits up, his parents brought him baseball cards every day, and his Dad told him wonderful sports stories. One night Babe Ruth appeared to Platt in a dream and told him not to give up. That dream eventually resulted in a magnificent obsession with sports souvenirs that ultimately led to his museum.
But as impressive as his collection is, Joel Platt is not done. In fact, he's now tackling his most ambitious project ever, what he calls his dream and the culmination of his life's work.
His dream exists only in blueprints now, but he's determined to raise $200 million for a "Sports Immortals International Hall of Fame and National Sports Museum." The plans call for training facilities, interactive displays, a 360-degree movie-theater-in-the-round, a research facility for sports medicine, and dining and retail components.
"Four states are vying for it," Platt says, "and they've each offered sites. We're concentrating now on the financial part. And we're very optimistic. This is too big – and too important to too many people – not to happen."
Until it does, though, Platt happily escorts visitors around his museum where every item has a story.
"I cherish every piece," Platt says. "But I cherish the stories behind each one just as much."
This story was first published on VISITFLORIDA.com.