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For a story, memorabilia appraiser Michael Osacky will give you a price

Sports memorabilia appraiser Michael Osacky of Chicago evaluates a football signed by several Heisman Trophy winners during his visit to Brandon last week. Osacky has spent more than 15 years traveling across the country as a Uniform Standards of Professional Appraisal Practice compliant appraiser of vintage sports cards and memorabilia, collecting memories and tales along the way. (NICK KELLY | Times)
Sports memorabilia appraiser Michael Osacky of Chicago evaluates a football signed by several Heisman Trophy winners during his visit to Brandon last week. Osacky has spent more than 15 years traveling across the country as a Uniform Standards of Professional Appraisal Practice compliant appraiser of vintage sports cards and memorabilia, collecting memories and tales along the way. (NICK KELLY | Times)
Published Nov. 21, 2018|Updated Nov. 21, 2018

BRANDON — When Michael Osacky asked the man to show him the Dan Marino autograph, Osacky didn't expect him to disrobe.

Osacky, a sports memorabilia appraiser, watched as the man stood up, removed his shirt and turned around to reveal a Marino autograph on his back. The man had a tattoo created of it.

"How much is this worth?" the man asked.

"Zero because it's nontransferable," Osacky responded.

The man and his girlfriend refused to accept that answer. When Osacky didn't change his answer, the couple stormed out while spewing expletives.

"I'll never forget that memory," Osacky said five years later. "I've never had any one take off clothes before."

Most of Osacky's verbal appraisals don't include disrobing or this level of confrontation, but no two appraisal stories are the same. He has spent more than 15 years traveling across the country from his apartment near Wrigley Field as a Uniform Standards of Professional Appraisal Practice compliant appraiser of vintage sports cards and memorabilia, collecting memories and tales along the way.

His latest stop: a trip to Brandon last week.

Osacky, 38, doesn't charge for verbal appraisals such as the ones he gave to more than a dozen local residents at the Sheraton on Thursday. He gives about 15 minutes of his time to each person and provides a number for the value of their relics.

All he asked for in return: stories.

"When my friends or family ask about my trips on the road and ask what I saw, I almost always never lead off with the value of something," Osacky said. "I have always been interested in the stories."

At 9 a.m., Gary Butters of St. Petersburg sauntered in for Osacky's first appointment. Black suspenders held up his pants while his arms held up a black bag.

Butters placed the bag on the round brown table at which Osacky sat in the corner of the Sheraton lobby. Butters plopped into a tan fabric chair, then pulled out some baseballs from another plastic bag.

"Tell me the story," Osacky said.

The ball with green and red laces belonged to Butters' wife. She saved it when her stepmother tried to throw it away after her father died in the late 1980s.

It's a good thing she didn't. The baseball, Osacky told Butters, is worth about $5,000. Babe Ruth signed it.

Osacky's eyes widened when he realized it was a real Ruth autograph, but it wasn't the first time he had seen one. Osacky later said that though Ruth's autograph is valuable, it's not rare because Ruth signed frequently for children.

The Ruth autograph that sticks out to Osacky the most is the one Ruth gave to his priest. A man once showed Osacky an autographed photo that Ruth dated August 16, 1948, the day Ruth died. The autograph checked out. The man told Osacky how on his wife's side, a relative was Ruth's priest who saw him on his final day.

"That story always resonates with me," Osacky said.

Osacky's second appointment arrived about 20 minutes after Butters, struggling to catch his breath while grasping several binders filled with baseball cards.

Gary Stein of Palm Harbor had to fight an unusual amount of traffic to get to the hotel, and he surely didn't want to miss his appointment. Not when he had the chance to find out what his cards collected as a kid in Binghamton, N.Y., about 50 years ago were worth.

"Let's see what you've got, Gary," Osacky said.

Osacky began to flip through the binders, filled with cards from the late 1960s and early 1970s.

"I can tell you they're worth a couple thousand dollars. You've done a pretty good job of keeping them in mint condition," Osacky said.

"I didn't have much as a kid, so I took care of my cards," Stein replied.

Osacky's facial expression did not change much as he turned page after page. Then a grin spread across his face when he opened the 1973 album.

"This is where it all started for me, Gary," Osacky said. "These are near and dear to my heart."

They were the same cards Osacky's grandfather gave him for his birthday in 1997, stuffed in a shoebox. Osacky would bike to the local pharmacy and grocery store in the Chicago suburb of Buffalo Grove to buy the modern packs. His grandfather thought he might like some of the older cards.

And he thought right. From there, Osacky tried to find more. He even went to local card shows on the weekends at hotels to learn from experts about card values. This passion became secondary for him in college, though. Unsure how to make a living out of it, Osacky decided to pursue a finance degree.

While working in financial trading, he still fielded calls on nights and weekends from individuals who wanted to know how much their sports memorabilia was worth. The love never went away. So when he saw an opportunity to work as an appraiser full time about a decade ago, he took it.

Osacky makes money primarily through formal written appraisals and public speaking. He also occasionally writes articles for Parade magazine. For this work, he travels about 125 days a year.

"I do feel lucky and fortunate," Osacky said.

The 1957 All-Star Game baseball that a couple brought in looked promising. Then Osacky's reaction changed once he reached the Mickey Mantle autograph.

It's not Mantle, he said. The ball, passed up and down the benches that many players signed, did not reach Mantle. Someone else in the clubhouse likely signed for him, a common occurrence for popular autographs, Osacky told the couple.

"Letters too big, not smoothly written, too much spacing," Osacky said.

The thousands of appraisals in which Osacky has taken part have taught him the intricacies of specific player autographs. Those reps, he said, are as key as they are in any line of work. It's another reason he does free appraisals. It's more exposure and reps.

Osacky is a collector, but when he appraises items, he can't buy them. That way people can know he is providing an honest assessment. Many times, it's an assessment they don't want to hear.

But Osacky takes no pleasure in delivering bad news or debunking stories passed down through generations of families.

"It can be difficult when an older lady, a widow, needs the money or something and I tell her it's not worth anything," Osacky said. "It's worth maybe $20, and she thinks it's worth $5,000."

Until Thursday, the Gura family of Tampa had not taken their cards out of a safety deposit box since the early 1990s.

"We have a 1956 and 1957 Mickey Mantle," Barbara Gura said. "We just weren't comfortable."

But they wanted to know the worth of the cards that her husband, Dan, starting collecting about 70 years ago. Osacky told Barbara, Dan and their son, Dan, the cards are worth about $3,000-$5,000. He would need more time to look over the cards, though, to provide the exact value of the hundreds of cards.

As Osacky continued to look at the cards, he described the Guras' options. In addition to a written appraisal, they could send the cards to a grader who would evaluate their condition.

The Guras didn't know if they wanted to sell them or keep the cards that Dan spent years collecting for future generations.

"Danny's boys are 7 and 9. … Are people, when they are in their 20s and 30s, still going to be buying cards from the '50s?" Barbara Gura later said.

It's something Osacky said is a valid question and concern. He is encouraged, however, by the way that the values of many cards have increased in the past 10 years and that many foreign investors classify sports memorabilia as an asset class.

"I think there is always going to be demand for high-quality, good-condition hall-of-fame cards or autographs," Osacky said, "because I think, whether it's next year or 10 years from now or 20 years from now, people will always still remember Babe Ruth or Lou Gehrig or some of the top-notch-caliber guys."

Either way, Osacky will continue to travel to appraise items as long as he can.

Just don't forget to bring your story.

Contact Nick Kelly at nkelly@tampabay.com. Follow @_NickKelly.

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