We will survive
Gehrig papers highlight collector's trove

Posted on Fri, May. 20, 2005

Gehrig papers highlight collector's trove
The Baltimore Sun

He's got baseballs autographed by every American President since 1901, including the only known ball signed by Theodore Roosevelt and a few that were hurled as Opening Day first pitches.

He's got a bat Babe Ruth's 1920 bat, with indentations Ruth made each time he hit a home run with it. Remember George Brett's 1983 ''pine tar'' home run? He's got the can of pine tar.

And while other collectors can boast that they have a copy of the first issue of Playboy featuring curvaceous Marilyn Monroe on its black-and-white cover, James Ancel has probably the only one signed by her husband, Joe DiMaggio.

''I don't think he knew what he was signing. I believe only part of it was exposed to him,'' said Ancel, a Towson, Md., contractor who has one of the nation's finest private collections of baseball treasures. ''I got that from Sotheby's in New York.''

But amid these keepsakes, the balls, bats and jerseys that directly link to larger-than-life heroes of the diamond, is a plain loose-leaf binder that seems out of place in an otherwise showy collection.

Open it, though, and you'll discover a rare glimpse into the personal life of the great Lou Gehrig -- not the player whose 2,130 consecutive games played made him the standard of athletic durability, but a man struggling with a disease that left him a shell of his former self before finally killing.

''As for myself, it is getting a little more difficult each day and it will be hard to say how much longer I can carry on I don't mean to be pessimistic but one cannot help wonder how much further this thing can go and I wish you would again drop a note as to your thoughts and percentage of making a proportional recovery. I also understand how difficult this is.''

That is an excerpt from a letter Gehrig wrote to his doctor, Paul O'Leary, in January, 1941 -- five months before succumbing to amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, (ALS), a degenerative muscular ailment that is now referred to as Lou Gehrig's disease.

The letters were only recently published for the first time -- in a new book, ''Luckiest Man: The Life and Death of Lou Gehrig,'' by Jonathan Eig, with whom Ancel shared the contents of the correspondence.

The letters provide an intimate view of the after-baseball days of the iconic figure, baseball's Iron Man whose consecutive games streak wasn't broken until Sept. 6, 1995, by the Orioles' Cal Ripken.

''They start to bring tears to your eyes as you get to the end,'' Ancel said.

''He was fading and his wife knew he was fading but they didn't want to tell him, she and the doctor,'' Ancel said. ''So she was writing the doctor secret letters and saying, 'Look when you send this don't send it back here because Lou might see it and I don't want him to know I'm writing. Send it to (another given) address, and don't put my name on it because if the mailman sees it he's going to the house.' ''

Ancel came into possession of the Gehrig letters almost by default.

In 1998, he had gone to an auction at Christie's to bid on letters written by baseball's first commissioner, Kennesaw Mountain Landis, to Shoeless Joe Jackson, one of the members of the Chicago White Sox who threw the 1919 World Series.

''Landis kept telling Jackson, 'Look, you're not getting back into baseball,' '' said Ancel. ''I really wanted those letters, but the bids were too high.''

He then turned his attention to a lot of about 200 Gehrig-related documents, written from around the time he retired from baseball on July 4, 1939, due to ALS until his death on June 2, 1941.

Ancel figured he may ultimately be outbid, and was stunned when he won.

''This bid I made for the letters was a steal,'' said Ancel. ''These letters, each one of these letters is probably worth $25,000 easily. Easily. I though they were going to go for three times that amount.''

He paid $40,000 for the lot.

The more Ancel read through the letters, the more he cherished what he had. Most of the earliest letters were written in cursive and signed by Gehrig himself. Yet as his disease progressed, the letters instead were typewritten -- apparently dictated -- and rubber stamped with Gehrig's signature.

The documents include not only handwritten correspondence between Gehrig and O'Leary, his primary physician at the Mayo Clinic, but also letters written by both men to facilities around the country for medications they hoped would stave off ALS.

''Why this is so significant is that (O'Leary) saved a carbon of his letters to Lou Gehrig and he kept all of Gehrig's letters, so you have the back and forth between them,'' Ancel said.

''Nobody really knew what happened to Lou Gehrig from when he retired to when he died,'' Ancel said. ''He was a very private gentleman. He kept to himself and didn't want anyone to know. This is the only real documentation anybody has.''

That's something Ancel could say about many items in his collection.

He began memorabilia collecting 12 years ago with a $10,000 purchase of a Gehrig- and Babe Ruth-autographed baseball in Las Vegas.

Though he ultimately discovered the signatures were fake, Ancel became immersed in a hobby that has took him around the country and occasionally brought him face to face with American presidents.

''For one, (collecting) takes you away from work,'' said Ancel, ''and it's a lot of fun to find something you've been looking for.''

The 43-year old founded his company, James W. Ancel, Inc., in 1988 with $10,000. The company now has annual revenues of $25 million, building schools, water treatment plants, banks, libraries, prisons and parking garages.

Ancel had always been a baseball fan, but collecting bolstered his interest, exposing him to the game's enduring nuances, such as its relationship to presidents.

''I was lucky enough to bid on the John F. Kennedy signed baseball in 1996. That was the first one,'' said Ancel, who does most of his auction bidding via phone or on the Internet.

''I submitted the bid, went to the movies and I when I came out I was the high bidder. I was shocked. I paid about $30,000 for it.''

Ancel, who said he secures his keepsakes "in climate-controlled bank safety deposit boxes," has never sold any item in his collection. The last time it was appraised, in 2001, it was worth more than $1 million.

''It has gone up exponentially since then,'' Ancel said.


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