The Peak meets col­lec­tor Stephen Wong and dis­cov­ers how a world-class shrine to one of Amer­ica’s favourite pas­times ended up in a pri­vate apart­ment atop Vic­to­ria Peak.

The Peak (Hong Kong) - - Passion Play - STORY NAN-HIE IN

It was an unas­sum­ing morn­ing in San Fran­cisco in the 1970s when a young Stephen Wong got a call from his best friend nearby, telling him to rush over to his house. Wong, a San Fran­cisco-raised Hong Kong kid, was al­ready a col­lec­tor of base­ball cards by that point but he had no idea the up­com­ing en­counter would in­ten­sify his ado­ra­tion for the sport enough to lead him to be­come one of the most fevered col­lec­tors of the genre in the world.

“He pulled out this wax-based sleeve, an archival sleeve to store stamps, and out came a 1959 Topps base­ball card of Roger Maris,” re­calls Wong of that day. “He said, ‘My brother gave it to me, I wanted to show it to you.’”

Wong, now man­ag­ing di­rec­tor and chair­man of in­vest­ment bank­ing for Hong Kong at Gold­man Sachs, de­fines his deep re­ac­tion to the card as “a

meta­phys­i­cal con­nec­tion”. Ge­net­ics plays a role, he be­lieves. His pa­ter­nal grand­fa­ther was a life­long Chi­nese cu­rios col­lec­tor and Wong claims he in­her­ited this trait from him: “There’s a col­lect­ing DNA – you ei­ther have it or you don’t.”

That en­counter saw Wong em­bark on a three­decade long amass­ment of base­ball arte­facts as well as au­thor three books on the topic, in­clud­ing Smith­so­nian Base­ball: In­side the World’s Finest Pri­vate Col­lec­tions (2005), to Game Worn: Base­ball Trea­sures from the Game’s Great­est He­roes and Mo­ments (2016). The lat­ter is a beau­ti­fully pho­tographed tome on base­ball uni­forms from the early 20th cen­tury to 1999.

For Wong, dis­play­ing his tro­phy col­lec­tion de­mands as much at­ten­tion as ac­quir­ing it. At his 2,600-sq-ft abode on The Peak, he’s turned one of his bed­rooms into a hall of fame of sorts. In the cli­mate­con­trolled space, time­worn base­ball uni­forms, bats, caps and mitts are en­cased in cus­tomised glass cases, while black and white pho­to­graphs hark­ing back to the early 1990s deck the brick red walls.

Wong brought some of these cov­eted items along to his talk on base­ball mem­o­ra­bilia at Asia So­ci­ety Hong Kong this June, in­clud­ing the 1936 rookie home Yan­kees uni­form worn by Joe Dimag­gio when the team clinched its 1936 World Se­ries ti­tle. “Dimag­gio was a key cat­a­lyst for this win,” he says of the piece’s rel­e­vance in base­ball lore. It wouldn’t be the first – Dimag­gio had led the team to an­other eight World Se­ries ti­tles by 1951.

Many fac­tors drive col­lec­tors. For Wong, “it’s an emo­tional con­nec­tion to phys­i­cal ob­jects that con­vey a poignant and pow­er­ful mes­sage about his­tory.”

The fi­nancier has par­tic­i­pated in many fierce bid­ding bat­tles, such as one he re­calls at Her­itage Auc­tions in Dal­las, Texas. The tar­get of his af­fec­tion was a 1938 road jer­sey of Mel Ott, a Hall of Fame New York Giants player from the 1920s to the 1940s. Af­ter en­gag­ing in an in­tense bid­ding war with an­other ar­dent fan, Wong won.

As com­mon among many col­lec­tors, Wong de­clines to re­veal the “ex­or­bi­tant” amount he paid for the piece. “For a lot of these [very rare] items … if you don’t get them [when you have the chance], you could be wait­ing ten, twenty or thirty years [for the next op­por­tu­nity],” he ex­plains. “If an arte­fact re­lates to my goal or mis­sion state­ment, like the Mel Ott jer­sey did, I’d go to the moon for it. But you can’t do that for every item.”

A dis­ci­plined ap­proach is wise at a time when the base­ball mem­o­ra­bilia mar­ket is heat­ing up. The stag­ger­ing amounts spent on ob­tain­ing such relics have


been mak­ing head­lines, such as the crisp con­di­tion 1909-11 T206 Honus Wag­ner base­ball card that fetched US$3.12 mil­lion last year. An­other eye­brow-raiser was a 1920 Babe Ruth New York Yan­kees jer­sey, which fetched US$4.4 mil­lion in 2012.

Of all the va­ri­eties of base­ball mem­o­ra­bilia, uni­forms are Wong’s most beloved kind. He ex­plains his pas­sion for cloth­ing stems from the aes­thetic, rar­ity and how they per­son­ify play­ers more than any other arte­fact.

“These items are ex­ceed­ingly ex­pen­sive,” Wong says. “A case in point is Babe Ruth’s 1920 New York Yan­kees road jer­sey, which sold for Us$4.4mil­lion in 2012. [It is] now worth well over US$10 mil­lion.” In 2013, Wong met Dave Grob, a renowned au­then­ti­ca­tor of game uni­forms, and over lunch it dawned on the duo that the last book on this seg­ment of col­lect­ing was pub­lished in 1991. The duo de­cided to change that, and thus Game Worn: Base­ball Trea­sures from the Game’s Great­est He­roes and Mo­ments was born three years later. The 320-page tome seeks to em­pha­sise both the “emo­tion and sci­ence” be­hind col­lect­ing base­ball uni­forms.

“I quote Davinci in the book’s in­tro­duc­tion: ‘to de­velop a com­plete mind study the sci­ence of art, study the art of sci­ence, learn how to see and re­alise ev­ery­thing con­nects to ev­ery­thing else,’” says Wong. The au­thors hope the book will help read­ers con­nect the dots and gain a new level of ap­pre­ci­a­tion of his­tor­i­cally sig­nif­i­cant uni­forms.

Wong re­mains coy when asked about the over­all value of his col­lec­tion. “It’s not about the quan­tity, it’s about the qual­ity,” he says sim­ply. The col­lec­tor only re­veals that his as­sets are “prob­a­bly the top two or three col­lec­tions in the world.”

His most adored piece is Lou Gehrig’s Yan­kees jer­sey, worn in the 1937, 1938 and 1939 sea­sons. The ballplayer’s story is well known: one of the great­est Yan­kees play­ers of all time, he be­came di­ag­nosed dur­ing his prime with amy­otrophic lat­eral scle­ro­sis (ALS), now known as Lou Gehrig’s dis­ease.

Gehrig’s grace dur­ing his bat­tle with the ill­ness shaped his legacy be­yond the field, as noted from his farewell speech in 1939. “For the past two weeks you have been read­ing about the bad break I got,” the ath­lete told the crowd. “Yet to­day I con­sider my­self the luck­i­est man on the face of the earth.”

The jer­sey cap­tures this mo­ment as Gehrig wore it dur­ing his last great sea­son in 1937 and also dur­ing his de­cline. “That is the essence of [Lou] Gehrig,” says Wong. The player was noth­ing like lime­lighto­b­sessed Babe Ruth. “He let his bat do the talk­ing. I re­spect that.”


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