A WHOLE NEW BALL GAME
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.
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
“THERE’S A COLLECTING DNA – YOU EITHER HAVE IT OR YOU DON’T” – Stephen Wong
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.”
“THAT IS THE ESSENCE OF [LOU] GEHRIG. THE PLAYER WAS NOTHING LIKE LIMELIGHT-OBSESSED BABE RUTH. HE LET HIS BAT DO THE TALKING. I RESPECT THAT” – Stephen Wong