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Wednesday, Feb 8, 2023
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Giving Up a Dream

John Hamilton’s eyes tear up and his voice trembles as he recalls the stories and friendships behind his private sports memorabilia collection, one of the largest and most impressive in the world.

The decision to sell most of his 10,000-plus items and close the Newport Sports Museum, a hidden gem nestled under the shadows of Newport Center’s high-rise office buildings, tore at him for months.

“It’s a very difficult decision, it’s a very emotional decision—but it’s the right thing to do,” said the 72-year-old Newport Beach resident and real estate developer. “I am not going to live forever.”

He opened the 8,000-square-foot museum in 1996 to share his expanding collection of game-worn jerseys, equipment, and related sports items and literature.

“I’ve always felt that there’s no point in having a Renoir in your basement if you don’t let the public see it,” he said.

The museum over the years brought in sports stars who are Hamilton’s close friends, including Brooks Robinson; Bobby Grich; Freddie Lynn; USC’s first Heisman winner and controversial former athletic director Mike Garrett; Marcus Allen; and Ronnie Lott, to talk with kids about taking the right path in life and staying out of trouble.

Local Lore

Hamilton’s collection, steeped in Southern California sports lore, covers every professional league and several crowning moments and achievements, including dozens of football signatures of nearly every Heisman winners, every USC football program, signatures of decades of Cy Young award winners, and golf clubs from six former presidents.

The first of four online auctions managed by Dana Point-based SCP Auctions Inc. kicked off last week. It includes 293 items from Hamilton’s collection and runs through May 17.

The jewels of the first lot:

n A 1965 Sandy Koufax-signed, game-worn home jersey, for which bidding had topped $40,000 as of press time.

n 1956 Stan Musial-signed St. Louis Cardinals road jersey, at $14,641.

n 1966 Don Drysdale Los Angeles Dodgers game-worn home jersey, at $12,100.

n 1990-91 Wayne Gretzky-signed Los Angeles Kings game-worn home jersey, at $12,100.

The entire collection could bring in more than $10 million by the time the last winning bidder is announced. Some items, such as a signed baseball from the 1957 World Series champion Milwaukee Braves are expected to fetch as little as $150. Babe Ruth’s last home run ball in an exhibition game with the Boston Beans could nab 10 times that amount.

A set of President Dwight Eisenhower’s engraved golf clubs, balls, covers and bag could easily top six figures.

“It’s very difficult to predict what the end total will be. It’s going to be significant,” said Dan Imler, vice president and managing director of SCP Auctions. “The collection itself is really one of the best private collections we’ve been involved with.”

SCP is one of the oldest sports auctioneers in the business, established in 1979 by David Kohler. The company has garnered record bids and private sales, including a 1920 Babe Ruth New York Yankees game-worn road jersey that brought in about $4.4 million; the T-206 Honus Wagner card, which sold for $2.8 million, and the bat Babe Ruth used to hit the first home run in the old Yankee Stadium, sold for $1.2 million.

Way Back

Hamilton’s collection dates to 1953 when his father gave him a football signed by every All-American featured in Look magazine’s annual edition. The ball was presented to Bob Hope, who told Hamilton’s father to give to little Johnny.

He was 12 at the time.

A few years later, his father took him to Fenway Park, and Johnny caught a foul ball off the bat of Ted Williams.

A lifelong hobby was born.

The thrill of the hunt would occupy the following six decades of Hamilton’s life away from real estate deals at Don Koll Co. and later his own firms, Hamilton Tarnutzer Construction, Hamilton Tarnutzer Development and currently Hamilton Co.

He’s lost plenty of bidding wars over the years, including a set of golf clubs owned by John F. Kennedy that sold for $772,500. The winning bidder: Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Hamilton wouldn’t share how much money he’s put into the collection, which he partially amassed through friendships and deep connections in the sports, business and political worlds. He was born into a family of influence and attended the University of Southern California, where he befriended many athletes who later became professional stars. He was friends with Jerry Buss and had all-access passes to games for years and was also chairman of the USC Sports Hall of Fame for two decades.

Friends

The sadness of departing with it and closing the recently shuttered museum is palpable, but Hamilton swells up with admiration when he talks about the friends who made his collection possible. Like former Kings center Marcel Elphège “Little Beaver” Dionne, who took Hamilton and a close friend on road trips to see every stadium in the National Hockey League over an eight-year period.

Or traveling to Brooks Robinson’s Hall of Fame induction ceremony in a limousine with Mickey Mantle, Harmon Killebrew, Warren Spawn and Mel Allen.

Or Mario Lemieux giving him a game-worn sweater right off his back in the locker room after a tilt against the Kings.

His museum, which was always free to attend, was something of an oddity situated among the priciest commercial real estate in Orange County.

You could drive by the place every day near the corner of Newport Center Drive and Santa Barbara Drive and never notice the beige two-story building in a small complex of offices.

Hamilton owns the building and has charged the nonprofit museum run by the Newport Sports Collection Foundation a nominal monthly fee to rent the space. He said maintaining operations became an economic burden over the years, particularly as his charity golf tournament that primarily funds the museum was canceled the past two years due to his health issues.

“I also got tired of asking my friends for money to help me out,” he said.

He also wanted to spend more time with his family, including 10 grandchildren.

Final Straw

The final straw came in January when he was in the hospital recovering from knee surgery. That same night, the museum was burglarized. It was a professional job, Hamilton said, in and out in 50 seconds as two masked men swiped as many items as possible in the smash-and-grab while another watched from the parking lot.

They took about half of the collection of signed baseballs from every World Series Champion from 1940 to 2013.

“There was no reason behind what they took or didn’t,” Hamilton said, sitting behind a desk at his second-floor office. “They missed Babe Ruth’s last home run ball.”

Above him hangs a cherished mural of the British Open signed by every recent winner of the coveted major.

It’s not for sale but is emblematic of Hamilton’s story today.

For decades, he chased down every recent winner of the tournament. In the past few years, he hoped it would be a repeat champion so he didn’t have to go through the annual effort, or at least an American, because they of course tend to be more accessible than foreign players.

He’d started to feel the same way about those Heisman footballs and the baseballs signed by World Series and Cy Young winners.

Hamilton felt a strange calm during the past month, watching baseball games and the opening round of playoff hockey.

It was a relief, an unintended consequence of giving up the chase.

“I didn’t have to suddenly go get something. A lot of it is the hunt, but after you’ve done it for 60 years, it’s a responsibility,” he said. “It’s time I did some other things. Nothing can be forever.”

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