It’s March 9, 1971. A senior at Jamaica High School in Queens, New York, skips school for the first and only time. He’s in Manhattan, waiting outside The New YorkerHotel. Waiting for someone he considers an idol. Someone who took left hook after left hook the night before as 300 million people watched.
That someone is Muhammad Ali. The fighter emerges from the hotel with a swollen face but with his charisma intact. He had just lost the “Fight of the Century” against rival and fellow heavyweight Joe Frazier. The high school kid approaches Ali, greets him, and gets his autograph. The teenager is ecstatic about the autograph and the experience. But he is unaware that he will not only befriend Ali and other famous athletes, but also go on to have what many would deem a dream career and life.
Les Wolff is no longer a teenager. He’s 66 years old, a world-renowned sports memorabilia collector, buyer, seller, appraiser, trader, auctioneer, and lecturer. He even provides celebrities for charities and events. A member of the International Society of Appraisers (ISA), he performs all these roles under the umbrella of the business he created, Les Wolff Sports, LLC.
Wolff was the first to conduct a live sports auction via phone and fax. Over the years he developed close relationships with Ali, Frazier (whose business/personal manager, coincidentally, was also named Les Wolff), Mickey Mantle, Joe Namath, Hank Aaron, Wayne Gretzky, Jack Dempsey, Joe Louis, Joe DiMaggio, and Thurman Munson, among others. He’s met countless other star athletes as well, including Michael Jordan, Larry Bird, and Derek Jeter. As a result of his career, the sports memorabilia expert has traveled the country—there’s only one professional baseball park he hasn’t visited with his family: Kauffman Stadium in Kansas City, Missouri.
Sports captured Wolff’s heart long before any of his professional success. At age six he began watching New York Yankees games on WPIX in his family’s Forest Hills apartment in Queens. Like so many of his generation, he was transfixed by Mickey Mantle’s talent. After the family moved to the Pomonok projects within the borough, he attended a basketball clinic at the local park. It was hosted and taught by two New York Knicks players: Emmette Bryant and Willis Reed. Following the clinic, Wolff set about seriously watching the Knicks. He fell in love with forward Dave DeBusschere’s smooth jump shot and gritty style of play. The young fan additionally admired DeBusschere’s two-sport versatility—DeBusschere had pitched for the Chicago White Sox before his hoops career took off. Wolff also distinctly remembers, a few years later, knocking on the door of Knicks’ star Walt “Clyde” Frazier’s room at the New Yorker Hotel (security wasn’t as tight in those days). Clyde opened the door as Sly and the Family Stone music blasted from inside. The flamboyant Knicks guard kindly gave the teen a signature. Those 1960s-70s Knicks inspired his love of basketball, a sport he still plays in his free time.
Early in his childhood, Wolff started collecting copies of the Daily News, coins, stamps, and baseball cards. Seeking sports autographs never seemed a worthy endeavor.
That changed, though, the summer of 1968, when he went to the New York Jets’ training camp at Hofstra University—just months before the team would upset the Baltimore Colts in Super Bowl III. A New York Giants fan, Wolff went to the Jets camp because it was closer to home. He got autographs from running back Billy Joe and quarterback Joe Namath—who would guarantee the championship victory. Meeting pro athletes was thrilling.
It was now official. Wolff’s quest became acquiring the signatures of every major professional athlete.
A lofty goal. But Wolff was determined. His greatest advantage may have been his knowledge of New York City’s geography and transportation system. Savvy about taking the trains, he had a knack for tracking down the biggest names in sports. A skilled autograph collector, he started two collections: a personal one and one exclusively of duplicates. Wolff would sell the duplicates; he says he had to become a “dealer” to afford his “addiction.” The profits were used for the train rides, bills, and college tuition (he loves saying that Mantle and Ali paid for his education).
The avid autograph seeker graduated from LaGuardia Community College in 1973 and then Queens College in 1976. Majoring in health/physical education at Queens, Wolff was a self-described gym rat and captain/coach of the intramural softball and basketball teams. Interesting tidbit: he graduated in the same class as Jerry Seinfeld. Years later, with the ’76 yearbook in hand, Wolff caught Seinfeld outside ABC studios right before the comedian was to appear on Live! With Regis and Kathie Lee. He got Seinfeld to sign the yearbook, which is still proudly in Wolff’s personal collection. The famous QC alum asked if they had ever met on campus. Wolff responded, “Not unless you were a gym rat.” Seinfeld, a communications and theater major, had not been a frequent visitor to the college gym.
As an independent young adult and self-declared maverick, Wolff was making some money, meeting his heroes, and living his passion. Some parents may have pressured or steered him to take a more conventional career route. His parents, however, were hands-off, although they did sometimes joke about his hobby.
“My dad used to say that these athletes ‘put on their pants one leg at a time, just like you,’ so he found it silly that I was chasing these guys down for autographs,” Wolff recalls.
You would be mistaken if you think he was only hunting megastars and profits. Some of his best memories include taking down-to-earth players such as Dusty Baker, Ralph Garr, Bruce Bochy, and Ron Hunt by train from their Manhattan hotels to Shea Stadium.
“They wanted to go to the stadium early,” Wolff remembers. “They trusted me to show them the way because I was a nice kid they had seen outside the hotel a lot. We talked a lot of baseball on the train.
“What’s funny is that Hunt was scared of taking the train. He was a country boy who wasn’t used to the packed NYC subway. It was ironic because he’s in the record books for getting hit with a lot of pitches, so I guess he wasn’t afraid of a fastball.”
Baker and Bochy would go on to have great managerial careers (Wolff believes both deserve to be in the Hall of Fame). Bochy retired after the 2019 season and Baker now manages the Houston Astros. In fact, after all these years, Baker and Wolff still text each other every now and then.
Developing such genuine relationships with athletes helped Wolff grow his reputation and expand his collection. By the mid-1980s, he began to think big. He had noticed auction houses selling collections of toy soldiers and other items. Sports collectibles were only a minor part of these auctions. Wolff thought, “Why hasn’t someone done a sports-only version of this?” He suggested a sports memorabilia catalog and auction to Phillips, a Manhattan auction house. The idea was approved. In 1986, Wolff ran the first-ever live sports auction that used telephone and fax. It was historic. He met a wide variety of people and solidified his name in the industry.
Afterward, Christie’s auction house offered him a dream position: Head of the Sports Department. Wolff, however, passed on the job.
“It was a matter of dollars and cents,” he explains. He felt he had learned the business and could do better independently.
He was right.
In 1987 Wolff and a college friend founded Sports Auctions of New York, a revolutionary company at the time. Successful over its five-year existence, the business was disbanded when his friend left to pursue another path.
During those key years Wolff built a following particularly in boxing memorabilia, so much so that he was asked to be part of a Turner Network Television (TNT) special with, of course, Muhammad Ali. On Aug. 27, 1996, just weeks after Ali had famously lit the Olympic torch at the Atlanta Games, Wolff loaned the boxing legend some of his Ali-specific collectibles in front of TV cameras at the Essex House in Manhattan.
Twenty-five years after meeting Ali, Wolff was on television with “The Champ.”
Talk about a full-circle moment.
“Ali was always a nice person and a regular guy,” Wolff says. “He was such a personality, somebody who transcended boxing and life.”
Over the years, whenever he knew he would be meeting Ali, Wolff would try to find a piece of Sugar Ray Robinson memorabilia to take along. Robinson, the famous middleweight boxer considered one of the best fighters in history, was Ali’s idol.
When it comes to selling sports memorabilia, Wolff, like Ali, has had his share of knock-out highlights.
Perhaps the best came in 2009, when he sold Negro Leagues legend Josh Gibson’s 1941 Puerto Rican Semi-Pro League contract for an “enormous sum.” Wolff has come across a considerable amount of Negro Leagues-affiliated memorabilia in his career.
He even has an early-1940s University of California at Los Angeles yearbook signed in three places by Jackie Robinson. A four-sport star athlete at UCLA, Robinson would have a brief stint in the Negro Leagues before breaking Major League Baseball’s color barrier with the Brooklyn Dodgers.
Keeping with the theme of vintage baseball, Wolff has sold Lou Gehrig’s signed 1934 and 1935 contracts with the New York Yankees, along with several of his game-worn jerseys.
But the most interesting Gehrig relic he’s sold has little connection with baseball. It’s a settlement document the “Iron Horse” had signed.
Some background: On Aug. 18, 1940, Daily News sportswriter Jimmy Powers incorrectly blamed the slumping, fifth-place Yanks’ struggles on the “polio germ” they had supposedly contracted from Gehrig the season before (Powers had confused amyotrophic lateral sclerosis [ALS] with polio because of an unclear Mayo Clinic statement). Gehrig sued the newspaper for libel. The Daily News responded by publishing a retraction and apologizing to Gehrig and the Yankees. However, Gehrig maintained the suit, later settling out of court for $17,500.
In the 1990s Wolff obtained the settlement document and received confirmation from the attorney who had represented Gehrig that it was authentic and had been signed by the Hall of Famer. The signature was conspicuously messy—beset by ALS, Gehrig’s hands were trembling by that time. Wolff sold the document for $3,500 to the late Barry Halper, famous baseball memorabilia collector and limited partner of the Yankees. When Halper’s collection was sold by Sotheby’s Auction House in 1999, the document sold for $35,000. Wolff believes it is now “probably worth six figures.” Yes, the sports memorabilia business is fluid and unpredictable. And hindsight’s always 20/20.
With all this talk of the old Bombers, you’re probably thinking, Has Wolff sold anything affiliated with “The Babe?”
The answer is a resounding yes.
He has sold hundreds of Babe Ruth-autographed, mint-condition baseballs. One that stands out is a mint, team-signed ball from the 1927 “Murderer’s Row” season.
While Wolff has sold some incredible items, sometimes his clientele can make a transaction even more noteworthy. Actor Liam Neeson, a Northern Irish amateur boxing champion in his youth, once bought a “Fight of the Century” promotional poster from the sports collector. It’s clear Wolff has a particular set of skills he has acquired over a very long career (Neeson in Taken, anyone?).
Those skills attracted national attention in 2005. ESPN/Cox Communications invited him to be part of its “Memorabilia Road Tour” after collectibles expert Alan “Mr. Mint” Rosen turned down the role of lead appraiser and authenticator. Wolff gladly accepted the position, especially since ESPN would consider him for a possible memorabilia-based TV show. In March 2005, he traveled the country, visiting cities as far west as Las Vegas and San Diego. On one occasion at a San Diego museum, he was having so much fun that he stayed an extra four hours to appraise fans’ memorabilia. Wolff continues to have a national presence: he runs weekly ads in Sports Collectors Digest and nearly always has a setup at the annual National Sports Collectors Convention.
While Wolff enjoys his work, don’t be fooled—his job is not easy. To appraise an item he must find comparables: similar pieces on the market that can be used to determine an item’s value. Locating comparables can be difficult. Sometimes it’s impossible. In one instance, someone offered to sell Wolff a small cross the pope had gifted him at the Vatican. The item was so unique that Wolff couldn’t find an appropriate comparable to use in appraising it.
And he doesn’t always get what he wants, either. Wolff was once asked by a client to bid on a document from one of Frank Sinatra’s arrests (“Ol’ Blue Eyes” was arrested multiple times in his early 20s in New Jersey on seduction and adultery charges). The document had Sinatra’s signature and fingerprints and was a “true one of a kind.” The bidding reached $20,000. Unfortunately, Wolff didn’t have the money readily available. Timing can be everything in the collecting world.
Obviously, Wolff’s happy if he can sell valuable memorabilia and build a client’s investment portfolio. But memories are just as important to him.
Two of his favorite items in his collection are not considered “valuable,” but do hold personal meaning. One is a photo of him and Jaclyn Smith (one of Charlie’s Angels) when he met her at a Kohl’s department store. The other is a Daily News photo of Ali at The New Yorker Hotel, with a young Wolff over the boxer’s right shoulder—the day Wolff skipped high school. The teen wisely hid the photo from his parents until graduation.
As one can imagine, Wolff has seen strange items over his many years in the business.
However, one piece wins the title of “weirdest.”
One of his clients, an ardent boxing fan, had Joe Frazier’s fight-worn jockstrap from the “Fight of the Century” in a Ziploc bag under his bed. Since it was such a unique item, Wolff was able to sell it in 2016 for $10,500 through Goldin Auctions.
Peculiar, but profitable.
While Wolff has bought, sold, and appraised just about everything, the most intriguing part of his profession may be interacting with athletes. Not all sports stars are amiable when asked for autographs, as he knows firsthand. Yet some have been nothing but pleasant and respectful.
“Thurman Munson was a great guy, he would always sign for me,” Wolff recollects. “It [the Yankees catcher’s sudden death] was a tragedy. He really should be in the Hall of Fame [despite his shortened career].
“Wayne Gretzky was also a sweetheart, one of the nicest guys in sports.”
Wolff’s close connections allow him to provide star athletes, in various sports, for autograph sessions and events. Hearing about his great reputation, former Yankee Jim Leyritz’s then-wife once called and asked if he could find her husband a location for his first autograph signing. Wolff secured a store in Bayside, Queens, and is proud to have facilitated the session.
On the way to the signing, he asked Leyritz, “What’s the funniest thing somebody’s ever asked you when getting your autograph?”
Leyritz replied, “Somebody once said, ‘Can I buy a vowel?’” (Leyritz’s autograph was notoriously sloppy, often missing the “e” and the “i.”)
Wolff has also worked with the likes of NBA legend Elgin Baylor, former New York Giants punter Sean Landeta, boxing great Carlos Ortiz, and many others.
The world is a much different place than when Wolff began his “labor of love.” Why? The internet.
“The internet opened up the industry,” he says. “Now it’s really worldwide. Because of the internet, collecting will be here forever.”
Whether before or after the advent of the internet, scamming has been a concern for sports collectors. It is not uncommon to hear stories of someone believing they have a genuine, rare item, and then being told it’s actually a faux duplicate. The fear of getting “duped” can make the sports memorabilia hobby intimidating.
“All of us have been scammed at one point or another,” Wolff laments. “But luckily I haven’t been duped that much. It [scamming] has been going on forever. Back in the day, sometimes clubhouse employees would sign balls and not the [desired] players. Thankfully, companies like James Spence Authentication, Professional Sports Authenticator, and Beckett Authentication Services have cleaned up the business and ensured items are authentic.”
To make sure fans enter the hobby armed with knowledge, Wolff gives instructional talks about sports memorabilia as part of his “Collect, Invest, Protect, Preserve” lecture series. He has spoken at VFWs and libraries throughout Queens and Long Island, and was scheduled to appear at the 92nd Street Y last summer, although that event was canceled due to coronavirus concerns. At these lectures, fans can bring an item for Wolff to evaluate. He relishes meeting people, viewing their memorabilia, and listening to their stories.
Many, though, love listening to his recollections.
“His stories are second-to-none,” remarks James J. Spence Jr. of James Spence Authentication (JSA). “I really enjoy them. I’ve had dinner with him multiple times and he has plenty of great insights as well.
“I’ve known Les since the mid-80s. He is one of the pioneers of the industry and one of the most prominent dealers. He’s also gotten a lot of people into the industry.
“He’s used our service a lot and been a great cheerleader for JSA. We authenticate for him, and he very generously provides us with exemplars we use for authentication, such as boxing memorabilia from his great collection.
“He’s passionate, persistent, and always stays on top of things.”
Wolff and Spence Jr. are experts in a field one would think would be negatively impacted by COVID-19—conventions, events, and even sports itself were canceled.
However, the pandemic has surprisingly benefited the industry.
“The baseball card market has exploded,” Wolff insists. “Everything’s exploded. The quarantine and the lack of sports made people hungry for memorabilia. The Last Dance [ESPN’s documentary] made [Michael] Jordan’s stuff gold.” (Wolff has met Jordan twice—both times “His Airness” denied him a signature, albeit nicely.)
Spence Jr. agrees with this evaluation.
“It [the quarantine] has given people an opportunity to take things out of their closets,” Spence Jr. believes. “There have been enhanced sales on eBay and an increased volume of traffic on our website. Overall, [the quarantine] has created a lot of activity. We’ve been busier than ever.”
The sports world, along with mainstream media, was abuzz in late August when Major League Baseball star Mike Trout’s rookie baseball card sold for $3.93 million. It became the most valuable trading card ever, even besting the heralded T206 Honus Wagner card—one of which had been sold for $3.12 million in 2016. [Since this writing, a 1952 Mickey Mantle card has sold for $5.2 million, eclipsing the value of the Trout card.]
Wolff, though, doesn’t buy into the hype.
“Vintage is best,” he declares. “Trout could get hurt and his value could go down. That can’t happen with the T206 Wagner card—the holy grail of collecting.”
Overall, Wolff doesn’t think young star athletes quite understand the sports memorabilia business as much as the old-time players.
“The young guys, like the Bryce Harpers of the world, don’t get it,” he states regrettably. “Harper wouldn’t sign for my son and other kids and fans. Young players think everyone who gets their autograph will sell it for money. But that’s not true, many fans actually keep the autograph, preserve it, and cherish it as a memory.”
Wolff gets it. He knows it’s about the fans and the memories. Since in-person business and interaction have been limited, he’s turned to social media. He posts “Did You Know?”/ “This Date in History” sports trivia on his Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram accounts, accompanied by photos of related sports memorabilia for sale from his website. The idea came from his childhood, when he would read the “Did You Know?” segment in the Daily News. These posts can be nostalgic for older fans and teach younger fans sports history (Wolff believes today’s youth only cares about the present and is apathetic regarding the history of sports).
The sports memorabilia expert is still giving his lectures over video call and adding to his website. As of this writing, Wolff is selling a two-page, handwritten letter by John L. Sullivan (the first heavyweight champion of gloved boxing), a baseball signed by Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig, and an 8 x 10 inch photo of “The Babe” signed by Ruth in 1948—the year, as Wolff puts it, “he went up to play in heaven.” Those are just three of the countless rare and impressive items on the site.
So, what is Wolff’s secret? How has he succeeded for half a century in a saturated, capricious, and sometimes unforgiving field?
“I’m crazy,” Wolff confesses humorously. “I love this stuff. It doesn’t feel like work to me.”
Well, if you’ve made it this far in the article, you probably have sports memorabilia of your own. So why not dig through your closet and reunite with your collectibles? You might have a much sought-after trading card in a shoe box somewhere that is screaming to see the light of day. Even if you don’t, who wouldn’t welcome a trip down memory lane these days?
Author Brad Balukjian opened a 15-player pack of 1986 Topps baseball cards a few years ago. He decided to track down the retired players and attempt to spend a day with each of them. He documented his journey and conversations. The result? One of 2020’s bestselling books—The Wax Pack: On the Open Road in Search of Baseball’s Afterlife.
Even players have joined the collecting bonanza. Pat Neshek, Major League pitcher and current free agent, is by far the best example. He started collecting baseball cards in his youth and then autographs when he hit the pros. A 13-year veteran and two-time All-Star, his access to past and present players has been unmatched, allowing him to amass over 50,000 autographed baseball cards. Neshek, who owns the highest-rated 1970 Topps baseball set in the world, has been known to trade autographed cards with fans. Last summer, the right-handed reliever was spotlighted on Uncommon, eBay’s new video series dedicated to collecting.
You never know where your sports collectibles will lead you. In Les Wolff’s case, sports collectibles led him to a fulfilling lifelong hobby.
Sometimes his wife teasingly asks him to “get a job.” But he already has much more than a job. He has a dream career.
But as he has been known to say, Les is always more. He’s not slowing down. In fact, the opposite is true: he’s currently working on “big things.”
The Wolff is as hungry as ever.