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Card Sharp : Ron Futrell Isn't Satisfied Just Collecting Sports Memorabilia--Sometimes the Savvy Buyer Feels the Need to Compete for It


DIAMOND BAR — Suppose your kid wears his nice clean jersey for a muddy game of football, or that what he tosses in the hamper bears every scent of an intense, sweaty basketball tournament. What can you do with such wash-day horrors?

Well, you can sell them to Ron Futrell, as long as your kids have such names as Magic Johnson or Joe Montana.

Last week, Futrell placed the top bid, $10,500 plus tax, at a Costa Mesa charity fund-raiser to become the owner of a jersey worn by Johnson in the 1992 Olympics. It has joined nearly 20 other used jerseys Futrell owns, including some once worn by Montana, Michael Jordan, Wayne Gretzky, Don Mattingly, Dwight Gooden and Bo Jackson.

The jerseys are just the tip of the iceberg that is Futrell's collection of sports memorabilia. He has scores of baseballs autographed by Hall-of-Famers, a Gretzky hockey stick, a helmet from the short-lived L.A. Cobras indoor football team, posters and sports art, and a baseball card collection he guesses stacks up to more than 1 million cards, including a 1952 Topps Mickey Mantle rookie card for which Futrell paid a marriage-rocking $15,000.

Futrell keeps his collection stored in a secure location, but he visits it often. Some of it can only be enjoyed in the most abstract of fashions, though, since he estimates hundreds of thousands of his cards are still sealed in their original corrugated cardboard shipping cartons.

It would make an interesting study in survival if he were ever stuck there after an earthquake: One might live for quite a while off the thousands of stored baseball card packs that still have their original bubble gum, supplemented by his shelf of unopened vintage sports-cover Wheaties boxes.

Futrell, who owns a successful nuts and bolts distribution business headquartered in Santa Fe Springs, can sound a bit blase about his collection at times, dwelling, rather, on how high prices and speculation have leeched the fun out of the hobby. There are moments, though, when all that slips away and he seems like a 10-year-old again.

"When you opened up a pack when you were a kid, do you remember the smell of the gum? On hot summer days when you'd go to the drugstore and pay 5 cents for a pack and race somewhere to go see what you got? I loved that," he rhapsodized.

That thrill doesn't come very often for him lately. He has nearly every kind of baseball card made since 1951, and quite a few older than that, including a '40s Babe Ruth, a '20s Ty Cobb and cards the size of two postage stamps that were the earliest trading cards, given away with cigarette packs near the turn of the century. Over the years many of these cards wound up stuck in bicycle spokes or in the trash. Futrell's live in a safe. He rates his collection as being "well above average but far from one of the best."

"I got started on all this because I was one of the few people whose mother didn't throw away his baseball cards," he said. "I only wanted Dodger cards then. Mantle and Willie Mays and all the other ones I didn't care about. I only wanted Gil Hodges, Sandy Koufax and Don Drysdale. Who cared about the Yankees?

"After the early '60s I found out about girls and cars and stuff like that, so my money went elsewhere. Then in 1980 I came across them in a box and I couldn't believe what good shape they were in. I found out how much they were worth and remembered all the fun I'd had collecting them as a kid and got back into the hobby."

Growing up in Whittier, he was an all-star player in school sports. He has carried a competitive edge into his adult life. He started his company, Industrial Threaded Products, from scratch 14 years ago.

He explained: "I started as a kid in a warehouse as a summer job. I got fired twice for insubordination. I couldn't work for anybody, so I started my own company. We sell nuts and bolts. That's all. Whenever I tell people what I do, they think it's a joke, but we've been able to afford our house and all this through it, so it's been pretty good for us."

His competitiveness also kicks in when he's at an auction, like the one where he got the Johnson jersey (his second, actually; he also has one of Johnson's 1988 Lakers road jerseys). The event was held March 16 at Planet Hollywood to benefit the Magic Johnson Foundation's program of AIDS education, prevention and care. Much of the money from Futrell's sports auction purchases has gone to charities.

"I'm all for that, but that's not my main purpose," he said. "I like competing for these things. I went to bid on this. You do wind up spending more money at these celebrity auctions. People don't seem to be so concerned about the value of the things. I normally wouldn't think this jersey was worth $10,500. I thought it might possibly go as high as $8,000. So yeah, you do get sucked into it. But to get your picture taken with Magic and have a video taken of it and all that, it's a once-in-a-lifetime thing."

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