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A Sporting Chance : John Hamilton's Game Plan for His Free-Admission Museum in Newport Beach Is to Share Major League Memorabilia and Introduce Kids to Role Models

June 06, 1995|JIM WASHBURN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

NEWPORT BEACH — As real estate developer John Hamilton leads someone through a couple of the rooms adjoining his Newport Center office, it's natural to wonder, "Jeez, has this guy been hit upside the head with a hockey puck?"

If it's rare and it's hockey, Hamilton seems to have it: There's a room-length glass enclosure packed with the battered sticks of Stanley Cup winners and other famous players; walls are hung with top players' jerseys--colorful but often battle-torn--including a fanciful grouping of shirts from Tiger Williams, Willie Plett and Dave Schultz, hockey's all-time top three bad boy earners of penalty minutes.

On its own in a display case is the goaltender's jersey worn by Jim Craig in the 1980 Olympics, when the U.S. hockey team unexpectedly whipped the Soviets. "Like the Kennedy assassination, but not in a sad way, everybody remembers where they were when that happened," Hamilton said. "I was sitting on the edge of a hotel bed in Reno and wept; it was such an emotional thing."

Hamilton is perhaps a bit bent on the sport--pre-Mighty Ducks, he drove to Los Angeles to catch nearly every Kings home game for 20 years--but then there are all these other rooms of his to contend with. Each is crammed with dizzyingly rare memorabilia from baseball, basketball, football, golf and other sweaty fields of endeavor, sufficient to convince you that he's nuts on those sports as well.

It's enough to fill a museum, and that's what Hamilton has done. Former office space at 620 Newport Center Drive is now the Newport Sports Collection Foundation. The museum is open Monday through Friday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.

Within a month, Hamilton hopes, it will be open Saturdays as well. (Call [714] 721-9333 for information.) Admission is free, with the cost being footed by Hamilton and 10 sponsoring corporations that have each donated $10,000. Many athletes have contributed memorabilia to the collection.

In creating the foundation, the Newport-born 53-year-old said, he's giving purpose to the hobby he's pursued since 1953, when a friend of his father's gave him a football signed by the top college players of the time. What he has amassed since then is, to Hamilton's knowledge, the largest such private collection.

"It doesn't seem fair if somebody has a Renoir and he keeps it in his basement. Why not let the public enjoy it?" Hamilton said. Previously, much of his collection was stacked in boxes in his Corona del Mar home, and his wife, for one, was glad to see it go into the museum.

"And from a selfish standpoint, I never tire of seeing it out on display like this, thinking this was the jersey Sandy Koufax wore the year he won the Cy Young and the Dodgers won the World Series, or thinking how I saw this uniform on TV when Jim Craig stopped that goal against the Russians," Hamilton said.

There also is a very unselfish reason for establishing the museum.

"Besides having this museum open to the public at no charge, we more importantly are instituting a program with athletes," he said. "I believe that athletes--more so than rock stars, movie stars and politicians--have a chance to influence kids and hopefully make better citizens out of them.

"And a phenomenal collection of athletes have signed on, saying they'd love to do it, to come here periodically and talk to kids.

"We're going to seek out two kinds of kids in the area. Those who are succeeding and doing well, we'll reward them with a day with the likes of [baseball Hall-of-Famer] Brooks Robinson or [Heisman Trophy winner, two-time Superbowl player] Mike Garrett.

"We also want to get kids who are kind of on the edge and talk to them, to tell them why they should join a team and not a gang, to tell kids the value of athletics and what it can do for you in life, teaching responsibility, reliability, team play, dedication.

"We want to tell them how it pays off in later life, not necessarily by winning the World Series or the Heisman Trophy, but by what it teaches your character."

Along with his own efforts and cash, the foundation exists with the generosity of several corporate sponsors. The sponsors are Rockwell International, Taco Bell, the Santa Margarita Group, PM Realty Group, the Orange County Register, Ralphs Grocery Co., the Whittier Trust Co., Mission Viejo Imports, Imperial Trust Co. and the Bosc Group Inc.

Hamilton says having sports in his life shaped his character, and it clearly took a special breed of determination just to amass the collection he has on display.

In baseball, for example, he has balls signed by every living Hall of Fame member and most of the deceased ones, balls signed by every Cy Young Award pitcher, and others signed by every winning World Series team since 1940.

He also has many balls that have seen action, including one Angel Mike Witt used when he pitched his perfect game, one Tom Seaver used when he threw his no-hitter, a ball from Don Sutton's 302nd win and Earl Weaver's game ball from his 1,000th career win.

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