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A flood of memories

The L.A. Sports Museum, which opens to public on Nov. 28, is treasure trove of sports memorabilia that some say is the best place of its kind in the world

November 18, 2008|Greg Johnson | Greg Johnson is a Times staff writer.

A delivery driver drops a stack of packages in the lobby of the Los Angeles Sports Museum. What's in them?

"I don't know," said Gary Cypres, founder and curator of the downtown museum that will open to the public on Nov. 28. "Let's find out." And, with boyish delight, he tears open the top package.

It is a baseball for the 65-year-old businessman's already substantial Joe DiMaggio collection. No, it isn't the ball that extended DiMaggio's hitting streak to the record 56 games (Cypres owns that one too, though). It is the ball that would have taken the streak to 57 -- had Cleveland Indians infielder Ken Keltner not snared it.

"Anyone could think of acquiring No. 56," said Cypres, who purchased the ball at auction. "What intrigues me is what happened next."

He also has what would have been No. 58, the start of a 12-game DiMaggio hitting streak.

The Brooklyn-born Cypres has similar back stories for just about every item in his 10,000-piece collection, acquired over more than 20 years. The museum has had visitors over the last few years -- but by invitation only. And they say they continue to be stunned by the contents of this place.

"I don't know of any other collection in the world that has the depth and variety of what Gary has," said David Kohler, president of SCP Auctions, which recently auctioned off (to another collector) a T206 Honus Wagner baseball card for $2.8 million.

"He's got football, basketball and baseball, but he's also got bowling pins, early 18th-century tennis rackets and that game room with all those arcade and board games."

As David Hunt, owner of an Exton, Pa.-based sports memorabilia auction house, put it: "A lot of people talk about opening this kind of museum, but nobody ever does it."

The museum's sweet spot is an extensive Dodgers collection that fills a room in the nondescript building not far from Staples Center.

Visitors can gawk at a champagne bottle, glass and handful of infield dirt that select guests were given on the day Ebbets Field opened for big league play. There is an original Ebbets Field turnstile, musical instruments from the Brooklyn Dodgers' fabled marching band, a few grandstand seats and even the logo of the demolition company that knocked the old ballpark down.

Former Dodgers owner Peter O'Malley has described the collection as "the best that I know of."

Cypres, who moved to Los Angeles decades ago and made his fortune in the finance, mortgage and travel agency businesses, estimates the value of his collection and the converted office building that houses it at $30 million.

He has spent more than $1 million bringing the building up to city code, a process that last week caused Cypres anxious moments when a crew upgrading the fire sprinklers accidentally flooded a gallery that houses his baseball cards.

That includes his most valuable holding: a postage-sized T206 Honus Wagner card (like the one that sold for $2.8 million) that Cypres refers to as "my little man."

Fortunately, only a handful of lesser cards were damaged.

"Gary has assembled the most stunning visual history of sports that I know of," said David Carter, director of the USC Sports Business Institute. "And it's not just sports. It's the business of sports, the evolution of sports as entertainment. He helps you to see sports through a different lens."

Cypres began collecting with a focus on French tennis rackets. His eclectic tastes led him to add football, basketball, baseball, golf, rowing, bowling, and cycling. After the collection overflowed his house, Cypres sold one of his businesses and began shaping the Los Angeles Sports Museum in this building, which he owns.

In addition to the Dodgers, the 30,000 square-foot museum has galleries dedicated to the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox -- as well as a dazzling display of baseball gloves, bats, uniforms and face masks that date to the late 1800s.

The basketball collection? How about everything from original baskets (with bottoms and a ladder alongside to make it easier to retrieve the ball) to jerseys worn by everyone from George Mikan to Yao Ming.

The gridiron section features jerseys autographed by Hall of Famers. There also are early examples of footballs that show the sport's evolution from soccer and rugby to today's modern game. The collection of antique helmets and nose guards shows the dramatic evolution of protective gear.

A rowing shell is suspended from the ceiling in one gallery. Classic unicycles and bicycles are bolted to the walls. Precursors of modern tennis rackets are displayed alongside cast-iron putters and huge wooden drivers. His game room boasts sports-themed arcade and board games dating from the late 1800s.

There is an antique lawn mower designed by tennis player Rene Lacoste and enough glittery championship bling (think Heisman, World Series and Super Bowl trophies) to make sunglasses optional.

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