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CHRIS ERSKINE / FAN OF THE HOUSE

Sports Museum of Los Angeles a treasure chest of memorabilia

Part of Gary Cypres' sweeping archive is on display at Staples Center. An admirer calls the collection 'the Louvre of the sports world.'

December 28, 2011|Chris Erskine
  • A pair of late 19th century football helmets are just one of the many displays at The Sports Museum of Los Angeles.
A pair of late 19th century football helmets are just one of the many displays… (The Sports Museum of Los…)

Museum: a word that produces its own dust. The institutions are not without importance, of course, but who are we kidding? Many museums can also be interminable — like Ashton Kutcher movies, or Patti LaBelle renditions of the national anthem.

Oddly, one of L.A.'s most fetching museums is a dirty little secret, in an industrial area east of the Coliseum, the kind of place God hides the things he flubbed. The Sports Museum of Los Angeles opened in 2008, closed in 2009 and now is open only for special tours or charity events.

It is the passion project of one Gary Cypres, a snowy-haired Willy Wonka of sports memorabilia, who has this giant treasure chest of sports gear — purportedly the world's finest private stash — in 32,000 square feet of exhibit space.

I know, like hectares or furlongs, square footage is often hard to get your brain around. But 32,000 square feet is the equivalent of 10 big houses.

So, room after room you go. Over here, Victorian-era bicycles; over there, a ball Joe DiMaggio clubbed on his way to setting one of the greatest records in all sports.

There's an actual Heisman Trophy (Bruce Smith, 1941). And an antique baseball glove — fingerless, like something chauffeurs use. Over there, the jacket Lou Gehrig wore on the last day of his consecutive-games streak, and the jersey Babe Ruth put on to coach the Brooklyn Dodgers (forgot about that, didn't you?).

The overall effect of this enterprise is to give you the scope and range of American sports, it's high and low points, the societal pressures that shaped it — from slavery to prohibition to TV.

Glitzy? No. There are no interactive exhibits or even a film clip.

But for serious fans, this is a sweeping, sprawling time machine. Like strolling into a Ken Burns documentary.

Fans with tickets to Staples Center events can see a portion of Cypres' collection at the arena through the end of the basketball season. In spring, he will haul more of the gear over to Dodger Stadium, where it will also be on public display.

"I don't know how one person could accumulate that much stuff," says Los Angeles attorney Rob Owens, who visited the collection recently for a charity event. "I kept asking myself, 'Why isn't that item in a hall of fame?'

"I would describe it as the Louvre of the sports world."

The keeper of the Louvre, Cypres, a successful businessman who after more than two decades in Los Angeles still sounds as though he is ordering lunch back in his native Bronx.

Before he collected sports memorabilia, Cypres collected businesses — retail, travel, mortgage lending. His pockets deep, he turned his passion for sports into this collection. Estimates of its value range to $30 million, but he won't even speculate, saying it's only worth what it eventually sells for.

Unlike most, he doesn't restrict his collection to one sport. There are 30 exhibits covering almost every significant athletic endeavor. The bicycles alone are works of art, with the graceful lines of vintage cars.

"Very sculptural," Cypres notes.

There are personal notes from Frank Sinatra to DiMaggio, and photos of Joltin' Joe with Marilyn Monroe honeymooning in Korea (forgot about that too, didn't you?). And one of Cypres' favorites, the first ball thrown out at Ebbets Field.

He says there are probably 50 to 100 serious collectors like him around the country, who acquire most of their merchandise through auction houses and private dealers. When his collection outgrew his house, he looked for other venues.

The result is this warehouse, purportedly the largest private collection of sports memorabilia in the world — 10,000 items on simple yet effective displays that he and two assistants built by hand.

In the basement vault, the Holy Grail, a T206 Honus Wagner card. Using houses as a unit of measure, it may be worth a mansion.

Hard for me to imagine why this place didn't make it, other than the lousy location. Cypres says that after putting so much money into the gear he was reluctant to spend more on pricey real estate. After all, he had a marriage to think about.

So he housed it here, in an old furniture warehouse he already owned, which probably doomed the venture from the outset. It attracted a fraction of the customers he'd hoped. Today, if housed over near L.A. Live, the collection would probably make a decent go of it, I suspect.

But money is not the point for Cypres. It's the collecting he loves, his personal homage to the sports he adores, to the craftsmanship he sees in the stitching of old jerseys, to the artwork that graces the old sports movie posters.

He's smitten, as many of us are, with the lore, the innocence of the early days, the "Field of Dreams" vibe that an old flannel uniform produces. In his snappy Bronx delivery, he gazes at some ancient cigar boxes and says he can get as much enjoyment out of a $10 item as something more substantial.

"Aren't these great?" he says of the old tobacco illustrations. "Really gorgeous."

chris.erskine@latimes.com

twitter.com/erskinetimes

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