By TERRELL LESTER
Editor at Large
ACE COLLECTOR: Baseball memorabilia collector Robert Taylor, right, with restaurateur Abdul Alhlou at the Silver Flame in Tulsa, where Taylor gave a luncheon presentation of his massive collection to members and guests of the Tulsa Sports Charities.
KYLIE MCMAINS for GTR Newspapers
Welcome to the world of Robert Taylor, whose parallel universe is said to emanate from Cooperstown, N.Y.
Taylor’s world in Tulsa is populated by the likes of Mickey Mantle and Joe DiMaggio, Ted Williams and Stan Musial.
There exists a duplicate world in Cooperstown, where the National Baseball Hall of Fame is populated with the same Mantles and DiMaggios, the same Williamses and Musials.
Taylor’s world might be smaller than its opposite number in Cooperstown. It might even be seen as an orbital satellite.
Yet Taylor’s world is no less impressive, no less luminescent.
Taylor moves comfortably between the two worlds. He has rubbed shoulders with the gods of baseball. Broken bread with the legends.
He is a 44-year-old Tulsan with enough anecdotes, experiences and handshakes to fill a house.
And that’s just exactly what he has done.
His home is a veritable baseball museum. An indoor field of dreams.
From balls and bats to autographs and photographs, from the priceless to the esoteric, Taylor has amassed a collection of baseball memorabilia that is out of this world.
He has, by his own estimate, some 700,000 to 800,000 baseball cards. Of those, he says, 25,000 or so are autographed.
There are more than 500 signed baseballs, more than 300 signed bats in his care. Encased. Displayed. Treasured.
He has at least one, often many more, of every Mickey Mantle card issued by TOPPS, from the highly coveted rookie card of 1951 through the farewell season of 1968.
“I’ve got so much stuff, I don’t have space to put everything,” he says.
The four walls of one room in his home – his wife, Tracey, calls it “his man cave” – are encrusted from floor to ceiling with baseballs, bats and photographs.
That is but one room. Another room down the hall is “man cave number two in the making.” Baseball also has found its way into all the other rooms of their home.
“It’s just kind of overflowed,” Taylor says.
It is a collection – nothing in it is for sale, he says – that began innocently and thriftily, then took a turn for the obsessive.
Through a neighborhood pal in Pryor, Frank Powell, Taylor made the discovery that would change his life.
Powell gave Taylor a handful of cards that would be classified as “extras,” cards that Powell had in duplicate.
“I was 10 years old and the world just opened up for me,” Taylor said.
Within a short time, Taylor was quizzing a relative by marriage, Cliff Mapes, about more cards, about autographs, about baseball in general.
Taylor had a thousand questions. Or more. Mapes had all the answers.
Mapes, a resident of Pryor, played five seasons in the major leagues, including three and a half seasons with the New York Yankees in the outfield.
It was Mapes who fanned the flames that were beginning to burn within young Taylor.
Taylor called him “Uncle.” He was more a mentor. Even a conduit.
Through Mapes, Taylor was introduced to Yankees of the past, Yankees of the day.
Together, they visited New York. They attended card shows together on the West Coast. They attended games together in the Midwest.
Mapes opened the portal to a passion.
And Taylor blissfully scampered across the threshold.
Nearly 15 years after Mapes’ death, Taylor pays regular homage to his “Uncle” by pursuing all things related to him.
Recently, Taylor found on the eBay Internet marketplace a long-sought photo of Mapes and celebrated Browns teammate-for-a-day, the diminutive Eddie Gaedel.
In 1951, Browns owner Bill Veeck inserted the 3-foot-7 Gaedel into the lineup to bat. It was his only appearance in the big leagues.
A photo was taken that day of the 6-foot-3 Mapes holding Gaedel on his lap in the Browns dugout.
“I was happy that I found it, but I was sad that I never found it for Cliff,” Taylor says.
Few things, precious few things, have escaped the keen eye and collector’s clutch of Taylor.
His knowledge of baseball memorabilia – its worth, its significance, its collectability – has grown at the same pace as his collection. And that has doubled, he says, since 1996.
A few years ago, he purchased an ordinary home plate for $16 or $17.
Today, that home plate is at the hub of Taylor’s collection.
It has been signed by 87 baseball Hall of Famers. And only Hall of Famers have signed it.
“Priceless” is a word that comes to mind when viewing this one-of-a-kind artifact inside a wood-and-glass display case.
“I probably get more compliments on it than anything I’ve got,” Taylor said.
As Taylor sits back and surveys the array of stars in his personal baseball universe, he is taken back to those early days, those days when baseball cards came in packs of bubblegum.
Now he purchases baseball cards in boxes. He pointed to a complete set of 1980 major league cards. Of the 726 cards in the set, Taylor says he has had 722 autographed.
Such complete sets of each year’s cards are safely stored in Taylor’s home.
Some items are secured in bank safety deposit boxes.
Other items are placed in safes. Just about every photo has a negative backup.
Every collectible, Taylor says, is cataloged. He keeps books with detailed notations of each acquisition. He tracks where and when an item was acquired, how it was obtained, if it was purchased or gifted.
He records dates and times of meetings and encounters with the greats and near-greats. From Satchel Paige and Willie Mays to Richie Ashburn and Hank Bauer.
Taylor can track just about anything in his collection within minutes, his wife says.
That includes the run-of-the-mill items, the autographed books, the uniform jerseys, the gloves and caps, and the not-so-ordinary, the seat from Philadelphia’s Veteran’s Stadium, the plastic bag of grass gathered from the yard of Mantle’s home, the toothpick from the mouth of former big-league infielder U.L. (Toothpick) Washington.
“Thank goodness, I’m not a collector,” Tracey Taylor says with a wide smile and an understanding nod of her head.
Taylor’s passion for collecting and gathering knows no down time.
Day and night. Internet and telephone. Overnight trips and card shows.
“It’s become an obsession,” he says.
“It’s a hobby. A way of life.”
The collection would seem to have a life of its own, but Taylor has no definite plans for its future.
The Taylors have no children. But a nephew, Jarvis, has shown interest in the game of baseball, the art of collecting, Robert Taylor says.
Then he hit upon an idea that brought a smile to his face.
“I’ll get about four cemetery plots and have everything buried with me,” he says.
His smile turned to laughter.
There is much about his collection that evokes smiles of satisfaction from Taylor.
He is as much historian as he is collector. He has an anecdote for every collectible.
“I’m still a kid when it comes to getting an autograph from a ball player.
“I get excited.”
Taylor, employed by a call center in Tulsa, has been a resource for civic groups looking to connect with the baseball world for dinner speakers. He can talk at length about a hobby that has defined his life.
“Collecting is a never-ending chase,” he says.
“No matter what you have, you want more.”