Al Crisafulli says he’s come across some pleasant surprises in the six years since he founded Love of the Game Auctions, which specializes in sports memorabilia for collectors.
Case in point: An elderly woman from South Jersey was in possession of a baseball bat she had strategically placed near the front door of her home as a defense against burglars. The bat stood in the same spot for nearly 40 years, according to Crisafulli.
“Finally somebody said ‘hey that might be worth some money’ and they started to explore this,” Crisafulli said.
Turns out, the bat was used by none other than Hall of Famer and New York Yankees ironman Lou Gehrig. The cherry on top was that Crisafulli’s company was able to track down a photo of Gehrig holding that very bat.
The bat ended up selling for $440,000, according to Crisafulli. Without the photo, it still could be authenticated, he said, but would only have gone for up to $50,000 in auction.
“That was life-changing” for the woman and her family, he said.
Ten years ago, NJBIZ chose Crisafulli as a 40 Under 40 honoree for his role as co-owner of Novocent Partners, an advertising company that caters to small businesses.
Crisafulli, who spent the majority of his life as a New Jersey resident, graduated from Don Bosco Preparatory High School in Ramsey in 1987, and grew up in neighboring Mahwah. In 1991, he graduated from the University of Hartford in Connecticut.
For the better part of a decade before Novocent, Crisafulli worked as director of marketing at Suburban Propane in Whippany.
Crisafulli said his work at Novocent “was pretty straightforward,” but in May 2012, he had had enough. He said he had been butting heads with the other management at the company, and determined the best move was to exit the company.
“I started Love of the Game Auctions immediately after I left,” Crisafulli said. “It was July that I actually launched Love of the Game.”
Between July and October, Crisafulli spent time gathering consignments and signing up new bidders, laying the groundwork for making the business run like clockwork.
He acknowledged his career move was akin to throwing a dart in the dark.
“I went completely by the seat of my pants,” Crisafulli said. “I had not one dollar, I had not one customer, I had not one lead. Nothing. I just decided to roll the dice and do it.”
But within a matter of months things began to fall into place, he said. While working at Novocent, Crisafulli said he found that many of his clients were into sports, more specifically sports memorabilia and collecting those bits of history. That, he said, played a huge role in his success.
“There were a whole bunch of different times that I decided ‘gee if this was my company, I would do this’,” Crisafulli said.
And perhaps Love of the Game was his calling; Crisafulli himself had been into sports and collecting memorabilia virtually his entire life.
“I was a huge Yankee fan and I started collecting baseball cards when I was a little kid,” Crisafulli said. “They’re fascinating to me. They’re historical documents.”
So by the time Crisafulli left Novocent, he was a known quantity in the world of sports memorabilia. And at his first auction later in 2012, Love of the Game had 200 customers eyeing 400 “lots,” objects or groups of objects up for bid.
Today, he’s in the ballpark of 3,000 registered customers and 14,000 lots sold to date, he said.
Auctioning goes on for three weeks, during which patrons can peruse and window-shop different lots that are up for grabs.
“During that time I am marketing materials at the auction, I’m reaching out to the consigner, I’m doing interviews with the media, advertising, mail direct marketing, to try and generate activity on all of the things in the auction,” Crisafulli said.
Closing day is Saturday, which is when the actual “bidding wars” happen. They generally drag on until Sunday morning.
The entire operation entails four in-house staffers, Crisafulli said, including himself. They handle research, writing, photography, inventory management, consignment, marketing and graphic design for the auction catalogs.
“When you have several thousand pieces that are selling, you need to be able to store them and keep track of them,” Crisafulli said. And the items are stored in a secure location for safekeeping.
Love of the Game Auctions contracts out to other companies for website and IT management to make sure the site can handle the enormous flow of traffic during the auction.
The business also outsources the financial component to make sure Love of the Game smoothly processes the money paid for auction items.
One aspect Crisafulli always handles himself is previewing potential items for auction and traveling across the country to gather them.
“I spend a month and a half every year driving across the country, in every state. I’m meeting people, I’m experiencing the country,” he said.
In fact, when NJBIZ interviewed Crisafulli, he was driving through rural farmland of Wisconsin with a final destination of the West Coast.
“On a 5,000 mile trip … I might be meeting with 15 or 20 people and coming back with half a million dollars of stuff,” Crisafulli said.
Renting a truck and loading it with memorabilia as he meets different collectors is much more cost-effective than taking multiple airplane rides across the continental U.S. and paying the shipping fees for individual items, according to Crisafulli.
In his travels, he has learned the most popular sport for memorabilia collection is baseball, particularly items during the period between 1900 and the 1930s. The oldest sports memorabilia date back to the 1860s, so that carves out a sizable chunk of 19th century artifacts collectors are looking to buy.
But memorabilia from organized baseball during the first three decades in the 20th century make up the majority of his business, an estimated 75 percent. College football rates a distant second.
“There will be some people collecting old materials related to their school, a big contingent of Ohio State and Notre Dame [and] Michigan collectors,” Crisafulli said.
“There are players that have an enormous following, like Jim Thorpe,” he added. “Before pro football was a thing, college football was all there was. And so people followed the college football players and coaches. They were like superheroes, so there’s still people who collect that stuff.”