My first impression of Duke, with his deep voice and rhythmic cadence, was that of instant admiration. He sounded like a friendly and knowledgeable man who would pull no punches and tell it like it is, yet Duke had an unintentional way of putting you at ease and making you feel like you were the most important person in his world at that moment. He was kind and gracious, yet brutally honest and I sensed that he was truly genuine in every word he spoke.
He did not wish to conduct a normal interview as he finds the typical battery of questions to be boring and uninteresting for the end reader. After more than an hour talking with him on the phone, not only did the tone and intent of my article completely change, but also I truly felt elated to have had such a fascinating conversation with a gentleman so down-to-earth in his demeanor. Duke is not just a collector or a former pro ball player, he is a man whose life wisdom has been gained from his years of experience and adventures and throughout which, he has never lost sight of his strong values and positive outlook. This article is not a chronicle of his collecting, but an evolution of his thoughts and philosophies on any subject that was broached during our most enjoyable conversation. To talk about Duke is to talk about his collection since it was created and grew out of his fun-loving nature and sense of adventure.
Duke has a wide array of celebrity athletes that he simply refers to as his friends- Brooks Robinson, Mike Tyson, and Johnny Unitas, just to name a few. Despite his well-known friends, Duke has never asked any of them for their things to add to his collection, rather, pieces have always found their way to Duke because, as friends, they simply wanted Duke to have them. Johnny Unitas once gave Duke an item that he thought Duke just had to have. Johnny proceeded to present Duke with his last jock strap, which had already been gold plated! Duke’s response was “I don’t want that!” Johnny convinced him that he had to include it in his collection with his uniform and shoes to make the ensemble complete. To ease Duke trepidation about accepting such a bizarre gift, Johnny penned a note to accompany the strange offering, which read, “I hope this holds you in good stead like it did me.” It was now officially part of the collection.
Collecting has never been an obsession for Duke; he does it because it is a source of enjoyment and fun. He began collecting sports memorabilia long before anyone was doing it. He collected things that he liked and that appealed to him. He was never in it for the investment, nor did he ever chase after a holy grail. It was truly a hobby in every sense of the word and he had a healthy approach to it. If he was excited by a collectible he bought, but the acquisition of which over extended him, he would simply sell something else to keep money in the bank. He never let his hobby gain control over other important aspects of his life. He would use shows as an excuse to take the family on vacation to a particular city and during the trip, the show would usually take a back seat to other highlights in that city, like the cable cars in San Francisco, a favorite of Dukes. In this way, Duke was able to share his hobby adventures with his family and his wife, Sandy, unlike many sports collectors significant others, took an active role by helping him tastefully display the collection around their home rather than relegating it to a back room or basement. Duke’s good-natured approach to his collecting turned it into something from which his entire family rendered enjoyment.
During our talk, Duke fondly recalled the days of collecting when deals were done on a handshake, things were traded more than they were bought or sold and it was more about the thrill of the hunt than anything else. He recanted a story that captured the spirit of collecting when it was more of a hobby to everyone than a business. He met Pat Quinn, a fellow collector, at a show and Pat had a Cardinals poster, to which Duke took a fancy. Duke asked the price and Pat responded that he liked it too much to sell it. Duke had nothing that Pat was interested in trading for either. Duke did not hassle him, but did not give up – he found the one thing that Pat had been searching for, but had yet to find -a 2nd NFL championship program. Duke did not have it at the time and it wasn’t until three years later, in a collection of programs that Duke acquired in a trade from a guy in Pennsylvania, that he found a copy! He remembered the poster and called Pat – the next words out of Pat’s mouth were, “the posters on the way.” Not only did Duke manage to make everyone happy in this trade, but also made a longtime friend in the process. To Duke, that was what it was all about.
Collecting has changed quite a bit over the years since the days of trading. It has grown exponentially in both number of collectors and money spent on these treasures. Collecting is more a passion than a hobby for most these days. However, Duke collected only things that he liked and was never envious of another’s collection, but appreciative because he understood the time and effort that went into finding cherished pieces. The best collections require not only money, but time and effort as well. Duke believes that it is vital to educate yourself on the things you collect. He collected boxing, baseball and football for the simple reason that it is those things that peaked his interest, probably stemming from his own involvement in the sports. He boxed in the Army for two years, played pro-baseball and school football and it was this interest in these sports that drove him to learn all that he could about those subjects. You hear it said all the time in our commercial society ‘an educated consumer is our best customer,’ well this is not only true for the products we buy today, but for collecting as a whole. Many new collectors tend to rely on ‘expert’ opinions to guide their collecting decisions because they are looking for a good investment. Duke strongly believes that it is better to collect what you like and not to follow trends. If you personally like what you buy, then you can’t go wrong because regardless of the monetary value, you will get the satisfaction and enjoyment from that item. According to Duke, collecting is more than just simply owning something, it encompasses much more, like the friends you make along the way and the experiences that you have which help to shape your life. When the memorabilia is gone, the memories of collecting will always remain. When Duke is posed with the question from new collectors, “What should I start collecting?” Duke’s response is always, “Find something that you like and want to collect and if there is nothing that interests you personally, then perhaps you should consider doing something else.” Buying what is trendy will only leave you, once the trend is over, with something you spent too much on and didn’t really want in the first place. Duke never collected what was popular, but only what struck a cord with him.
Duke was never one to follow trends in his collecting or in his life. When he was coaching baseball at the college level, he gained the reputation as one of the toughest coaches. He was willing to teach the players everything he knew as long as they were willing to give their all, anyone else could “take a hike.” And the players always came back claiming that they were twice the player and so much better than they were before Duke’s coaching. In a time when there were white teams and black teams, Duke always made certain to have a wide variety of guys on his team and would tell his players, “If you have character and work at it, you will never know what color your teammate was.”
This philosophy was a common thread throughout Duke’s life, he believed in the game, in the individual, in the hobby, in the right thing. He has the reputation for being a tough, but fair negotiator. He goes into a deal with the attitude that both parties will benefit. Duke’s attitude is anything but “what’s in it for me?” He is fair and honest. He has dealt with the same collectors and people for over 20 years because he always gives everyone a fair shake. A great testament to his character is the example he gave me of what he would do if I had placed a dollar on the table and left the room. Even if he had no money, Duke would leave the dollar on the table, because in his mind it was MY dollar and not his. In my opinion, Duke is one of few people who are exactly as they appear – honest and trustworthy. However, at 5’ 11” and 255 pounds of sheer muscle, you don’t want to cross him! Those that have tried over the years have learned their lesson. Generally nothing more than a phone call from Duke stating “you have one week to correct your mistake” is enough for the person to change his ways. Duke believes that if you treat people right you should expect people to treat you right – simple as that. Duke bears in mind that “people are still people no matter what uniform they are in.”
The market may have changed over the years, but according to Duke, despite so much memorabilia being offered on ebay and the Internet these days, “the hunt is still there.” It is the adventures, the people, and memories that one makes while building a collection that are priceless. Collecting is about more than just memorabilia and those who don’t understand that are truly missing out on the spirit of the hobby.
My original intent with this article was to give you background on some key pieces in Duke’s collection, however, what Duke has given me and what I share with you, is so much more – it is a perspective on life and collecting that should be the standard by which we all conduct ourselves. Honesty, integrity, fairness and most of all do what you enjoy – the rest will follow. Thanks for setting that example Duke!
Please feel free to take the virtual tour of Duke’s collection in our Collector’s Museum. His collection is also currently being offered in the MastroNet auction, which concludes on December 9th.