Artifact-rich Sports Museum opens downtown

A T206 Honus Wagner baseball card, one of the rarest in the world. Barry Bonds’ 755th home run ball. A handful of infield dirt, the broken champagne bottle used to christen the stadium and the first ball thrown out at Ebbets Field, home of the Brooklyn Dodgers, in 1913.

These are some of the gems at the Sports Museum of Los Angeles, which opened on Nov. 28. Not surprisingly, the collection, owned by Gary Cypres and housed downtown in a 32,000-square-foot warehouse, has already generated the kind of breathless blurbs usually uttered by radio personalities for movie openings.

“Awesome! Fantastic! Unbelievable! That one person could collect all this memorabilia is incomprehensible,” Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa said of the museum, located a few blocks south of Staples Center.

“The best sports museum in the world!” former Dodger owner Peter O’Malley added.

This is one case where everything that has been said is true. Cypres’ vast sports collection, which fills 30 well-lighted galleries, is extraordinary and reflects its owner’s deep love of sports history.

It is not simply that he knows Yale, not USC, was the school that pioneered football; Cypres also owns a rare Edison film of the 1903 Yale vs. Princeton football game, which runs on a small screen above an exhibit on college football.

And it’s not simply that he knows that the L.A. Times got it wrong when it reported that, after Joe DiMaggio’s 56-game hitting streak ended, he hit in another 12 games (Joltin’ Joe actually hit in another 16 consecutive games); Cypres also owns the ball that was speared by Cleveland’s Ken Keltner to end DiMaggio’s 56-game skein.

Still, one has to ask, where are the Jewish sports artifacts?

Mark Spitz’ gold medals? Barney Ross’ lightweight, junior welterweight and welterweight belts? Hank Greenberg’s 58th home run ball from 1938?

None of these are to be found at the museum, but there is a jersey worn in 1957 by Dodger Sandy Koufax, one of the greatest Jewish athletes of the past century and arguably the greatest left-handed pitcher in the history of Major League Baseball.

Cypres, who slumps over but who once stood about 6-foot-3 1/2-inches when he played forward at Hofstra, says, “You want Jewish?”

He points out a photograph of the Cleveland Rosenblums, a championship basketball squad from the late 1920s and early 1930s. What is striking is how much shorter the players were then. The tallest player, Joe Lapchick, was 6-foot-5, tiny by today’s standards. Dressed in knee pads and tank-tops, sticking out their chests, with their bodies turned to the side, not straight-on, the Rosenblums look more like a college wrestling team than a pro basketball squad.

In one of the basketball rooms, there are also jackets worn by members of the House of David, a barnstorming outfit that played basketball and baseball, and the Philadelphia Sphas, a legendary Jewish hoops team during the early days of basketball. There are also photos and a plaque of Abe Saperstein, founder of the Harlem Globetrotters.

A modest, unassuming man who has made his money in investment banking and the travel business, Cypres, 65, grew up in the Bronx at a time when Jews were still dominant in basketball, when CCNY, a team coached by Nat Holman and comprised of many Jews, became the only school to win the NIT and NCAA titles in the same year. Cypres played ball on the playgrounds and at summer camp with Larry Brown, the current Charlotte Bobcats coach, who was himself a great player in the ABA.

Yet when asked what it meant to be a Jewish kid back then, when there were many star Jewish athletes, Cypres says that didn’t influence him to play basketball.

His favorite athlete was Mickey Mantle.

Although he roots for the Dodgers now, Cypres still has a love for his boyhood Yankees and has a whole room devoted to Mantle as well as rooms filled with DiMaggio, Lou Gehrig and Babe Ruth memorabilia.

Unfortunately, despite the wealth and beauty of the resources in this museum, it has attracted few visitors so far. Part of that is due to the economy, which is harming attendance at many museums such as MOCA, on whose board Cypres’ wife, Kathi, sits. Part of it is due to its location, downtown, as opposed to the Westside. And part of it is due to the time of year. Cypres expects greater turnout in the summer when kids are out of school.

But Cypres has gotten many calls from corporations, asking to hold events in his museum. He sees it as a perfect spot to host dinners, seminars and parties.

Meanwhile, his sports memorabilia collection, which he values at roughly $30 million, keeps gaining in value. As he says, “better than the stock market, Imight add.”

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Top: Uniform jerseys that are part of the Los Angeles Dodgers gallery. Bottom: Evolution of the football uniform in one of the football galleries at the Sports Museum of Los Angeles. Photos courtesy of the Sports Museum of Los Angeles