By David Walker
The Sports Museum of Los Angeles, home to the most comprehensive collection of Brooklyn and Los Angeles Dodgers memorabilia in existence and more than 10,000 artifacts worth north of $30 million, began as most sports collections do–with a kid, a team he loves and some playing cards.
In the ‘50s, before football and basketball took hold of the national consciousness, baseball reigned supreme. For a kid growing up at the time in the Bronx, baseball was all there was. And for the majority of younger baseball fans, amassing a sizable baseball card collection became their national pastime.
But in those days it wasn’t about having Mickie Mantle’s rookie card or the entire starting lineup of the Dodgers’ 1955 World Series team. It was all about having cards–the more, the better.
For Gary Cypres, a Yankee fan from birth and collector of every old uniform, trophy, photograph and document in the 32,000 square-foot warehouse he owns in downtown Los Angeles, not much has changed in the 60 years since he bought his first pack of baseball cards.
“We all bought bubble gum packs and played with the cards, all sorts of games, not for collecting’s sake although some collected,” Cypres, now approaching 73, says. “Mostly, it was for games. I never was into trading a Mickey for this or that, I was into playing.”
Although it took another 30 years before collecting turned from hobby to vocation, it was here, amassing baseball cards as a Yankee fan growing up in the Bronx, where Cypres’ collector’s sprit was born.
His interest in collecting for the sake of it began not with baseball, however, but with golf and tennis. Cypres and his wife, Kathi, used to often travel abroad, which had him frequently coming across older sports memorabilia shops and he became intrigued in how the actual sporting equipment progressed through time.
“That got me interested,” says Cypres. “So of course once I started collecting things like that I realized I enjoyed collecting. So where does that take you? Back to what you really love: Baseball. And the Yankees.”
Cypres had two main focuses when he first began: “Collecting my rivalry” as he puts it–the Yankees and the Dodgers–and collecting the evolution of the tools of the trade. Bid by bid, auction by auction the collection eventually grew to be so unwieldy that a permanent home became necessary for its extended survival.
So shortly after the 1992 riots, Cypres bought a burned out warehouse just south of downtown Los Angeles–eventually turning it into the museum that finally allowed him the space to display his 30 years of work.
The museum itself, open to the public for the first time since 2008, encompasses all of baseball – from the crude tools used at its birth in the 19th century to the pop art and advertising campaigns that sprouted from the sport’s cultural dominance in the 20th century. The museum also documents the birth of basketball and the beginning of racial integration in sports–along with a section dedicated solely to Jackie Robinson.
The sheer size and scope of the collection, one that before the museum was built was housed in “a lot” of cargo-sized shipping containers, is overwhelming–a shrine dedicated to the whole sport of baseball.
Yet the museum leaves little doubt as to where Cypres’ loyalty lies when it comes to his collecting. The history of the Dodgers is documented sequentially through the decades and fittingly ends in 1988, their last World Series–as good a timeline marker as any for any sports franchise according to Cypres.
The museum also features the founding documents of the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1890, a room to commemorate the Dodgers’ first World Series title in 1955 and a section dedicated to the “Subway Series,” the culmination of the heated rivalry between Brooklyn and New York that so dominated Cypres’ formative years as a Yankees fan in the ‘50s and early ‘60s.
The immense collection has almost become a self-fulfilling prophecy of sorts, so comprehensive that if anything Dodger-related comes up, no matter the cost, it must be acquired.
“When you amass a collection like this, basically, you’re done–your world sort of shrinks,” Cypres said. “Your appetite shrinks. Your excitement shrinks. But that comes with age.”
Conversely, everything else about Cypres’ collection has grown. So much, in fact, that the New York native has begun to grapple with the eternal question that plagues all serious collectors: What to do with it all when you’re gone.
It’s a challenging problem. The museum is not merely a reflection of the history of baseball and the Dodgers, but a history of Cypres himself–each card, each mitt, each picture acquired marks a moment in a 30 year career of collecting. A monument not just to baseball, but also to a lifetime spent loving the sport. Letting go requires a personal loss.
“I love seeing my friends,” Cypres says. “Babe, Gehrig, Joe…it’s like seeing memories of your children.”
But Cypres sees the end coming, one way or another. As downtown Los Angeles expands and gentrifies, the land on which the museum is built is becoming very valuable, leaving the future of the museum a question. Cypres says that beyond gauging its financial viability as a museum, he’s opening the collection to the public because he wants to give people a chance to see the collection before its potential dispersal.
And yet while Cypres says he enjoys seeing people come and appreciate what he loves, he ultimately remains apathetic towards the public’s reaction–comfortable in the culmination of a lifetime of work.
“Opening a museum like this is a loss. It’s really only a question of how much you’re going to lose. So I’ll share it for a while and if not enough people come, I’ll shut the doors again,” Cypres says with a shrug. “And I’ll open it up for guests, charity events, etc., etc.”
Whether it eventually passes on to his kids, is sold to the Dodgers, is dispersed or liquidated, it doesn’t seem to bother Cypres much anymore. Ultimately, The Sports Museum of Los Angeles is for him, a reflection of 30 years collecting and 60 years loving baseball. Soon, piece by piece, card by card, it will be in the hands of others, just as it was before Cypres came along to put it all in one place.
“In the realm of a lifetime,” Cypres says, “All collections pass on. We’re temporary holders.”