Sports memorabilia up for sale at Newport Sports Museum

Not long ago, 72-year-old John Hamilton had a hip and a knee replaced with surgically inserted hardware. More recently, however, the process of losing things that can't be replaced has initiated the infliction of pain that no anesthesia can mask.

"It came to me the other day," Hamilton, founder and personal collector for the recently closed Newport Sports Museum, said of auctioning off the thousands of items of sports memorabilia that the museum displayed. "What this is like is having my favorite dog, that I've had for 18 years, who sleeps in my bed and rides with me to work and goes everywhere with me; and I look at him and it kills me, but I know it's time to put him down. It's painful. Tough."

Hamilton, whose luxurious office on Newport Center Drive sits atop the remaining display items at the museum site, is passing on a lifetime legacy of memories he said he only wishes he now had the selfies to prove.

"The first item was a football signed by the 1953 [college football] All-American team that my Dad got from a friend of his who worked for Look magazine," said Hamilton, a longtime Newport Beach resident.

What has followed is an impressive array of game-worn jerseys, balls, hockey sticks, golf clubs, and other equipment items spanning several sports, many of which are autographed. A portion of the items are included in an online spring auction that began April 30 and concludes May 17. Hamilton's collection will also be disperced in three future offerings, also handled by SCP Auctions.

The museum will be open to the public on Thursday from 1 to 5 p.m. and Friday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.

"[The museum] has been like Disneyland to me for a long time," Hamilton said of the facility that opened 18 years ago. "It has really been a great run and I've loved every minute of it. But I'm getting tired. To be honest with you, I'm tired of asking my friends for money [to subsidize annual costs exceeding $150,000 that were never lessened by his refusal to charge admission]. It's time to have a new passage."

Before the items find their new homes, Hamilton, who said recent robberies have further expedited his willingness to let go, remains fully engulfed in the personal nostalgia that accompanies nearly every piece.

"I do it a lot," Hamilton said of strolling through the displays of items of which many, for him, represent a more idyllic and innocent time.

"I'm very lucky I grew up in the 1950s, because I think that is really a special time," said Hamilton, who recalls riding his motorcycle over the patches of dirt and shrubs that is now Fashion Island. "I grew up loving sports. I'm a big fan of athletes, but athletes of character, which is really important. I've had the chance to do so much in my life. I've been very blessed and gotten to live out some fantasies for a sports nut. I've got memories and stories, some of which I can't tell; fabulous stories and memories that you can't replace."

His interest in collecting sports memorabilia blossomed when he was a student at USC, he said, in an era when such a pursuit was not big business.

"I was lucky that I got so much of my stuff early on," said Hamilton, whose classmates at USC included Hall of Fame pitcher Tom Seaver. "And I was very lucky that I had lots of friends who were athletes. Besides the benefit of their friendship, they gave me their jerseys or sticks or bats and balls, or whatever. I ended up getting a lot of USC stuff.

Those friendships also fueled a greater mission than just sharing memorabilia.

"When I first started this, I believed that kids were more apt to look up to an athlete than a rock star or a politician, and boy have I been proved right on those two things," Hamilton said. "So, I saw the potential value of having athletes come here and talk to kids to give them positive messages."

What followed was a string of low-key addresses, always at no cost to the children that largely comprised the audiences. At these talks, athletes, all of whom waived appearance fees, spoke about the virtues of staying in school, staying off drugs and staying out of other kinds of trouble that could undermine the journey to becoming productive adults.

"We've had a lot of kids through here over the years, some of whom have come back and offered to help us," Hamilton said. "And we've had Hall of Famers, Heisman Trophy winners and All-Americans from all sports come through here and give generously of their time to speak to those kids."

Hamilton said he will keep a handful of items that have special meaning, such as the jersey of his childhood football hero, Jon Arnett (a star running back at USC in the mid-1950s who went on to become an All-Pro with the Los Angeles Rams). Others include framed hockey jerseys of the former Los Angeles Kings "Triple Crown Line" of Marcel Dionne, Charlie Simmer and Dave Taylor. Also not for sale is the jersey of former USC star and Heisman winner Mike Garrett, whom Hamilton said helped provide items from USC and elsewhere.

"The friendships with the many athletes who are still some of my best friends are more valuable to me than any of the pieces I've had on display," said Hamilton, who won't miss having to continually track down athletes who achieve historic feats, in order to keep his collection comprehensive and current.

"It hit me when Albert Pujols hit his 500th home run that I no longer had to worry about getting him to sign the ball that has all the signatures of the other guys who have hit 500," Hamilton said. "When you're young, especially when you're a male, the chase is the deal. But one source of stress in my life — and doctors have asked me to lessen my stress level —is that the chase had become more of a responsibility. From now on, I'm not going to worry about it."

Copyright © 2017, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World