Heavyweight of Hustle : At 21, Harlan J. Werner is a Star on the Sports Memorabilia Circuit

Times Staff Writer

He’s been drinking with Mickey Mantle. Detroit Tigers manager Sparky Anderson calls him “my boy.” He was dining with Muhammad Ali when the patrons of a Brooklyn restaurant broke into a chant of “Ali, Ali.” And Joe DiMaggio once told him to put on a pair of long pants if they were to dine together.

Meet Harlan J. Werner, Canoga Park High School Class of ’85, 21-year-old sports entrepreneur in a hurry, peripatetic autograph kid of Southern California. And, he is quick to add, the star of his own living sports world fantasy.

Werner trades in sports memorabilia, a lucrative field that has skyrocketed in recent years. Most of the high-priced athletic gems are from the baseball diamond, reflecting both the national pastime’s widespread popularity and the soaring value of its basic collectible, baseball cards, in the 1980s.


Werner produces baseball card shows, which feature stars from various sports. He cuts deals for Ali and former baseball great Sandy Koufax to sign autographs for as much as $20 a pop at these events. And he is involved in discussions about a proposed sports memorabilia shop at a new baseball museum in Dodger Stadium next season.

“He always seemed like he was one step ahead of everyone else,” said Greg Tucker of Broken Arrow, Okla., a top autograph dealer who has known Werner 3 years. “Harlan’s always thinking. He has a gimmick, he has an angle.”

But everything up till now looks like a warm-up for this weekend. In the next 3 days this part-time college student is putting on a baseball card show that he calls, with characteristic humility, “The Show of a Lifetime” at the Disneyland Hotel in Anaheim.

“There’s no group of ballplayers that’s better than those that I have,” Werner recently boasted at his fraternity house-like Canoga Park apartment. “It’s incredible.”

Mantle, Ali and Ted Williams will be there; any one of them at a baseball card show is a coup. The rest of the lineup is also first-rate: Koufax, future baseball Hall of Famer Pete Rose, ex-football great Jim Brown, former Dodger Don Drysdale, outfielder Fred Lynn and retired boxer Archie Moore.

Each will be paid grand sums for scrawling his name on glossy photos, baseballs and whatever else patrons thrust before him. Mantle and Williams will each receive $25,000 to $30,000, plus expenses. The others will get lesser amounts. Overall, Werner is paying the nine $175,000, according to his financial partner, Andrew Fell, a San Fernando Valley auto dealer.

Two or three years ago, the going rate for many prominent athletes was measured in hundreds of dollars an hour. Now, Werner says, any major draw will cost at least $1,000 per hour. DiMaggio, the illustrious Yankee Clipper, reportedly commands the highest hourly fee: $6,000 to $7,000. That’s at least $100 a minute.

But it is Werner who stands to really clean up this weekend. Baseball card and memorabilia dealers from more than 25 states and Canada are paying $400 for each of the 175 display booths. Baseball card stores in Torrance and San Pedro have kicked in sponsorship fees for the right to sell autograph tickets in advance.

That’s up front. Werner expects as many as 25,000 sports fans, hobbyists and professional collectors to attend the show, paying the $5 admission. Many of those who wait in long lines for Mantle or Williams will also buy 8-by-10 color photos of them or baseballs for autographing from Werner.

And then there’s the autograph rates. It will cost $20 to get Mantle’s, Williams’ or Ali’s John Hancock. Following in the financial batting order are Koufax at $11; Rose, $10; Drysdale, Brown and Lynn, $8, and Moore, $5. Werner says he set the prices based on what he has to pay the athletes.

Werner’s agreement with the athletes also calls for them to sign scores of baseballs, footballs and boxing gloves for him to peddle to dealers and collectors nationwide. A pair of boxing gloves signed by Ali, for instance, will bring $85 wholesale and $125 retail, Werner said.

Putting these figures in perspective, Werner said that Mantle, who grew up in Oklahoma, once told him: “It’s amazing what I get paid to sign autographs. When I think about it, I get as much money for signing one autograph as my dad got for working a whole day in the mines.”

Werner, meanwhile, expects to net more than $50,000, touching another base on his drive to become a wealthy man before the quarter-century mark closes in on him.

“My goal is to have a very large house in Malibu and own limousines and not have to drive ‘cause I’d rather have someone drive me around,” Werner said unabashedly. “And to be able to travel when I want to.”

And, he adds, he has another goal: “I want to be able to go to Children’s Hospital and pay for 200 kids to go to Disneyland because so many people have done so much for me, and I really do appreciate it. I want to give something back.”

With Werner, there is often another side. He was voted both “most likely to be a millionaire” and “class klutz” by his graduating class. And he is a precocious go-getter--he was a serious baseball card collector at 10--who associates say has also demonstrated uncommon integrity for a sports wheeler-dealer.

“If he tells you something, he’s going to do it,” Sparky Anderson said, echoing others who have worked with Werner. “Once you talk to him, you see it and you hear it. You know you’re not dealing with someone who is playing a con game. You know this young man is going to do you right.”

He did right by Anderson when he flew to Michigan 2 years ago to assist in a charity auction of sporting goods donated by athletes and major-league teams. Anderson, who met Werner at a show in 1985 and has become a role model for him, said he asked the young entrepreneur to help him gather and price the items “because he understands the value of that stuff.”

Value, indeed. A Tigers jersey signed by Ronald and Nancy Reagan went for $5,500. A uniform worn by first baseman Don Mattingly of the Yankees brought $4,000. A shirt off hockey superstar Wayne Gretzky’s back sold for $3,000. Overall, the event raised $193,000 for Children’s Hospital and the Henry Ford Hospital, both in Detroit.

Though he cherishes his early financial independence, Werner remains close to his family in Canoga Park, where he was born and raised. The youngest of three sons, his father is a geologist and his mother a housewife. Delaine Werner recalled that because Harlan’s brothers were 8 and 11 years older, her youngest son seemed “in a hurry to grow up,” forming early friendships with neighborhood adults and his teachers.

He picked up the baseball card habit from his brother at 10. At 13, he began attending card shows, making small purchases with lawn-mowing money. He started selling cards at shows a year later and began a mail-order business with an older friend at 16. The next year, in 1985, he opened a card store in Sherman Oaks.

He sold the store in early 1986. Although he continues to work with card dealers at his shows, he is highly critical of the profession.

“There’s too many dealers selling baseball cards, too many part-time people that are only interested in making a dollar and have no ethics,” Werner said.

Meanwhile, he sponsored his first baseball care show in 1984 at age 17 with former Dodgers Tommy Davis and Al Downing. A year later he called Anderson at his home in Thousand Oaks and asked him to do his second show. Impressed by the kind of exuberance that brought back memories of himself as a teen-ager, Anderson subsequently introduced Werner to other major leaguers. Some ballplayers now call him “Sparky’s kid.”

To build his reputation as a successful promoter, he passed up early profits by including free autographs in the price of admission to his first shows. And he adopted a game plan for pursuing big names. Through Davis and other ex-Dodgers, he made overtures to the intensely private Koufax.

“It took me 3 years of calling him every month to ask him to do a baseball card show with me,” Werner said of the ex-Dodger southpaw. “First, it was, ‘Harlan, when I’m ready to do it, I’ll give you first shot at it.’ Then, it became, ‘Harlan, do the show.’ ”

Now Werner says Koufax, who retired before he was born, won’t do a show unless he’s involved. They’ve done five together. A Dodger coaching jersey worn by Koufax, a gift, hangs on Werner’s bedroom wall.

Williams was another tough catch. Werner approached him earlier this year in Florida, where the former outfielder is a spring training instructor with the Red Sox. Williams expressed little interest but told Werner to put it in writing. He did, and he received no response. Later, the young promoter flew to St. Louis, where Williams was doing a show.

“He had the patience and the persistence to sit on the stage in a chair for 4 hours to get a chance to talk to Williams,” recalled autograph dealer Tucker, who was at the show.

But, even then, a member of Williams’ retinue prevented Werner from speaking with the Hall of Famer. Still, Werner persisted, first calling and then writing Williams’ secretary in Florida. Three months later, Williams agreed to do this week’s show, his first on the West Coast.

Werner recently adopted as his motto: “If you’re going to think, think big,” which he picked up from--you guessed it--Donald Trump’s autobiography.

Werner met Ali when he persuaded him to do one of his shows, the first for the ex-heavyweight in 8 years. The two hit it off, and Werner now decides which shows Ali will do and negotiates the deals. He said he has decided on three a year to avoid overexposure.

“People say, ‘What does Muhammad Ali need you for?’ ” said Werner, who accompanies the world’s most famous sports figure to the shows. “He doesn’t. But after I met him and he saw how I dealt with him, he said: ‘Stick with me, kid. I’ll take care of you.’ ”

With inimitable bravado, Werner crowed, ‘If anyone wants Muhammad, they have to come to me.”

One of his proudest possessions is a white robe Ali gave him in June with the hand-lettered inscription: “To Harlan from Muhammad--True is the net where hearts are caught like fish.”

Anderson said athletes deal with Werner because of his reputation: He delivers, and he “always wants to make sure that everything’s right for you.” Werner says he insists that his clients are paid up front and spared potentially uncomfortable situations. And he says he won’t ask them for personal favors.

Werner pays a price for his brashness and precociousness. He says he has encountered considerable jealousy and become the focus of malicious rumors. Others in the baseball card business confirm this.

“What’s a young guy doing with ballplayers?” Werner said people often ask. “The first thing people think is drugs. Another question is organized crime.”

The pressures are apparent. Despite the smattering of gray in his wavy dark hair, he said his face still breaks out before a show. The phone rings frequently with requests for tickets or other favors. He is a compulsive knuckle cracker. And then there is that public relations class at Pierce College.

“I cannot sit still for 1 1/2 hours listening to a teacher,” Werner said with a smile. “Number one, I’m looking at the girls in the class. Number two, I’m trying to figure out how to make money.”

So, he went out and bought a piece of a Canoga Park batting cage, “Hitter’s Paradise” earlier this year. And, last month he and a partner brought in 2,500 Christmas trees from Oregon to sell at the batting cage.

He lives well. He drives a 1986 red Corvette. He frequents Mexican beach resorts, Hawaii and New York for vacations.

Still, he says, “I’ll always be a kid.”

His apartment, which he shares with three friends--each of whom he hires to work at his shows--is decorated in minimalist sports fraternity. His bedroom, not surprisingly, is filled with personalized memorabilia. A life-size cardboard cutout of beer pitchman and ex-baseball player Bob Uecker dominates an otherwise Spartan living room.

Werner’s attire is also rough-hewn: associates say they’ve never seen him in a sport coat and when his tank top and pants aren’t clashing, his wardrobe is having a good day.

But, appearances aside, those who know him well swear he’s a mensch who’s going to make it.

“Your first impression, if you don’t know him, is what a loudmouthed young kid,” said Max Himmelstein, owner of Valley Baseball Cards in Tarzana and one of Werner’s first financial backers. “But I would trust him more than anyone else I know. Beneath that brashness and everything, he’s got a good heart.

“I just wish I had some of that get up and go when I was his age.”