Riddell’s diamond gems sold

This autographed, game-worn, 1969 Ernie Banks Chicago Cubs jersey sold for nearly $152,000.
(Courtesy of SCP Auctions)

When discussing his preference for baseball equipment over baseball cards, noted sports memorabilia collector Bill Riddell was fond of saying: “You can’t swing a card.”

Similarly, the late beloved teacher and coach at TeWinkle Middle School in Costa Mesa believed that the memories, passion and appreciation obtained over three decades of collecting could in no way compare with his family’s financial security.

So Riddell, who mentored students and athletes for 31 years at TeWinkle before he died Aug. 26 at age 58, mere weeks after being diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, divulged the process by which his wife, Diane, would put the entire collection on the auction block.

The auction, held Saturday, generated a substantial nest egg for Diane and four grandchildren. The sale of items — including an esteemed bat collection for which the former pitcher at Southern California College (now Vanguard University) earned the reputation as an expert on vintage, as well as modern major league lumber — also triggered a stream of memories.

“He really enjoyed the game,” Diane said of her late husband, who co-wrote the book “Bats” detailing specifics of authenticating and purchasing bats used by diamond stars. “He enjoyed studying, researching and the comradeship with other collectors. Like any woman, I appreciated [the collectibles] once I knew how much they were worth. But I also enjoyed seeing how excited he was about the whole thing. He took a trip to the [Hillerich & Bradsby factory in Kentucky that produces the Louisville Slugger] to explore their archives. He really enjoyed the banter back and forth with the guys, when they would call him to ask about items. And he would have the answers. He was really an authority.”

Riddell, who coached track and field at TeWinkle but impacted many kids in other sports as well, was born in Michigan, and moved to Orange County when he was 7. He was a left-handed pitcher at Troy High in Fullerton, then Fullerton Community College and SCC, and his reverence for baseball spurred an appreciation for the game’s history. He later bestowed his diamond passion upon grandson R.J, now 22. Riddell coached many of R.J.'s youth teams.

“He taught R.J. how to play the same Strat-O-Matic [baseball board game] that Bill had from his youth,” Diane said. “They were very close.”

The collection’s marquee items included a autographed, game-worn, 1969 Ernie Banks Chicago Cubs jersey that sold for nearly $152,000 Saturday. A 1929 Mickey Cochrane (Philadelphia A’s) world championship game-used bat sold for more than $65,000. Other notable items included a Roberto Clemente bat, and a nearly complete set of bats used by his beloved Detroit Tigers in their championship seasons of 1968 and 1984. At one point, Riddell had a bat used by Babe Ruth.

He also had gloves, balls and even stadium seats from some of baseball’s most storied cathedrals, most of which have been replaced by modern ballparks.

He crafted shelves and racks upon which to display his collection, first filling a room at his Irvine home, then spreading beyond his “man cave” to a second room upstairs, as well as displays along the hallway of the San Clemente home that Diane just sold to move into a smaller place in the same city.

“I told him I didn’t want the house to look like a locker room,” Diane said. “But he would always tell me I needed to understand that these were works of art. When we moved, he didn’t get rid of anything. He would have downsized a wife before he would have downsized the collection. I was pretty lenient about it.”

Diane, however, said she had her moments of disapproval.

“When it first started, it was a funny, because every transaction was cash and there would be strange men who came to the house,” she said. “They looked at some of his stuff with stars in their eyes and they were stroking those bats like they were their girlfriends. I wondered if the neighbors thought we were drug dealers.

“I enjoyed baseball, too and when we traveled, we would usually wind up at a ballgame. We went to Cooperstown [site of the Baseball Hall of Fame] and did that whole thing. He also liked to play golf, so we went to some nice [golf resorts]. When he was on the golf course, I was would do my thing at the spas. We compromised.”

Ultimately, the collection bestowed a profitable legacy for which Diane said she is grateful.

“He really did take care of me and set me up,” she said. “When he got sick, he made me aware of what he had and educated me about the value of the collection. We had some serious conversations very quickly after he was diagnosed. We were married for 34 years and there are a lot of good memories.”

Diane also said she is gratified that the items Bill collected are now being enjoyed by their new owners.

“I didn’t want them to wind up in a closet or under the bed,” she said. “I wanted people to appreciate what he had.”