One day 55 years ago in Pittsburgh, a precocious four-year-old named Joel Platt ignored everything his mother had taught him about playing with fire. He dropped a lit match into the gas tank of a car at his uncle's car dealership, and the resulting explosion landed him in bed for two years.
It also changed the course of his life. Platt's parents kept the young burn victim occupied by buying him baseball cards, and one of them was a Babe Ruth.
"I had this dream," says Platt, now of Boca Raton, "that Babe Ruth came to visit me, and he told me, 'Kid, don't give up. Someday you're going to be a major baseball player, and you're going to build a museum out of your card collection.'"
Platt injured his arm during his sophomore year as a shortstop on the Duquesne University baseball team, which shelved his baseball career. But shelving and organizing his cards eventually brought Pratt's museum premonition to fruition.
His collection grew from cards to include autographs, programs, and other sports mementos, and by the 1950s he was showing off the items in his parents' living room. In 1960 he bought a house in Pittsburgh, in which he set up a private museum. He purchased a Boca Raton building in 1994 and turned it into the Sports Immortals Museum and Memorabilia Mart, a 15,000-square-foot showcase for his more than one million collectibles.
Platt immodestly calls it South Florida's greatest attraction. The Smithsonian Institution calls it the largest privately owned all-sports collection in the world.
As interesting as the museum's overwhelming inventory are the stories of how Platt got the stuff. When he was 17 years old, he began paying unannounced visits to the widows of old-time great ball players. He'd knock on the door, tell them about his dream -- Babe Ruth and all -- and hand them ashtrays, which he had made himself by cutting them out of wood and pasting a photo of each woman's late husband into the bottom.
"It was my calling card," Platt says.
His first stop was Carnegie, Pennsylvania, where he called on the widow of Honus Wagner, "the greatest shortstop of all time," according to Platt. He left with a bronze mold of Wagner's hand and one of his Pittsburgh Pirates uniforms.
Platt's next stop was the New York City apartment of Mrs. Babe Ruth. He knew he could never get through the front door, so he climbed up the back stairs and pitched the maid. She let him in, he told the widow Ruth his story, and she gave him an autographed bat, a plaque, and one of the Babe's uniforms.
"It was one of my greatest curating adventures," Platt recalls fondly.
His longest curating adventure lasted five years and involved Patricia Thorpe, the third wife of early 1900s football, baseball, and track star Jim Thorpe. Platt visited her first in the mid-'70s. She was moved by his story but not moved enough to move 'em out. "I have some of Jim's stuff in storage," she told him. "I'll get back to you."
He heard nothing from her until a telegram arrived five years later. "I'm confined to my bed," Patricia Thorpe wrote. "I want you to have everything."
One of Thorpe's baseball uniforms is among the more than 2000 uniforms at Sports Immortals. The collection also features more than 6000 autographed baseballs, one dating back to 1865; some 10,000 classic programs, including one from the first Harvard-versus-Yale college football game in 1875; and the "death ball" that killed baseball player Ray Chapman when he was hit in the head by a pitch in 1920.
More than 30,000 items are on view at any given time, and the exhibit changes almost daily. Ultimately every item in Platt's million-plus-and-growing collection will be on display.
Warning: You probably won't leave empty-handed. More than 20,000 items are for sale in the Memorabilia Mart -- everything from $10 posters to a signed, game-worn Michael Jordan jersey with a $20,000 price tag.