Reprinted from my article for Visit Florida, the Florida Division of Tourism
In 1943, four-year-old Joel Platt’s mother sent him to spend the day at his uncle’s car lot.
Little Joel had a ball! He ran from car to car, sitting at the wheels and pretend-driving each one. In one of them, he found a surprise – a box of matches. Little Joel walked around to the gas tank, lit a match, and threw it in. The car, as you might expect, exploded. And so, more or less, did little Joel.
Joel Platt spent the next year in a hospital bed. To keep his spirits up, his parents brought him baseball cards every day, and his Dad told him wonderful sports stories. One night, after his parents left the hospital, little Joel had a dream – in which Babe Ruth appeared, telling him not to give up. That was the start of his magnificent obsession.
Today, “little” Joel Platt is the proud owner of the largest private collection of sports memorabilia in the world. Some three million pieces, to be (somewhat) precise…and estimates of their value run from $50,000,000 to $100,000,000. He’s traveled more than a million miles to collect it. And his Sports Immortals Museum, which he opened in Boca Raton in 1994, can only hold Aabout 30,000 of those objects.
In fact, Michael Heffner, President of Leland’s Auction House, has called it “the largest and most valuable collection of diverse and important sports artifacts ever assembled.”
If you love sports, you’ll wander through this museum – which Joel runs with his Vice President and son, Jim – like a kid in a candy store.
You can see helmets worn by race drivers A.J. Foyt, Richard Petty, and Mario Andretti, and a racing suit worn by Al Unser. There’s an autographed photo from Don Budge, one of the early tennis greats, along with autographed racquets from Pete Sampras and Chris Evert. You’ll come upon an extremely-rare autographed photo of baseball Hall-of-Famer Christy Mathewson, who played a hundred years ago. Game jerseys worn by Shaquille O’Neal, and by old-time great George Mikan.
“One of the best things about all of this,” Platt says, “is that it gave me a chance to meet so many wonderful people. Not only the athletes themselves, but their families and their friends. Often, they’ve given me their most precious keepsakes…or helped me track them down.”
If you love the “Sweet Science” – in other words, if you’re a boxing fan – you’ll ogle the gloves worn by Jack Dempsey when he knocked out Georges Carpentier in 1921. There’s also a letter written by the immortal Jack Johnson after his fight with Jess Willard, in which he complained about bigotry because he had married a white woman. And the bell from the Jack Dempsey-Louis Firpo fight at New York’s Polo Grounds in 1923. In fact, Platt’s collection of boxing items is considered the most comprehensive in the world – with more than 100,000 items.
You’ll see an autographed kicking shoe from Tom Dempsey (actually it’s only half a shoe, because this NFL kicker was born with only half a foot!). And if you’re a dedicated duffer, you’ll enjoy the putter used by Gary Player. If you’re a hockey buff, you can see Montreal Canadiens jerseys worn by the Maurice “Rocket” Richard.
You’ll see the front-end grill of the car driven by Richard Petty in his last race at Daytona. The warm-up jacket worn by Al Oerter, who won four gold medals – in four different Olympics – for the U.S. You’ll see the largest autographed baseball bat in the world, actually a tree hit by lightning and then carved into an 8’-tall bat by a Cherokee Indian – with 65 autographs. You’ll see a football thrown by quarterback Sid Luckman of the Chicago Bears for a touchdown in a 1943 game – one of seven balls he threw for touchdowns that day.
“I was lucky enough to get to know Sid Luckman’s daughter,” Platt says. “And when she gave me the ball, she told me ‘My Dad would have wanted you to have it.’”
You’ll see Lou Gehrig’s glove. Wilt Chamberlain’s uniform. And many items and letters of the legendary Jim Thorpe.
“I found Thorpe’s granddaughter in California, after a long search,” Platt says. “And when she found out who I was and what I was doing, she dug up some of her most precious mementoes, and gave them to me.”
And you’ll also see the most valuable baseball card in the world – one of three known cards of Honus Wagner, the Pittsburgh Pirates great from the early-1900’s.
One of the best things about the collection, though, is Platt himself. He’s a walking encyclopedia of sports stories, many of which are in son Jim’s book, “Sports Immortals: Stories of Inspiration and Achievement.”
As impressive as his collection is, though, Joel Platt’s not done. In fact, he’s now tackling his most ambitious project ever.
“This is my dream,” Platt says. “This will be the culmination of my life’s work.”
His dream exists only in blueprints now. But he’s determined to raise $200 million for a “Sports Immortals International Hall of Fame and National Sports Museum,” with training facilities, interactive displays, a 360-degree movie-theater-in-the-round, a research facility for sports medicine, and dining and retail components.
“Four states are vying for it,” Platt says, “and they’ve each offered sites. We’re concentrating now on the financial part. And we’re very optimistic. This is too big – and too important to too many people – not to happen.”
Until it does, though, Joel Platt is happily escorting visitors around his museum, where every item has a story.
“I cherish every piece,” Joel Platt says. “But I cherish the stories behind each one just as much.”
The Sports Immortals Museum – (561) 997-2575; www.sportsimmortals.com; ;
Steve Winston (www.stevewinston.com) has written/contributed to 17 books. And his articles have appeared in major media all over the world. In pursuit of “The Story,” he’s been shot at in Northern Ireland. Been a cowboy in Arizona. Trained in the jungle with a rebel militia. Jumped into an alligator pit in the Everglades. Climbed 15,000-foot peaks. Flown World War II fighter planes in aerial “combat.” Trekked glaciers in Alaska. Explored ice caves in the Swiss Alps. Driven an ATV up an 11,000-foot mountain in the Rockies, and back down again – with the wheels hanging over the edge of a 4,000-foot drop. And been thrown out of a party given by Queen Elizabeth.