Dr. Nicholas DePace is a cardiologist by trade. When he’s not wearing a white coat, he’s one of the country’s premiere collectors of sports memorabilia.
It started with baseball cards and never really stopped. After 50 years, the collection now exceeds 10,000 items.
“It’s known throughout our industry, our hobby, as a platinum type collection,” said DePace.
Until recently, all of his game-worn jerseys, boxing robes and signed baseballs clogged his Haddon Township home — hoarder style.
But starting last month, some of the collection was moved behind Plexiglas inside the DePace Sports Library and Museum of Champions in Collingswood, New Jersey, a brand-new nonprofit operation more than three decades in the making.
The family cut the ribbon on the museum last week.
Exclusive clubs on deck
“The enjoyment that we got from the collection, we thought we could share with others,” said museum CEO Nicholas DePace Jr., the doc’s son. “There’s some great stories in here.”
The one involving singer Dean Martin and two sets of Master’s golf clubs is definitely one of them.
In 1965, Martin bought the clubs to bring Frank Sinatra and Joe DiMaggio back together. The two feuded over Marilyn Monroe and, by then, weren’t talking to each other.
“He asked them to put a little metal plate on the front. He wanted one to say, ‘Frank, please forgive me’ in Italian. Joe D’ and the other to say, ‘Joe D, please forgive me. Frank,’” said museum curator Eric Katz.
The plan didn’t work. While Sinatra used the clubs for years, DiMaggio threw his in the lake outside his house.
DePace later nabbed the clubs from a museum that was shutting down.
Athletic wear from famous matchups
Over the years, he’s also gotten his hands on some more sport-centric items.
Museum-goers can see the shorts and robes Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier wore inside Madison Square Garden during the “Fight of the Century” in 1971.
Game-worn pants, sticks and gloves from the “Miracle on Ice” match between Team USA and Russia during the 1980 Olympics are also on view.
The museum even has the original sign from Connie Mack Stadium, the North Philadelphia arena where the Philadelphia Athletics and the Philadelphia Phillies once played.
DePace’s collection is estimated to be worth in the ballpark of $40 million.
Some of the more heavily insured pieces — including a practice jersey Jesse Owens’ wore during the Berlin Olympics in 1936 — may never be displayed.
A comprehensive experience
The elder DePace said his museum still has big value.
“You can go to Cooperstown and see baseball, you can go to Canton and see football, you can go up to Springfield and see basketball,” he said. “But to go in one building, one-stop shopping, and see everything put together in a coordinated fashion, you can’t do that anywhere in the country.”
He also sees the museum as a place of inspiration.
“It gives hope,” said DePace. “It lets youth know that America is opportunity, and America can lead to championship-type caliber in people.”
Admission to the museum is free. It’s largely funded through private donations. Sales from some of DePace’s sports memorabilia are also part of the business model.