Collectibles: From saving Frank Sinatra ‘stuff’ to counterfeit money

Is Photo: Frank Sinatra in his prime AP

WASHINGTON, January 24, 2013 — My wife and I have a storage unit we visit every year or so, just to pay our respects. We pay our storage fee, however, every month.

At this point, we’re not sure what all is in there. It’s “stuff,” stuff we just couldn’t bare to live without, stuff without which our lives would be seriously diminished.

This prized unit, which we’ve rented for about ten years, is located about ten miles from home. That was close when we first contracted it. We were, of course, ten years younger then and my right eye hadn’t gone bad, causing me to cut up my driver’s license. Now the unit seems a bit of a trek. 

“Store No More” read the headline in a story in the first issue of this year’s New York Times Magazine and this got me thinking further on this subject. 

Why, for example, do things we haven’t seen for years seem such a vital part of our lives? Why does disposing of them feel tantamount to jettisoning significant aspects of our past? And let’s go deeper: why would it somehow seem to minimize the world itself if there were one less of this unique, rare, or unusual items in it? Perish the thought that this would move the world one step toward a time when there would be no such item in existence. 

Prince Albert in a can

Truth be told, you likely have some such items stacked in a storage unit or stashed around your home in a shed, porch, closet or under the bed. Of course, we like to call them “collectibles” because this term has a built-in justification for hanging on to these “treasures.”

I’ll give of some examples of mine. But note: they are not for sale. In fact, I’d rather call 1-800-No Stuff than sell them for paltry pieces of silver. Here goes. 

* I have “Prince Albert in a can.” Now, if this phrase means nothing to you, you are far too young. Prince Albert was a popular pipe tobacco by R. J. Reynolds Company. It was sold in a bright red tin can. 

Back when boys played harmless pranks, their favorite was to gather around the phone, call a local grocery store, and ask the proprietor, “Do you have Prince Albert in a can?” When the unsuspecting storekeeper answered, “Yes,” the boys would shout, “Well, let him out before he suffocates!” 

I have one of those red tin cans, which houses Prince Albert. And when I see it, I recall Sammy and Joey, Mickey and “Boob,” and Mr. Batt, the storekeeper. 

* “Who’s Who in Baseball, 1939.” This book was published the year that the National Baseball Hall of Fame opened. In addition, for the New York Yankees ballclub, Lou Gehrig and Joe DiMaggio are photographed as teammates. It was that year, on April 30, that Lou Gehrig, “the Iron Horse of baseball,” would take himself out of the lineup, thus ending his consecutive games record at 2,130 and his playing career.  

Lou Gehrig baseball card, 1934

* An automobile license plate from 1954, the year I graduated high school. The tag number is Penna. 4AL 99. How could I do without that? 

* A counterfeit $10 bill, which I received from a Washington, D.C., bank. The artwork and graphics are very impressive, but the paper is like a flimsy felt. It retains an interest for me as a piece of art. (By the way, it is not illegal for a person to possess a counterfeit bill unless he is trying to pass it off as genuine.) 

* A telegram sent in 1933, by Moe Berg, the most erudite baseball player ever to play the game. A catcher for the Washington Senators, he held a law degree from Columbia, spoke about eight languages and served as a spy during WWII.

He sent this Christmas telegram to a lady friend, Diane Smith, at Washington’s Wardman Park Hotel, where the Senators ballclub stayed when in town. Diane passed it on to me years ago.

* A typed letter from film critic Roger Ebert, in 1981 (long before he became one of today’s foremost tweeters, er, tweeterers, er, tweetists, er, tweetologists or whatever they’re called). It was about the movie, “My Dinner With Andre,” which he and Gene Siskel had both given a “thumbs up.” In this letter to me, Mr. Ebert makes a very funny observation about another critic that I wouldn’t want to be without.

* An Armed Services Edition of James M. Cain’s classic novel, “Double Indemnity.” This was one of the 1,322 titles, which the ASE printed on pulp paper for free distribution to U.S. military personnel around the world. 

* Lucky Strike cigarettes had not yet “gone to war” in 1939. So they were still being sold in the original green packs. That would change to white in 1941 when green ink became scarce due to military needs. In addition to the 20-pack, “Luckies” could also be purchased in a flat tin containing 50 cigarettes and called “flat fifties.” I have one of those green and red cans. 

1943 zinc penny

* A musical program autographed to my wife, Geri, and me by Frank Sinatra’s son and daughter, Frank Jr. and Nancy. 

* An RCA 45 rpm portable phonograph of 1950. These compact beauties were manufactured for only a few years. 

* A silver-colored penny. Of course it bears the year 1943, which was the only year they were minted. Made of steel with zinc coating, these coins were intended to save copper essential for WWII ammunition and radio equipment. 

* A 1920s “Esquire” magazine with a short story by a contemporaneous writer named F. Scott Fitzgerald. 

* A movie program of the spectacular “Spartacus” with autographs I received from two of the film’s stars, Tony Curtis and Jean Simmons. 

* A 1945 “demo” record “for radio play only” of Frank Sinatra singing the classic “My Melancholy Baby.” 

If you don’t find these collectibles worthy of preservation and safe keeping, well, I may not like yours either.

Vance Garnett’s writings have appeared in major newspapers and magazines. They have won the praise of such luminaries as the legendary Paul Harvey, White House speechwriter/columnist William Safire, and Shirley Povich. dean of American sportswriters.  

This article is the copyrighted property of the writer and Communities @ Written permission must be obtained before reprint in online or print media. REPRINTING TWTC CONTENT WITHOUT PERMISSION AND/OR PAYMENT IS THEFT AND PUNISHABLE BY LAW.

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Vance Garnett

Vance Garnett is an eclectic observer of life, politics and sports. 

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