Aaron letter is history in his hands

Here is the letter, seven lines long, written on a two-hole sheet of notebook paper. It is an old letter, speckled with time, folded and unfolded and, finally, placed in a plastic sheath collectors call a top loader.

Jeffrey Gitomer holds the sheath up to eye level.

“Mobile, Alabama,” he says. “November 22, 1951.”

He begins to read.

“Dear Mr. Pollack. I receive you letter, and it is entirely satisfactory with my parents Mr. & Mrs. Aaron, that I may join the Indianapolis Clowns next season.”

The words were written to Syd Pollack, owner of a Negro League baseball team. The author is 17-year-old Henry Aaron, the future home run king, not yet a professional baseball player, even then polite and dignified. “My parents Mr. & Mrs. Aaron.” So intimate. Priceless.

Well, not priceless. Four months ago, Gitomer, a Charlotte businessman, paid $21,000 for the letter at a sports auction outside Philadelphia. He outlasted several others, including the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum, ultimately bidding the most anyone remembers for a modern athlete's penned note.

And yes, he would be the first to say he might have overpaid. But Hank Aaron is his hero, and if we're to learn anything about those who collect pieces of heroes, it's this: Value is defined as how badly you want something.

What is it, then, that Gitomer wants?

He is 62 years old, a college dropout who has built a sales training empire. He has written eight best-selling books – including the original, Little Red Book of Selling – each a blend of pep talking, pants kicking, digestible sales tips. He is, friends say, charming and ribald – and like his books, he speaks in blustery declaratives.

“In any field,” he says, “there is an expert, a world-class expert, and there's THE world-class expert. I'm THE world-class expert in sales.”

The longtime Charlottean also is owner of a startling collection of sports memorabilia, housed in a well-wired hideaway secret to most who know him. There, he keeps jerseys and balls and programs and photos, most of them one of a kind.

It's a world we sometimes sneer at but kind of understand, a universe that begins with a kid leaning a 10-cent baseball card against a nightstand lamp and ends with an adult paying thousands, tens of thousands, for that same kind of connection.

“I bid to own,” he says. “Not to outbid someone else. I buy what I want.”

What he wants, more than most of the pieces he already has, is something he can't buy. He wants to meet the man who wrote the letter in his hands.

“Sincerely yours,” he reads. “Henry Aaron.”

Then he looks up. And he lets out a breath.

“Totally cool,” he says.

A piece of rich relevance

More than 1,100 items were up for bidding March 7 and 8 at the prestigious Hunt Auction, 30 miles west of Philadelphia. But it was the Hank Aaron letter, one of several pieces from the estate of Syd Pollack, that intrigued auction house owner David Hunt. “I'm a big fan of historically relevant pieces,” he says. “What caused them to be created? What's the story?” He set the letter's value at $3,000-$4,000.

About 500 bidders were present, either in a hotel conference room or participating online. That's where Ray Doswell was, at his computer at the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in Kansas City. Doswell, the curator, always gets a heads-up when Hunt auctions black baseball artifacts – and the Aaron letter, well, it was special.

“That letter – that's where the light goes on for people,” says Bob Kendrick, the museum's spokesman. “All of a sudden, these stories start to ring a little more true. They know what Hank accomplished and what Willie Mays accomplished. But that letter, it's a validation, a piece of our story.”

A piece. That's what Jeffrey Gitomer calls his collectibles, too. A piece of Tiger, of Wilt, of the Babe. He doesn't resell these pieces. He rarely shows them. So what exactly is it that he has?

History is filled with men who believed they mattered because they possessed something of someone notable. And Gitomer, certainly, is not without ego. Anyone can have a Babe Ruth autographed ball, he says, but he has a 1938 envelope on which the Babe wrote his name and address. Anyone can have autographs from the 1980 U.S. Olympic hockey team, which he does, but who else has a team picture, with signatures, of the Soviets who lost?

But for him, collecting is more about remembering, about the successes he's admired. “It's about the link,” he says.

He got his first collectible in 1960, as a resident of Camp Pine Forest near Philly, the same summer camp that once happened to employ a kitchen helper named Wilt Chamberlain. Wilt came back that summer, and he signed a postcard for 14-year-old Jeffrey, who promptly mailed it home with his own words on the other side: “Dear Mom and Dad, I played ball with Wilt the Stilt today. Here's his autograph. Please save this card.”

He is a baseball fan most of all – his hometown Phillies, of course, but also the two teams that toppled the Yankees of his youth. They are the 1960 Pittsburgh Pirates, with Bill Mazeroski and Roberto Clemente, and the 1957 Milwaukee Braves, with Warren Spahn and Eddie Mathews and the young man who would be better than them all.

“Look at this,” Gitomer says, pointing to a framed picture of Henry Aaron and four Milwaukee teammates, sitting in a clubhouse with an elderly man, who is holding out a baseball bat. The other players are looking away, but Aaron is intent on the man with that bat. It is Ty Cobb, one of the game's greatest hitters.

“Could he be more intense?” Gitomer says of Aaron. “The guy is a student, an intense student.”

And that is his connection. Jeffrey Gitomer, THE world-class sales expert on sales, is a student, always trying to get better. Jeffrey Gitomer, THE best-seller and coveted corporate speaker, knows struggles. He dropped out of Temple University, sold mobile homes, hit financial bottom, endured an acrimonious divorce.

Certainly, his journey was nowhere near as difficult as Henry Aaron's, but Aaron reminds him how to do it gracefully.

“Here's a guy who can make it through anything and be a champion,” Gitomer says. “Not make it through anything and be a good guy – but be a good guy and a champion. He's my hero.”

And so, when Gitomer finally saw the Aaron letter on March 9, he knew it would be his.

The bidding quickly zoomed toward $20,000, too pricey for the Negro Leagues Museum. “We really wanted it,” Kendrick says, “but it just wasn't in our budget.” At the end, bids flew around the room – “very active, heavy bidding,” says Hunt – but Gitomer already had made his decision.

“You have people who bid for investment, and that's it,” Hunt says. “And you have people like Jeffrey, who collect for themselves and only show a few people. These people – they really do care about an item. They really do understand what it is.”

After the auction, Gary Caruso, a reporter for the Atlanta Braves magazine Choptalk, interviewed Gitomer about the purchase. The collector told Caruso his story – the 1957 Braves, Hank Aaron, big fan.

Caruso asked: Would Gitomer like to meet Aaron?

Yes, the collector said.

“Absolutely,” he says now.

He has thought about how that meeting would go. “No autographs,” he says. Just a thank you, a handshake and walk away.

What would he do if Aaron asked for the letter? A trade – the piece of Hank Aaron for the moment with Hank Aaron?

Gitomer shakes his head slowly. He has thought about this, too.

“I don't know,” he says.

An opening to hope

Let's get the suspense out of the way.

Jeffrey Gitomer has not met Hank Aaron.

Caruso, as promised, asked Aaron's assistant, who said the reclusive Aaron wouldn't be interested in meeting the man who owns the letter. Aaron declined to comment for this story.

Still – Jeffrey Gitomer could meet Hank Aaron. His spokesperson, Susan Bailey, has left the door just a bit ajar – maybe if Gitomer comes to a Braves game, and Aaron is at the same Braves game, and Aaron is not busy …

It's the kind of opening Gitomer could drive a truckload of motivational sales books through. Go back to the original – the Little Red Book. There it is, in the introduction: “Nothing happens until you do something to make it happen.” Or Chapter Six: “If you can't get in front of the real decision maker, you s***” Or on so many of the pages: Don't quit. Stick at it until you win. It's what he does, what he sells. It's who he is.

“No,” he says. He won't force a meeting with Aaron.

And: “If you force it, it's not the right thing.”

And: “Someday, it'll happen.”

He has decided, meanwhile, about something else he'd like to do. He wants to let the Negro Baseball Museum display a few of his pieces – including the Hank Aaron letter.

“Ohhh, yes,” says the museum's Bob Kendrick, laughing. “We'd definitely be interested in that.”

Gitomer hasn't decided how he would do it – a loan of some sort. It's also difficult to explain exactly why. Maybe it's that he understands a little more now about not getting what he wants. Maybe he's been thinking about this item, about what it means to him, and therefore might mean to others.

“People should get to see this,” he says, and he nods at the possibility. A nice display. “Dear Mr. Pollack …” From the collection of Jeffrey Gitomer. A piece of Henry Aaron, shared.