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Don Mahler: A Very GREEN Sweater

Josh Evans knows a good thing when he sees one. And last weekend, he knew he had found something special.

But even he — chairman and founder of Lelands Sports Auction House — didn’t know right off just how special it was.

To one with a curious eye, the green-hued sweater with the white felt D sewn on the front rated a quick glance on the way to the next table of memorabilia during last week’s Papermania ephemera and collectible show in Hartford, Conn.

But if you’re going to play in the big leagues, you gotta know what you’re looking for. Josh Evans did. And to Evans, this was a show-stopper.

As Evans gave the jersey a closer look, he was stunned by its color, style and overall quality. The D was a giveaway that it was a Dartmouth College item, but it was hard to tell that this was a hockey jersey — with the exception of the two crossed hockey sticks on the front.

The key for Evans was its age. Just how old was this jersey? And if it was as old as Evans believed, the condition was startling. So was the workmanship.

“The neck style was particular to the period, and the color — that Dartmouth green — is a very rare color for the time. There were no dyes at that time to make that color,” Evans said in a recent interview. “To find something with that green (color) and from that time period and in such good condition was exceptional.”

It just so happened that the vendor selling the jersey was the twin brother of a guy who worked for Evans, so the sale went relatively easily. The seller offered the jersey to Evans for $600.

“I jumped at it for that price,” said Evans. “I knew I had something nice.”

With the deal closed, the seller took pause: “As soon as you said yes, I knew I made a mistake.”

How much a mistake would be evident in a matter of hours, when Evans put it up for auction.

As one of the most knowledgeable people in the sports memorabilia field, Evans’ research quickly showed him he had a diamond in the rough. As explained on the Lelands website, “An incredible piece of United States college hockey history is offered here in this over 100-year-old sweater. … This dark green wool sweater is in museum-worthy condition with a white felt ‘D’ (Dartmouth) sewn on the front with two hockey sticks crossed behind it with smaller ‘H’ and ‘T’ (Hockey Team) felt letters sewn on each side of the ‘D.’ The cuffs, collar and hem are in terrific condition with no fraying and solid stitching still intact. … One of the earliest hockey sweaters known to exist and given its condition.”

Evans obviously was sure he had something unique — but did he have a buyer?

“You never know how it’s going to go,” Evans admitted. “I wasn’t sure if the market was there for the price.”

Evans and his staff are no strangers to high-ticket memorabilia items. Just a year ago, Lelands, whose corporate offices are in Bohemia, N.Y., purchased the earliest known jersey worn by Babe Ruth for more than $4.4 million before turning it over in a private sale. The Lelands.com website lists other important individual pieces such as the document of Babe Ruth’s sale to the Yankees, ($99,000), Mickey Mantle’s 1960 jersey ($111,100) and perhaps the single most famous transaction in sports memorabilia history, the sale of the infamous “Mookie ball” — known to Red Sox fans as the baseball hit by Mookie Wilson that slipped through Bill Buckner’s legs in the 1986 World Series — to actor Charlie Sheen for $93,500.

The Dartmouth hockey jersey would not play on that price level, but Evans knew he had a hot item for a specialized group.

The bidding started slowly, around $1,000. There was no way Evans was going to let it go for that price. Then it started picking up … $2,000, $3,000, $5,000.

“Now we have a ballgame,” thought Evans.

He certainly did. In the last few hours, the bids just kept climbing … $5,000, $10,000 and finally $12,000. “Going, going, gone,” said Evans.

In all, there were 26 bids. The final, winning bid was for $12,615.67. (Evans was unable to give the name of the winning bidder.)

For Evans, who had started dealing in memorabilia at the tender age of 8 years old, there was a special feeling of accomplishment when it was all over.

“It was more than just a good feeling about a good sale. There was the exultation in making a good buy,” he said. “But more, it was they appreciated what I knew was great.”

Like an athlete who makes a great play, there are years of practice and hard work that go into making that moment successful. The same can be said for what Evans does.

“I knew to walk the floor (the last day of the show) on Sunday,” he said. “I knew to stop by the guy who has that table and check it over. I knew how good (the jersey) was when I saw it. And I knew what to do with it.”

Luck is for amateurs. This takes hard work, skill, knowledge and experience.

“I’ve been doing this my whole life,” says Evans. “Every time I walk out the door, I’m looking to make something happen.”

And this time, that something was a Dartmouth hockey sweater, described as worthy of any Hall of Fame display.

Not bad for a $600 purchase.

Don Mahler can be reached at dmahler@vnews.com or 603-727-3225.