Why Stockton U. was given $1M worth of Nolan Ryan memorabilia — and what school will do with it

The Texas Rangers, Houston Astros, California Angels — even the New York Mets — all lay some sort of claim to the Hall of Fame baseball career of pitcher Nolan Ryan.

South Jersey and Stockton University do not.

But, while those Major League Baseball teams were helping Ryan accumulate his never-likely-to-be-topped career records of 5,714 strikeouts and seven no-hitters, South Jersey collector Leo Ullman was busy accumulating something else: What is believed to be the largest collection of Nolan Ryan memorabilia in the world.

Stockton University President Harvey Kessleman, left, with Leo Ullman.

On Wednesday, Ullman and Stockton University announced that he was donating his memorabilia to the school — a collection of more than 15,000 items valued at more than $1 million.

The school then announced it is taking advantage of the unique gift.

Leamor Kahanov, the provost and vice president for academic affairs at Stockton, said the school will be developing a class on collecting with the exhibit as its focus for the spring 2023 semester.

“We believe the collection will be a great academic resource for courses like sport history or statistics,” he said.

There certainly will be plenty of items to discuss.

The collection features standard baseball collectors’ fare, including more than 8,500 baseball cards, about 3,000 of which are signed by hand. But there are also some more unusual items, including:

  • Signed cowboy boots;
  • A full-size leather saddle featuring Ryan’s likeness;
  • High school yearbooks;
  • Seven hand-painted baseballs, one for each of Ryan’s no-hitters, by American pop artist Charles Fazzino that are signed by Ryan;
  • Progressive proofs of a number of Topps cards, various proofs and pristine rookie and other significant cards;
  • A watercolor painting of Ryan by Dick Perez of Perez-Steele Galleries that was used in Ryan’s Hall of Fame induction ceremony in 1999; and
  • Various items from his charity golf and fishing tournaments, his restaurants, his cattle ranches, his bank, his save in the 1969 Mets World Series victory, plus Hall of Fame items, baseballs and tickets from specific victories and strikeout achievements.

Ullman said his collection is both eclectic and all encompassing.

“Thousands of baseball cards, bats, balls, hats, gloves, shirts, shoes, boots, stamps, postal cachets, coins, bobbleheads, statuettes, knives, saddles, posters, photos, paintings, carvings, pennants, Beanie Babies, exercise equipment, ice cream sticks, guitar picks and every kind of candy and food you can imagine,” he said.

The collection is more than the sum of its more than 15,000 parts, appraiser Leon Castner said.

“This collection is probably the largest private collection in existence, and covers all types of memorabilia, from the mundane and common to the unusual and rare,” he said. “This collection is not simply an accumulation of individual items. It is an archive of modern sports collectability.”

The memorabilia comes with this interesting factoid: Ullman has met Ryan at a few charity events, but the two have never had a substantive discussion about Ullman’s collection.

Ullman is thrilled the collection has found a new home at Stockton and that there will be a class designed around it. He said he believes it’s worth a course on the prospect and on the effort of collecting and creating value through collecting.

“As much as I admire Nolan Ryan, both as a person and for his career in baseball, without limit, the collection — and a book that will shortly be released on the collection — is focused not about Nolan Ryan per se,” Ullman said, “but, rather, it’s all about collecting a very significant part of all that’s out there to honor this special iconic person.”

But just how did such a collection find its way to Stockton and South Jersey, neither of which has any tie to one of the greatest pitchers of all time?

That’s an interesting story, too.

Ullman was in Wisconsin, waiting for the birth of a grandson. He had some time to kill, since he wasn’t allowed to go into the hospital, and noticed that there was a card show at a motel next door.

“I bought 12 Nolan Ryan cards for $1 each, thinking I had a collection, having no idea what I was getting into,” he said.

“I had no goal. I knew I’d never capture the entire market. I just found the products interesting. There’s also a measure of joy in finding something that you didn’t know existed, or in acquiring an item that was impossible to find.”

Ullman, 83, is the president of Vastgood Properties, a private real estate and management company. He is the former owner of the Shore Mall in Egg Harbor Township.

His ties to Stockton go back several years. He and his wife, Kay, funded the creation of the Schimmel and Hoogenboom Righteous Remembrance Room at the university’s Sara & Sam Schoffer Holocaust Resource Center. The room honors the people who sheltered and protected Ullman and his family in Amsterdam, Netherlands, during the Holocaust.

The donation comes at a time when there has been renewed interest in Ryan due to a new documentary titled “Facing Nolan,” which is available on streaming services July 19.