May 23, 2022

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Sports Really Satisfies

At Robbie’s First Base, They’ve Got Mail—and Memorabilia

ven though he’s wearing enemy colors, Ed Soth is greeted the same way he usually is when he walks into Robbie’s First Base—with some good-natured ribbing.

“We’re going to stop letting you in here with that hat,” says Robbie Davis Jr., half of what might be the most well-known Senior-Junior tandem in the world of Baltimore sports . . . memorabilia. “How’d you get to be a Yankees fan?”

The conversation that ensues is similar to ones that take place in bars, at barbershops, and during ballgames every day: a group of old friends shooting the breeze about sports. The fact that it happens to be taking place in what is likely the world’s only sports memorabilia/mail service store just adds to the fun.

When Robbie Davis Sr., 71, opened the store in this small Lutherville strip mall in 1989, he had no idea that one day he’d be working alongside his sons, Robbie Jr., 43, and Matthew, 32. He didn’t know that the business would morph from dealing primarily with FedEx and UPS packages to making deals for Frank Robinson and Johnny Unitas autographs. He certainly couldn’t have imagined that the family would star in an ABC reality series and be featured in a Netflix show scheduled to drop this summer.

The exchange going down is exactly what has attracted television producers, audiences, and, most importantly, regular old customers to Robbie’s.

“I grew up at the old stadium, used to sneak in all the time,” says Soth, who often comes in to send packages and stays to hang out. “Want to hear a funny story?”

It’s a rhetorical question—everyone at Robbie’s is always up for a laugh.

“One day I was there, I’m 11 years old, and I’m sitting in the stands and Mantle is in the field,” Soth says. “Ball is hit, comes right to me, and I reach over and grab [it]. Ball hits me in the hand and falls to the [warning] track. Swear to God, Mantle walks over, picks the ball up, looks at me, and I think he’s gonna toss it up to me. That sonofabitch turned and walked away.”

Sitting at his cluttered desk behind the counter, Senior, as many people call him, lets out a belly laugh. From his slightly less messy desk a few feet away, Junior does the same.

“We have a lot of people who just come in and talk sports,” Junior says. “We get 85-year-old grandmas in here on a Monday morning talking Ravens. They’ll say, ‘Did you see that play that Lamar made?’ I can’t believe my ears. That’s what makes it cool.”

Robbie Davis Sr. grew up in West Baltimore, where, as he likes to remind people, he was a “really good” baseball player at Edmondson-Westside High School.

“I always tell my son that even though he got signed to a pro contract, I was better than him,” he says. “And he can’t refute it, because I’m the only one who’s seen us both play.”

After graduating, he served as a combat medic in the Army before going into the car business. At one point, he co-owned 12 dealerships in Maryland, Virginia, and Pennsylvania. Among them were All-Star Dodge and All-Star Chevrolet on Route 40. Orioles’ legends Brooks Robinson and Eddie Murray were among the athletes that did commercials for the dealerships, and Davis developed friendships with several guys on the team. When the O’s went on road trips, Davis would occasionally house-sit for Murray.

“Eddie Murray knew me before I knew who he was,” Junior says. “To me he was just a guy who was friends with my dad.”

One of Senior’s partners at the dealership collected baseball cards, and he took note when the man made some money buying and selling them. When he left the car business and opened a postal services store in Catonsville, then another in Lutherville, Senior put out a few boxes of baseball cards on the weekends.

Quickly, he realized that the Topps were topping his sales. He began buying and selling other brands that were hot at the time, like Upper Deck, and closed the Catonsville store to focus on the one in Lutherville.

 

“. . . THE BEST PART WAS GETTING TO BE AROUND PEOPLE THAT WERE AS PASSIONATE ABOUT COLLECTING MEMORABILIA AS WE ARE.”

 

“You never have a business where you can make money right away,” he says. “Well, the first month we opened up we were in the black.”

Perhaps his biggest challenge was keeping his sons from playing with his inventory. Where Senior saw an investment, Junior saw a pastime.

“He would buy all these unopened boxes and tell me, ‘Don’t open them,’” Junior recalls. “He would put them in our house in this room, and of course, I’m a little kid, so I’d be in there opening the packs because that’s what kids do. It’s no fun to just sit there and look at a box.”

A baseball addict from a young age, Junior played center field in college and was signed by the Milwaukee Brewers. When his career fizzled out in the minor leagues, he began working with his father in the store. As Robbie’s grew, the Davises began buying and selling all kinds of sports memorabilia: jerseys, autographed baseballs, seats from the old Memorial Stadium and Cole Field House. One of the most expensive items they acquired was a Babe Ruth signed baseball for $20,000. They later sold it for a tidy profit.

As their reputation continued to grow, more and more athletes started stopping by the store. Al Bumbry has been friends with Senior since they met in the mid-’80s. The Orioles Hall of Famer, who was awarded a Bronze Star for his service in the Army during the Vietnam War, still drops in often.

“The store presents a very social, laidback, easygoing atmosphere,” says Bumbry, the 1973 American League Rookie of the Year and a member of Baltimore’s 1983 World Series championship team. “People don’t feel pressured there because Bob’s a people person. Once he connects with you and becomes friends with you, he’s one of those guys that I would take in the foxhole with me.”

Lewis Brown was a 15-year-old kid when he first went to Robbie’s.

“Senior, he likes to take chances on people,” he says. “I didn’t grow up the richest, so sometimes I’d be in there and I’d go, ‘Mom, I want to get this,’ and she’d say, ‘Well I don’t have the money for it.’ There was a Barry Bonds-signed baseball. It was like a hundred and some dollars. He was like, ‘Just take it, and when you get the money just come in and pay for it.’ Ain’t nobody does that.”

It took Brown, now 35, a few weeks to scrape together the money. When he returned to the store, Senior offered him a job. He’s been working there ever since. When he was trying to save $10,000 for a down payment on a house, Senior asked how he was going to do it.

“I was like, ‘I don’t know. I’ll figure it out,’” Brown says. “He goes, ‘I’ll lend you the money and you can just pay me back when you get it.’ That’s the type of guy he is.”

In 2010, the producers of the reality show Pawn Stars contacted the Davises with an idea. They wanted to film a series about the business and its cast of characters. The core four in the show would be Robbie Sr., Robbie Jr., Brown, and Robbie Reier, another longtime employee. There was only one problem: way too many Robbies. Thus, Senior became Senior, Junior became Junior, Brown became “Sweet Lou,” and the then-baby-faced Reier became “Shaggy.”

In 12 episodes of Ball Boys, the guys goofed on each other, debated sports, negotiated with buyers and sellers, and interacted with greats from the sports world. They played basketball with former University of Michigan Fab Fiver Jalen Rose. Hall of Fame quarterback Warren Moon fired footballs at them. The legendary running back Jim Brown came to the store, but of all the sports royalty they met, baseball’s hit king, Pete Rose, was their favorite.

After shooting a segment, Rose asked for a restaurant recommendation for lunch. When Senior told him the production company would only pay a pittance for their food, Rose whipped $10,000 cash out of his pocket.

“He’s the kind of guy that if you go to a bar you want to hang out with,” Senior says.

When Sweet Lou asked for a personalized autograph, Rose wrote, “To Lou, you big fat piece of shit.”

“I loved that,” Brown says.

The show ran for just one season in 2012, but it was rebroadcast for years after that and is still available on ABC’s app. It raised the store’s profile both locally and nationally—they still get customers who say they heard of Robbie’s from Ball Boys.

“It was awesome,” Junior says. “I liked being on TV, but the best part was getting to be around people that were as passionate about collecting memorabilia as we are. We met people from all around the country, and we got to share our stories.”

Bob Windsor, aka Burger King Bob, is milling about the store, going back and forth with Senior about . . .something or other. The two are old friends. They get together on Sundays to watch football at Windsor’s house, where he makes sure Senior always has chips to snack on and Hennessy to wash them down.

An avid collector, he’s bought everything from a Babe Ruth-autographed baseball to Michael Jordan’s shoes at Robbie’s. But the products aren’t what keep him coming back.

“If there was a pot belly stove and an old dog, you’d be there for hours every day,” says Windsor, whose nickname stems from his job as a “financial guy” for several Burger King franchises. “It’s that homey.”

That’s never changed at Robbie’s, but the preferences of memorabilia consumers are ever-evolving. After a down period in the ’90s and 2000s, cards are back in vogue. And not just baseball cards. These days, Pokémon is as popular as Paul Molitor.

“I had a kid buy two $8 packs and he got a $700 card in there,” Junior says. “That’s what these cards are all about now. It’s all about the gamble.”

That being said, there are some athletes whose appeal is timeless in Baltimore. Cal Ripken Jr., Brooks Robinson, Gary Williams, and Ray Lewis items always sell quickly. But there’s one athlete whose popularity Junior says is unprecedented.

“Nothing’s been like Lamar,” he says of the Ravens quarterback. “[Jackson] has been the biggest craze that we’ve seen in this business since we’ve been open. People can’t get enough of him.”

Although the Davises are hometown fans—they live and die with the Orioles and the Ravens—and love sports memorabilia, the business requires a sort of cold lack of sentimentality. Anything they acquire could be gone the next moment.

“People say, ‘Is this for sale?’” Senior says. “I say, ‘Come on, if it’s got a price tag on it, it’s for sale.’”

Still, there are a few items in which they seem to take special pride. Near Senior’s desk hangs a signed photo of Orioles Mike Morgan and Fred Lynn from the mid-’80s. Lynn’s note reads, “To Bob, the second-best ballplayer I know.”

“That’s because I always told him I was as good as him,” Senior says, chuckling.

Above Junior’s desk is another framed photo, this one with Lynn and Eddie Murray standing over Senior, who is sitting in a chair with his then-eight-year-old son, Robbie Jr., on his lap.

Neither of those items have a price tag.