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From Ali to Jordan to Nadal: The Extraordinary Collections of Ronnie Paloger

PJ Kinsella in Consignor Stories

Sep 29 — 6 mins read

By: Amar Shah

"The Greatest" made an offer to Ronnie Paloger he couldn't refuse. Somehow, he did.

The year was 1995, and Paloger received a phone call. It was Muhammad Ali's agent. Paloger knew Ali would come to Los Angeles occasionally and do signings at card shows.

“I knew his manager," Paloger said. "And his manager knew I was assembling this sick Muhammad Ali collection. I said I'd love to meet him next time he comes to LA.”

A few years earlier, in 1992, Paloger started on his path towards assembling the definitive Muhammad Ali collection after he bought an Ali-signed check for $110 at The National in Atlanta. By 1995, he was about 80% complete.

On the day Paloger got the call from Ali’s agent, he said, “Ronnie, Muhammad is in town. He's doing a radio thing. He's going to be at this LAX hotel off Century Boulevard. He's expecting you. Be there at three o'clock. Bring some of your best stuff.”

Paloger felt elated. He went to his storage facility and filled two pillowcases worth of gloves, handwritten letters, contracts, trophies, and other memorabilia. Accompanied by his young son, Paloger went to the hotel. He was told Muhammad would be on the second floor. They ascended a gigantic staircase, like one from “Gone With the Wind.”

When they got upstairs, no one was there except Muhammad Ali sitting at the piano. Ali stopped playing, stood up, and started walking towards Paloger and his son.

“And then when he's right in front of me and my son, he bends down and, of course, shakes my son's hand first. And then he takes mine,” Paloger said.

After their introduction, Paloger took out several items, like letters, including one where Ali predicted that he would win the gold medal in the Olympics.

"He looks at me like, ‘Where did you get that?’” Paloger recalls. “I said, ‘I bought it.’” 

After looking through all of Paloger’s items, Ali looked at him and said, “This is unbelievable what you have done. How much do you think your collection is worth?”

Paloger had no idea. He guessed it was worth at least a million dollars.

Ali said, "Okay, listen, I really want this stuff," Paloger recalls. "I'm prepared right now to write you a check for $750,000."

And before Paloger could say anything, Ali asked his wife, Lonnie, to go to his room and bring out his checkbook. She came back with a check. Ali asked Paloger how he spelled his last name.

"I told him, ‘I cannot sell you my collection,’” Paloger said. “The reason is, number one, it's not 100% complete. The reason I put this collection together was to start a Muhammad Ali Museum in the United States. And if I sell my collection to you, I'll never have that opportunity again.”

Ali then looked at him and broke into a half smile, saying, “Good, I was just kidding.”

“I heard afterward that he was testing me. He wanted to see if I was just another opportunistic guy who was trying to make a buck off his name.”

In 1997, Paloger sold his entire Ali collection at auction for $1.3 million, which included the robe, trunks, and shoes from the 1974 heavyweight championship fight against George Foreman dubbed “The Rumble in the Jungle.” In 2013, REA sold just the shoes for more than $100,000.

Muhammad Ali's shoes from his "Rumble in the Jungle" fight that sold for more than $100K.

Muhammad Ali's shoes from his "Rumble in the Jungle" fight that sold for more than $100K.

“To this day, it’s the greatest, most valuable, and most historically significant Muhammad Ali collection in the world, hands down,” Paloger said.

“I went to college when Ali became a conscientious objector,” Paloger said. "And for my generation, being a white middle-class kid in the '60s, Ali was the first major Black athlete that resonated with my generation. Particularly because of his stance on the Vietnam War and giving up his title for three and a half years. Because he was, in my opinion, still the greatest.”

Ali wasn't the last American icon that Paloger would chase down as a collector. The same zeal that consumed him with Muhammad Ali continued with John F. Kennedy.

Paloger gradually put all the pieces together for a JFK collection that few had ever seen. It included letters announcing his candidacy for president and the correspondence he exchanged with the mother of Harold Marney, his PT 109 crewmate who died when the boat was rammed and sunk by the Japanese in 1943.

He eventually sold the JFK collection in 2020.

Paloger also collected baseball cards until he was 12, soon after becoming infatuated with the infamous Horrors of War cards. Produced in 1938 by the Philadelphia-based Gum, Inc, the Horrors of War series chronicled the world's five biggest conflicts from 1937 to 1938, including the Japanese invasion of China and the Spanish Civil War.

His Horrors of War collection earned him a place in the PSA Set Registry Hall of Fame, and in 2010, he sold it for $700,000.

Paloger knows the game of collecting, and in his 74 years, he has an endless supply of stories, including his experience with Michael Jordan’s Fleer 1986 rookie.

In REA’s February 2021 Encore Auction, he consigned six Jordan cards that included a 1986 Fleer #57 Jordan Rookie PSA 10 that sold for $612,000 and a 1986 Fleer Basketball Sticker #8 Jordan Rookie PSA 10 that sold for $192,000. Altogether, his six Jordan items sold for a combined $943,000. 

The 1986 Fleer Jordan Rookie PSA 10 that sold for $612,000 in February 2021

The 1986 Fleer Jordan Rookie PSA 10 that sold for $612,000 in February 2021

Being a competitive tennis player, even into his 70s, Paloger’s latest venture is collecting Rafael Nadal cards.

“I have the number one finest set with a GPA of over 9.4,” Paloger said. “I put more than $250,000 into the set already and it's an obsession.”

He hopes to help put together a museum exhibit with all the cards.

But just as much drive and passion Paloger puts into his collections, he's also driven to know life is finite. Time is something we can't collect. Paloger was diagnosed with Multiple Myeloma, an incurable cancer. He's in remission now, and though he isn't starting any new collections, he's still buying and consigning.

His complete set (108) of 1951 Bowman “Jets, Rockets, and Spacemen” cards is currently ranked #2 on the PSA Set Registry with an 8.366 GPA. It will be a featured item in REA’s Fall 2023 Catalog Auction that opens on November 17. 

Paloger recently purchased a Type One photograph of George Mikan and a 2016 Olympic torch from Brazil signed by Pele. He’s also become quite the Shohei Ohtani fan.

“I'm sitting on a Shohei Ohtani game-worn inscribed jersey that he wore on September 21, 2021, when he hit his 45th home run.”

The MJ943K license plate on Ronnie Paloger's 2020 Corvette is a nod to REA's sale of his Michael Jordan cards for a combined $943K

The MJ943K license plate on Ronnie Paloger's 2020 Corvette is a nod to REA's sale of his Michael Jordan cards for a combined $943K

Paloger is pleased with his collecting legacy.

“I still have a force,” Paloger says. “I still have things that people want. I still think I have an eye. Some things I do well with, some things I don't do as well with, but I don't know many guys in their 70s who are still making it happen. I still am."

It's like The Greatest once said. “Don't count the days. Make the days count.”

Indeed, Ronnie Paloger still is.

Amar Shah is a multiple Emmy-winning writer and producer who has written for ESPN.com, NFL.com, The Wall Street Journal, The Orlando Sentinel, Sports Illustrated for Kids, Slam Magazine and The Washington Post. In the 90s, Amar was a teen sports reporter and got to hang out with the Chicago Bulls during their golden era. He even landed on the cover for Sports Illustrated for Kids with Shaquille O’Neal. His debut novel "The Hoop Con" comes out on February 6, 2024 with Scholastic. You can preorder here:  https://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/the-hoop-con-amar-shah/1143287376?ean=9781338840315

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