Top Nolan Ryan collector? Yup, we found him

If it has the Hall of Famer's image on it, Leo S. Ullman probably owns it

September 29th, 2021

Drive down the right street in a quaint New York suburb, and before you reach the end of the block you'll find treasure. But no, it's not gold dubloons buried deep in the Earth, nor is it the expansive view of the crystalline water lapping at the horizon.

No, the real treasure is down in the basement: That's where Leo S. Ullman -- who is featured in the newest episode of MLB.TV's "Carded" -- keeps the largest collection of Nolan Ryan merchandise on the planet.

Ullman, a lawyer and president of Vastgood Properties, is a collector. It's all he's ever wanted to do -- whether it was the careful cataloguing of cigar bands as a child -- a practice he keeps to this day -- to the Chinese snuff bottles he has on shelves in his bedroom, to the some 13,500 pieces of Ryan memorabilia he has in his basement. This puts him in good company. Jefferson R. Burdick is considered the forefather of modern card collecting, but while he owned thousands of baseball cards, Burdick also collected greeting cards, cigar wrappers, advertisements and any and all printed ephemera. Collectors, quite simply, collect.

"I think it's learning more about something that makes you interesting," Ullman said in a conversation earlier this summer. "Perhaps you're creating some value, thinking you're creating something that has value. It puts you ahead of other people, in conversations and in perceptions of people, in terms of, 'Wow, that's interesting. That's special.'"

As for why he settled on the fastball-hurling Ryan, that's a bit more difficult to explain.

"It's not about Nolan Ryan, for me," Ullman said. "It's the process of collecting."

Born in Holland in 1939, Ullman was just three years old when his parents went into hiding as the Nazis invaded the country. They were unable to take young Leo with them, so with help from the resistance, he was placed with a policeman's family in Amsterdam.

"I survived the war with that couple," Ullman said, "And I was reunited with my parents, whom I didn't recognize when they came to pick me up."

Not long after, with many friends and family members missing or killed in the concentration camps, Ullman and his family moved to America -- to Long Island, in fact, where he still resides today.

It was here that he fell in love with baseball.

"Aunt Grace, who was born in Brooklyn and was very Brooklyn-ese, decided that to become American, I should go to baseball games," Ullman said. "So, Aunt Grace took me to Ebbets Field, starting in 1948."

Aunt Grace, left, with the family. Photo courtesy Leo S. Ullman.

It was an exciting time to be a fan. With Jackie Robinson on the team, the Dodgers had the franchise's greatest run of success on the East Coast. And there Aunt Grace and Leo would be, sitting in the 25 cent seats and looking for someone to chat baseball with for nine innings.

"We would move around until we sat with somebody that Grace could talk to during the game," Ullman remembered. "In the meantime, I, of course, became a rabid Dodger fan. I loved the Dodgers. They were exciting. They were thrilling and Ebbets Field was great."

When the team moved to Los Angeles, Leo was crestfallen. He thought he could never love a team again. But when the Mets came to town, Ullman learned that there are second loves. And then, just a few years later, Nolan Ryan made his debut.

Ullman became a Mets fan, and would even attend a Mets Dream Week decades later -- getting his very own baseball card along the way (he learned all the game's secrets from Rube Walker while in the hot tub at the end of the day). But that fandom had little to do with how he got into the Nolan Ryan collection game. That was, once again, thanks to his family.

Ullman's Dream Week baseball card. Courtesy Leo S. Ullman.

Ullman started off with a few signed pieces that were given to him by his brother. And then, while in Wisconsin for the birth of his grandson 26 years ago and unable to wait in the hospital, he did the next best thing: He went to the nearby card show and picked up about 12 Nolan Ryan cards.

That was the start of all this.

Since then, Ullman has bought nearly everything that's ever been produced. He has binders, boxes and display cases filled with thousands of cards -- and still more are produced every year. There are toys, some packaged in plastic and sold in stores nationwide and some handmade. There have been hot sauces and seasonings (Ullman has tried them and says they're "delicious"), exercise equipment (Leo has the barbells and resistance bands, but not the treadmill) and promotional Advil merchandise -- presumably what you would need after using said exercise equipment. There are art pieces -- like a painting of a bloodied Ryan following his fight with Robin Ventura printed on an autographed jersey -- watches, commemorative plates, gloves and more.

If Ryan could put his face on something, he apparently did.

How -- and why -- did all this stuff get made?

"The short answer is that people like me keep buying these things," Ullman joked. "But the [real] reason is that Nolan Ryan is -- and probably always will be -- the ultimate power pitcher."

Some of the best -- and oddest things -- in Leo's collection are objects that Ryan never earned a penny for. There's his high school yearbook, in which he was named the most handsome sophomore:

There's a literal Ryan Express made out of wood:

And, yes, there is even a bronzed hand -- complete with photo of the bronzing in action, just in case you thought this was some imposter's palm.

But out of all these esoteric pieces of baseball ephemera, there are a few items that really stand out to Leo: A series of Ryan's Topps baseball cards made in leather, as well as a Nolan Ryan saddle.

"I mean, who collects his saddle?" Ullman joked. "It's signed by Nolan Ryan all over it. Of course, it's a link to his ranch ownership and his history of dealing with cattle -- and he was named the head of a Cattle Ranchers Association. I think that's the most oddball thing. But there are so many -- [there's] the card with Nolan Ryan and George Foreman, or he'll be on a card with [Wayne] Gretzky on it or Pelé. You name it. I mean, there's a $1,000 phone card. Would you believe there's a $1,000 phone card with Nolan Ryan?"

At this point, how could you not?

At some point though, a collection is considered complete and for Ullman, now is that time. So, in the near future you'll be able to get your own peek at the collection once it makes its way to Stockton University's campus in Galloway Township, N.J.

"I have always wanted to keep the Nolan Ryan collection together in one home," Ullman said. "I didn't know exactly where that would be. I didn't want to sell it. I mean, to try to sell 13,000 items might have taken me 10 years. I didn't want to give the best items to the Hall of Fame, who would have gladly taken the best items, but they didn't want the ice cream sticks and guitar picks."

Ullman is keeping a few cherished items for himself, though. That includes an ultra-rare Topps rookie card for Ryan that was printed in Venezuela (Topps printed Spanish-language cards in the country from 1959-68) and -- even better -- a contract Ryan signed with Topps that paid him $75 for the right to print his baseball card.

Ullman may be wrapping up his days amassing everything Nolan Ryan under the sun, but he does have tips for a new collector who is just starting out.

"My advice for other collectors would be to find a young player and get involved early," Ullman said. "The problem with somebody like Nolan Ryan or others like them, is that there are literally tens of thousands of items for sale for any star player."

He even wishes he was able to follow that advice when he got started.

"I probably should have focused on [Ed] Kranepool or somebody that wasn't as great as Nolan Ryan became," Ullman said with a laugh, "because I think my collection would have ended long ago with many fewer items."