As the sale of a game-worn Babe Ruth jersey for $4.4 million last year indicates, sports memorabilia is a major-league business. Veteran Chicago TV producer Don Dupree is hoping that prized pucks, gloves and balls have similar allure on television. Dupree is the creator of A Piece of the Game, a “Pawn Stars-meets-sports memorabilia on Red Bull” concept, in his words, that recently debuted on WGN Chicago and is being considered for a longer run.
The pilot, taped at Chicago institution Harry Caray’s Steakhouse, saw people show their memorabilia to a panel of evaluators, who came up with a price and made them an offer. The show also owes an obvious debt of gratitude to PBS staple Antiques Roadshow, but Dupree said the sports hook, and a faster pace, sets it apart. “I don’t care about seeing a vase,” he said. “What I care about is a film canister with ‘Babe Ruth’ written on it.”
Dupree features a colorful résumé—he was assistant news director at CBS-owned WBBM Chicago in 2010, and before that was a director and producer for the various Gene Siskel/Roger Ebert/Richard Roeper Chicago- based movie review shows for 20 years. Dupree was taking time off work to tend to an ailing sibling, and thinking about his next project, when he read a New York Times article about the aforementioned film canisters: home movies featuring Yankees teammates Ruth and Lou Gehrig, on a barnstorming tour in Sioux City, Iowa, following their historic 1927 season, playing with children and riding a pony in a family’s yard.
Dupree got to thinking he could build a show around the various buried jock fossils around the country. “There’s stuff like that in everyone’s attic,” he said.
The Piece of the Game pilot, shot March 4, focuses on items with Chicago roots, including a giant bat Babe Ruth had made for a matronly bar owner across from Comiskey Park, where the Bambino liked to indulge his yen for hot dogs and beer when the Yankees were in town, and a ladies’ baseball uniform from the film A League of Their Own.
Another valuable commodity on the show is famed Chicago anchor Bill Kurtis, who Dupree knew from their time together at WBBM. Kurtis voices historical segments—he is not identified, but Dupree notes Kurtis’ voice needs no introduction—that offer context on the featured items. Kurtis has departed from his first reaction to the show’s concept—that it was too derivative of the other relic-evaluation programs. “There are so many clones to Antiques Roadshow, and I thought, this is another one,” he said. “My God, it’s not. I like it.”
The newsman said the sports angle makes it stand apart, as do the “mini-docs” that tell the story of each piece.
Things have moved along apace. Allstate ponied up a $25,000 sponsorship fee; Dupree said the show’s content— valuable items that are typically not insured— made it a logical marriage. Other underwriters include Chicago media outfit Content Factory and a local furniture outlet. Dupree said he put in $15,000—and a year of sweat equity—on the pilot. He said the show can easily go on the road and focus on Boston, New York, St. Louis and other storied sports towns in subsequent episodes.
Robert Feder, TV critic at Time Out Chicago, likes the idea. “Don Dupree has assembled a smart and wellconnected group to advance the project,” Feder said via email. “I’m impressed with what I’ve seen so far, although I do not know how it’s been received at WGN.”
WGN isn’t yet saying. A Piece of the Game debuted March 16 with a modest 0.5 household rating, said Dupree, who mentions very limited publicity (though Roger Ebert, who died April 4, did plug the premiere on Twitter), before building to a 1.6 in its most recent repeat. The program airs before or after Chicago Cubs games and has run on cable sister CLT V as well.
The ball is now in WGN’s court as to the future of the show; Dupree said he and station management will meet this week. WGN management was not available for comment.
“If we get the green light, we hope to shoot the next one in May,” said Dupree. “There are so many great stories to be told.”
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Michael Malone, senior content producer at B+C/Multichannel News, covers network programming, including entertainment, news and sports on broadcast, cable and streaming; and local broadcast television. He hosts the podcasts Busted Pilot, about what’s new in television, and Series Business, a chat with the creator of a new program, and writes the column “The Watchman.” He joined B+C in 2005. His journalism has also appeared in The New York Times, The Philadelphia Inquirer, Playboy and New York magazine.