SO, HOW DOES that old expression go: He who dies with the most toys wins?
Ronald Toby is not quite ready to tally up the final score, but he has what would appear to be an insurmountable lead. At 57, he has more toys packed inside of his Northeast Philadelphia home than your average Toys R Us. He not only has an array of interesting sports stuff he has picked up through the years, but also perhaps one of the more varied collections of memorabilia these eyes have ever seen.
All I can say is: You have to see it to believe it.
"I have always loved toys," said Toby, who worked as a SEPTA mechanic for more than 30 years before retiring in 2004. "When the Daily News ran that 'Whatcha Got' advertisement, two or three neighbors slipped it under my door and said, 'You have to call these guys!' "
From the outside, the three-story, four-bedroom house is no different from any of the others on his quiet street. Step inside, though, and you would think you just walked into the Smithsonian Institution. Conservatively, he estimated he has invested "a couple of hundred thousand dollars" in his collection through the years. But given its scope, the collection is easily worth far, far more. With two adult sons from a previous marriage, Toby remains happily single, well aware that his peculiar hobby is not for everyone. With a laugh, Toby conceded, "No woman would ever put up with it."
Toby offered to give me the "25-cent tour."
We began in his enclosed front porch.
"Every room in the house has a theme," he said. "This one is for sports memorabilia."
Everywhere the eye moves, it falls upon something unique. There is a sterling silver plate given years ago to Wilt Chamberlain by the Dapper Dan Club of Pittsburgh - only "Chamberlain" is spelled "Chamberain." There is an old, leather football helmet used by a Swarthmore football player in a game against Penn at Franklin Field on Oct. 3, 1931. Some of the plays are written inside the helmet. Toby also has a ticket stub and megaphone from the game. And there is pair of hand puppets - of Muhammad Ali and Howard Cosell - which Toby removed from a glass case and slipped on.
He held them up facing each other and impersonated them.
"My," the Cosell puppet said, "you are being extremely truculent!"
The Ali puppet replied: "Howard, if that means good, I am that!"
OK . . . Shall we proceed?
Up a small step is the living room, which has an African Plains theme. Here, there is a dry coral reef, some leopard skins and a 200-gallon fish tank with African cichlids. In the adjoining dining room are crystal arrangements, old doorstops and a remote-control, hideaway bar. Off that area is a family room, where Toby has decorated the walls with boxing memorabilia: He has trunks signed by Ali; gloves signed by Ali and Joe Frazier; a photo of Ali and the Beatles signed by Ali and Paul McCartney; and an envelope and letter from the Joe Louis Fan Club, signed by the legendary Louis himself.
Step into is kitchen and there is a 1959 cupboard with old soda bottles. Elsewhere in the room are versions of the first and second toasters ever produced. Move on into the Florida room and there are 800 dolls - 300 of them still in boxes: G.I. Joe, Captain Action, Michael Jackson, Boy George, Frank Sinatra, Elizabeth Taylor, and on and on and on. In the two bedrooms upstairs are countless Aurora models, of Frankenstein, Dracula, the Creature from the Black Lagoon; and a version of the first steam iron, the first urinal and various Brownie cameras.
But it is in his rec room that he keeps his prized possession: a diorama of the Zulu Wars of 1879. There are 10,000 figurines spread across the battlefield. "I hand-painted them all," he said. "They came from New Zealand. And I have another 10,000 that have not been painted yet. I am looking for a young apprentice to help me with that."
Exactly who is Ronald Toby, and how did he end up in Toyland? The second of three children - his mother was a homemaker, his father a salesman - Toby grew up in the Richard Allen Homes. Early on, adults found they could pacify him by giving him a bag of toy soldiers to play with. As he got older, Toby began haunting local toy shops: Kiddie City, Nicholas Smith Trains; Quaker City Hobby Shop, and so on. Whenever he came into possession of a toy, he was always careful to hold on to it. In fact, he still had his first Fort Apache set at the time he was drafted in 1971, which he said his then-wife got rid of. Toby said, "Then I got rid of her. Of course, we're on good terms now."
Toby laughed. "As a kid, they used to call me 'Squirrel,' he said. "When everyone was staring, I had all the acorns. In the service, I always had soup and Spam in my locker. I would offer people soup or a sandwich. They'd say, "A Spam sandwich isn't worth $2.' And I'd say, 'At 12 o'clock at night, it is.' I was always an entrepreneur. And I can sing like a bird: 'Oh, Danny Boy, the pipes, the pipes are calling . . . ' "
Why is Toby so enthralled by toys? "Toys never ask to borrow anything from you," he said. "And they never say anything wrong."
Son Rashod said his father is "just a kid at heart."
"He has amassed an incredible toy collection," Rashod said. "It has been something he had been working on for years . . . He gets such pleasure from it. He has never lost that kid inside of him. Life is very serious, but you can always be a kid. When you go into his house, you see all the wonderful things that you remember about being a kid."
Does Rashod have any idea what the collection is worth? "No," he said. "But just based on the care he has put into it, I would say it is priceless."
Toby would like to pare down his inventory somewhat. He is acquiring less, and then only pieces that hold some nostalgic value and speak to what he calls "a better time, where kids ate penny candy and drank Orange Crush." A generous spirit, he never allows any visitor who comes to see him to leave without a small piece of his collection. Insofar as its value is concerned, he is not especially worried. Nor is he concerned about someone breaking in and robbing him.
"Let me just say this: 'Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil,' " he said. "Excuse my French, but I'm the baddest mother-f--- in the valley."
And if you doubt him, be forewarned: He has a Roy Rogers cowboy hat with a derringer inside a secret compartment to prove it. *