First of two parts

When you walk into the DePace Sports Museum in Collingswood, you are greeted by a dizzying, one-of-a-kind array of memorabilia from the Phillies, Eagles, Flyers, and 76ers, among others.

The museum, which organizers hope is relocated to the South Philadelphia sports complex in the near future, is loaded with jerseys and equipment used by a who's who in sports.

The most charming part of the museum, however, is the collection of unique artifacts that Nicholas DePace has accumulated, including the bell from the famed 1926 heavyweight championship fight between Jack Dempsey and Gene Tunney before more than 120,000 fans in rainy Philadelphia, and the turnstile from old Connie Mack Stadium.

DePace, 62, is a cardiologist whose heart is deeply immersed in Philadelphia sports.

"His collection," said Lou Scheinfeld, the one-time Flyers vice president who is leading the movement to have a sports museum built in South Philadelphia, "is simply amazing. And what's more amazing is that what you see on display is only about 15 or 20 percent of his collection."

According to Eric Katz, the museum's curator, there are between $10 million and $12 million of sports artifacts on display at the Collingswood building at 765 Haddon Ave. Katz said DePace's overall collection - he places many of the keepsakes in safes or storage - is worth more than $40 million and that the items are rotated in and out of the museum to keep things fresh.

Some of the more unusual items on display: a Jim Thorpe helmet and some of his trophies; a Bill Tilden tennis racket; bats used by famous members of the Philadelphia Athletics; Wilt Chamberlain's last game-used jersey with the 76ers; robes worn by numerous boxing champions; the organ used at the original Yankee Stadium; a painting that has countless Hall of Fame baseball players as they (presumably) looked when they were children; and LeBron James' high school jersey.

A set of Frank Sinatra golf clubs is showcased. They were sent to him by Dean Martin, who was attempting [unsuccessfully] to patch up a feud between the iconic singer and Hall of Famer Joe DiMaggio. Martin fibbed that the clubs were sent as a gift by DiMaggio, Katz said.

There are wooden caricatures, created by artist Steve Sax, of Jim Bunning in his perfect game; Julius Erving dunking the ball; Steve Van Buren and Chuck Bednarik in action with the Eagles, and the Flyers hoisting the Stanley Cup. There is also a gigantic painting of the most famous players in Phillies history. It does not include Pete Rose because of his well-publicized transgressions, but the artist, Jamie Cooper, painted two roses - one on a table, one held by Tony Taylor - to represent him.

The museum has statues of Negro League baseball stars Smokey Joe Williams and Judy Johnson, along with what Katz calls "the only existing Negro League World Series trophy."

Because of insurance reasons, some of DePace's most expensive pieces, Katz said, are not on display, including a game-worn Babe Ruth road uniform that he estimates is worth $6.5 million, and a Ty Cobb uniform that someone once wanted to buy for $3.1 million. DePace declined, Katz said. His collection also includes the marriage license that united DiMaggio and Marilyn Monroe; a Honus Wagner baseball card that is valued at $250,000; and a Jesse Owens Ohio State track jersey.

Hooked on sports

DePace, a former North Jersey resident, became hooked on sports when his dad took him to a 1961 game at Yankee Stadium. "I was 9 years old and, to me, it looked like the Roman Coliseum," he said.

While Scheinfeld has been meeting with civic leaders in hopes of building a museum at the South Philadelphia sports complex, DePace (pronounced DEE-POTCH-EE) couldn't wait to display his remarkable collection. So he created the nonprofit museum in Collingswood, which opened to the public in February.

Step inside and you'll see the huge Connie Mack Stadium sign that stood outside the entrance to the venerable ballpark.

The museum has hundreds of authentic jerseys and artifacts from the various Philly teams. From a Philadelphia perspective, the museum is better than the Hall of Fames in Cooperstown (baseball), Canton (football), Toronto (hockey) and Springfield, Mass. (basketball).

There are signs from Veterans Stadium; the equipment used by the 1925 Pottsville Maroons, the NFL's best team in 1925; and a rare jersey of the Quebec Aces, the Flyers' farm team when they broke into the NHL. Also displayed is the official score sheet of the Flyers' famous win over the Soviet Army in 1976, along with two miniature, engraved Stanley Cups that were once owned by Rick MacLeish before he sold them to DePace for $10,000 each.

There is a room dedicated to the Philadelphia A's, and it includes 27 A's plaques, rare paintings and seats from Connie Mack Stadium.

The museum also displays boxing robes worn by Muhammad Ali, Joe Frazier, Rocky Maricano, Jersey Joe Walcott, Tunney, Larry Holmes, Roberto Duran, Archie Moore, Thomas Hearns and Sugar Ray Leonard, along with other boxing memorabilia, such as the championship belts won by Frazier and Louis, and old photos and posters, including one that touts the world heavyweight title battle between Louis and Walcott.

There's an organ from Yankee Stadium, a special exhibit on Harmon Killebrew (a DePace favorite) and jerseys worn by sports stars ranging from Michael Jordan to Alan Page to Wayne Gretzky, from Barry Sanders to O.J. Simpson to Jackie Robinson, from Gordie Howe to Bobby Orr to Lionel Messi.

The golf section features clubs from Walter Hagen, Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus, Sam Snead and Tiger Woods, and there's an exhibit honoring USA's Miracle on Ice win in hockey.

Philly next stop?

The building that houses the museum, which is for sale for $1.8 million, is probably a temporary stop. The next one, museum officials hope, will be the Philadelphia sports complex.

"This is a staging area for what we want to do in Philly," said Katz, the museum curator.

Nicholas DePace Jr., who is the museum's CEO, said his dad's "dream was to open a museum and share his collection with the world."

The elder DePace, who moved to the area in 1978 to do his cardiology fellowship at Hahnemann University Hospital in Philadelphia, is a cardiologist at Kennedy University Hospital in Washington Township and Our Lady of Lourdes Medical Center in Camden. He is also a professor at Hahnemann.

"He spends every penny he has on buying things for his collection," Scheinfeld said.

Scheinfeld said DePace "kept adding wings" onto his South Jersey house to accommodate all his sports memorabilia. "His wife said to him, 'I want my dining room back,' because he had all kinds of stuff in there. The first time I went to his house - and look, I've been around sports for a long time, so I'm a little jaded - I couldn't believe what I saw. He has World Series trophies and rings from the Stanley Cups and on and on. I went into his laundry room and on top of the washer and dryer were unfolded uniforms of Joe DiMaggio, Ty Cobb, Jackie Robinson, and others. And on the floor were his dirty socks and shorts.

He paused.

"He's a character. I love him," Scheinfeld added. "He's an amazing man."

When he has a break between seeing heart patients, Nick DePace Sr. has an unusual routine, his son said.

"He'll go in his back office, lock the door and be on the phone with dealers from the auction houses and be putting up bids," the younger DePace said.

"He has a passion for the hobby like nobody else," said Katz, adding that one of DePace's most recent purchases was a Johnny Unitas jock strap that is bronzed and cost the doctor $6,000.

If you go

There is no charge to attend the DePace Sports Museum, but donations are requested.

Location: 765 Haddon Ave., Collingswood.

Hours: Sunday and Monday: closed. Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday: noon to 5 p.m. Friday: noon to 9 p.m. Saturday: 10 a.m. to 9 p.m.

Information: 856-833-5133.

scarchidi@phillynews.com

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