By Craig Webb, Beacon Journal Staff Writer, October 4, 2016
Sometimes the best of a lifetime of treasures can be found tucked in a folder inside a plastic tote.
Loren “Coco” Mayer found one such “pop culture” treasure after she recently moved back to the Akron area and was sorting though boxes of things that belonged to her late mother Barbara Mathews — a deputy superintendent for Akron schools and once an executive for the former FirstMerit Bank — who died in 2009.
This Bubblicious piece of the city’s history was tucked among newspaper clippings chronicling Mathews’ rich philanthropic life in Akron that included a faded copy of an Akron Beacon Journal signed by New York City firefighters thanking her for helping to head a drive to replace fire equipment destroyed in the 9/11 attack.
Inside a plain-brown folder was a squashed piece of green gum and a legal-looking document.
But it was the signature under the gum that caught Loren’s eye and made her heart skip a beat — LeBron James and the No. 23.
Loren said she remembered her mother joking years before that she owned some of LeBron’s DNA.
“It could have been easily tossed,” she said. “I opened it up and said ‘that’s where it went.’ ”
Along with the gum is a notarized affidavit signed by then Akron Deputy Mayor David Lieberth who chuckled Tuesday when told the “infamous” LeBron gum had resurfaced.
Lieberth said he remembers well how the chewed gum became a hot item at a charity auction.
While Lieberth has a pretty good memory, for the exact details the affidavit helps fill in the gaps of Gumgate that took place while LeBron was giving a news conference on June 24, 2005, at Lock 3 Park to promote the first LeBron James King for Kids Bikeathon.
“On this date, at approximately 12:15 p.m., I [Lieberth] witnessed LeBron James approach the podium to speak, and realizing he had gum in his mouth, he removed said gum, placed it on the back railing on the stage, and returned to the microphone,” Lieberth attested in the affidavit some 11 years ago. “Following said press conference, at approximately 12:45 p.m., I personally retrieved said chewing gum from its place of concealment, placed it in paper, and have attached the same to this affidavit.”
Lieberth said he was the auctioneer at a charity event that same evening for the newly minted NBA star and thought the freshly chewed gum would be a fun and funny item to get the auction started.
“I auctioned it off,” he said. “The person who kept bidding it up was Barbara Mathews and she won it.”
Lieberth, who collects art, said it was no accident that he penned an affidavit and had LeBron sign it at the auction to seal its authenticity.
“I bet that’s the only piece of gum that has an affidavit certifying its provenance,” Lieberth added.
Dotting all the I’s and crossing all the T’s was probably a pretty good idea because proving LeBron’s DNA is on the gum is a real roll of the dice given all the years that have gone by.
Kent State professor Anthony Tosi, who specializes in DNA and once worked as a forensic scientist in the High Sensitivity DNA group at the Office of Chief Medical Examiner in New York City, said gum is actually a difficult thing to extract DNA from.
Tosi said DNA from the inside cheeks of the mouth can collect on gum and also from skin flakes when a person removes it from his or her mouth.
But he said this small amount of DNA will break down fairly quickly from the bacteria from the person’s saliva.
Tosi said there were instances in his career as an investigator in New York where they were able to extract DNA from gum found at a crime scene but in most instances the gum was fairly fresh and not in a petrified state like the LeBron gum.
“If I were a betting man, there is a very low likelihood that we would be able to pull LeBron James’ DNA off this piece of gum,” Tosi said.
No item too strange
Leila Dunbar, president of Leila Dunbar Appraisals and a 21-year veteran of Antiques Roadshow on PBS, said there is some precedent for such odd items bringing big bucks at auction.
“In the world of celebrity memorabilia, no item is too strange for collectors,” she said.
Dunbar, who also headed the collectibles department at Sotheby’s, said among the more unusual similar items to sell include chewed gum by then Arizona Diamondbacks outfielder Luis Gonzalez for $10,000 in 2002 and in 1999 Sotheby’s sold Ty Cobb’s dentures for $8,000.
She points out that in 2008, a used “King James” mouthpiece from one of LeBron’s high school games sold for $1,444.05.“Based on those prices, who knows at what price LeBron’s gum will stick?” she said. “Collectors and fans both like unusual personal items from their sports heroes and stadiums, such as Thurman Munson’s New York Yankee shower shoes selling for $1,100 in 2008 and a Tiger Stadium dugout urinal for $900 in 2007.”
Mayer said she’s not sure what she will do with LeBron’s chewed gum. The fact that a one-of-a-kind rookie card of his that included a piece of his game uniform and an autograph sold for more than $300,000 over the weekend has her wondering.
“I would be curious just how much someone would pay for a piece of chewed gum?” Mayer said. “We know one crazy woman — my mom — paid $500.
“If I were to ever get rid of it, I would donate the money to charity. That’s what my mom would have done.”
Craig Webb, whose greatest piece of sports memorabilia is a deflated football signed by Vinny Testaverde, can be reached at email@example.com or 330-996-3547.