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facts & arguments

BOB HAMBLY/The Globe and Mail

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I like to collect things – old tin toys, abandoned work gloves, vintage Thermos containers, bird nests, cigarette cards, seed pods and much more.

My collections aren't worth much money, not like those of Bill Cosby (Shaker furniture) or Hal Jackman (toy soldiers), but they're worth a lot to me. Over the years they have brought me much joy: There is nothing quite like the thrill of a new discovery, the gratification of creating displays, and the pride of ownership.

I've been known to go to crazy lengths to add treasure to my troves. Once I snatched a filthy, flattened work glove from the middle of a busy intersection while behind the wheel of my car. And one autumn evening, dressed in black, I stealthily liberated a perfectly formed wasps' nest from a tree outside the front door of a house in my neighbourhood. The adage is true – one person's junk is another person's treasure.

As you can well imagine, I put up with a lot of ridicule. Very few people understand my compulsion to amass used gloves, and there is often a noticeable hush when I show off my display of 21 vintage Thermoses.

"Did you notice that they all share the same colour palette?" I'll ask, as if that will help change people's minds.

Friends have learned to tolerate my many fascinations, and some have even contributed to the madness by donating to the cause. To those individuals, and you know who you are, I thank you.

But I wonder if I've finally gone too far with my latest quest – white balls. White sports balls, to be exact.

I was curious to see how many different round, white sports balls I could acquire. In my mind I saw them lined up from smallest to largest in a parade of beautiful graphic spheres.

Locating the common balls was easy – golf balls, Ping-Pong balls, baseballs (hard, soft and slo-pitch), volleyballs and lacrosse balls are all readily available in white. The challenge came when my search expanded further afield.

Finding an all-white water polo ball was difficult, as most are now brightly coloured. I eventually sourced one on eBay. White tennis balls proved elusive, too. A patient salesperson at a popular sports store in Manhattan found some hidden amid a sea of tins of yellow balls.

In time I was able to hunt down a field hockey ball, a billiard ball, various wiffle balls and a lawn bowling jack. A friend from Miami graciously found me a goatskin-covered pelota, a ball used in the unusual but exciting sport of Jai Alai. These balls are made by hand and most be recovered after just 15 minutes of play. Needless to say they are expensive.

I bought a hurling ball or sliotar from a store in Ireland. It, too, is covered in leather.

Among the more unique balls in this growing collection is a wooden polo ball. Most polo matches today are played with a plastic ball, but I was able to get my hands on an old-style wooden ball carved from the root of a bamboo tree.

There are still several white sports balls that are proving hard to obtain – a white cricket ball (used during night matches) and a bocce jack, or pallino. I will find them one day, and add them to the growing parade.

My wife Barb has always been an avid supporter of my need to collect, and she respects the aesthetics of each display. She appreciates that my background as an illustrator explains my more graphic collections of tin toys, soda bottles, milk bottles and Pez dispensers.

She shared in my delight recently after I bought a special-issue box of five Pez American presidents. We chuckled upon learning from the package that Pez plans to produce all of the presidents. I can't wait to add Nixon and Kennedy to the mix – I wonder if Tricky Dick will have a 5 o'clock shadow?

Barb once brought home a click beetle that landed on her shirt while golfing. It made a handsome addition to my bug collection. And for one of my birthdays she presented me with a barn owl to enhance my small taxidermy menagerie.

Alas, it appears that the white sports ball collection is where Barb draws the line.

She seems embarrassed each time I show her my latest acquisition. I can see her shudder when it comes up in conversation. She gently shakes her head as if to say, "after 30 years of being together I think you have finally flipped your lid."

In my defence, I grew up in a family that was fascinated by history – of people, places and things. And when it came to things, we were curious about who had used them, how they were made and what their significance was. A collection is often much more than decoration – it can also define a place and a time. Stories connect you to the past, and objects are the past.

Mark Twain once said of collectors, "There's some human instinct which makes man treasure what he is not to make any use of, because everybody does not possess it."

I think he may be right. A large part of collecting, at least for me, is knowing I have something that no one else has. Barb would argue that when it comes to white sports balls, who in their right mind would want them?

I do.

Bob Hambly lives in Toronto.

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