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Where diamonds meet diamonds Featured

9:51am EDT July 22, 2002

It began as a simple idea to capitalize on the proximity of Major League Baseball’s annual summer classic to spur traffic at a jewelry store along a lightly trafficked downtown retail corridor, East 4th Street.

In celebration of Major League Baseball’s All Star game at Cleveland’s Jacobs Field in 1996, Bob Zimmer decided that his jewelry store, Sisser Jewelers, would temporarily double as an exhibit hall. In anticipation, he began investing in a collection of memorabilia associated with the old Negro Baseball Leagues, the only place talented black baseball players could play before Major League Baseball began to relax its color line in the 1940s.

“I brought in three or four Negro League players for the All Star game,” Zimmer recalls. “It was just going to be a one-week event. But after meeting a lot of the guys, it’s become a passion.”

Thus inspired, he began collecting more Negro League memorabilia — lots of it. It now climbs the walls of his shop like the ivy which clings to the outfield fence at Chicago’s Wrigley Field, competing for a shopper’s attention with the modest wedding rings and other jewelry in the display cases. Some of the baseball items are for sale; others are purely for display.

“Whatever I can replace is for sale,” Zimmer says.

But his long-term vision for all this is either bold or absurd, depending on your viewpoint: He wants to establish a Negro League Baseball Museum on the now-gutted second floor above his jewelry shop. It would be accompanied by a gift shop, educational outreach to the schools and perhaps even the Ohio Baseball Hall of Fame, an organization currently without a home, which he’s been trying to persuade to relocate to his location.

“It’s almost here now,” he says, “but there are some components we need to make this a community educational institution.”

While at first blush a little odd, on closer inspection, it’s probably not such a bad strategy for Sisser, which has done business in this neighborhood under the same name since 1912. The focus on the Negro Leagues helps the white-owned store better bond with its customer base in a predominately black retail district. And it capitalizes on the increased traffic of nearby Jacobs Field, providing browsers with a baseball-themed reason to visit the store.

Zimmer needs every customer he can get for the store his father purchased from the Sisser family in 1955.

The store “never really sold or stocked high-priced jewelry,” says the senior Zimmer, who in semi-retirement continues to come in a couple of days a week. Instead, its clientele largely comprised middle class black families.

But that market has softened considerably since Cleveland City Hall began using federal funding in the last few years to build gleaming new strip retail malls in formerly abandoned Cleveland neighborhoods beyond the downtown area. The result is that instead of coming downtown to find a modestly priced piece of jewelry, many of Sisser’s former clients do so at stores closer to their homes.

“Our traditional customer base has softened a little,” Zimmer admits. “And that’s why a focus on the Negro Leagues worked really well” in attracting a new segment of customers.

Bob Zimmer began coming to his dad’s store in 1979 to clean jewelry, and he’s stayed ever since. As the shopping district, which runs between Euclid and Prospect avenues, began to look its age — many of the buildings are at least a century old — he became a neighborhood activist, sweeping the street regularly.

But he also decided to begin pressing the city to reinvest in the infrastructure. Thus, a decade ago, when Mike White was first elected mayor of Cleveland, Zimmer went to City Hall and asked him to consider investing in turning around the East 4th corridor, he recalls.

The city did respond with some improvements. But the real catalyst for turning around the area’s fortunes was the voters’ passage of a county “sin tax” levy to build Gateway just a couple of blocks away.

Its proximity to Jacobs Field and Gund Arena has been the best possible tonic for the formerly depressed area. It has spurred an unprecedented building and rehabilitation boom, which has turned the neighborhood from eyesore to eye-opener, and at least modestly spurred foot traffic.

The improvements have only served to spur Zimmer’s desire to branch out from jewelry. He’s thrilled that his dad still helps out on the sales floor during part of the week.

“That allows me to focus on the Negro League Museum,” he says.

He’s not strictly bound to Negro League themes. In late summer, he hosted a traveling photographic display of Latin American ballplayers, adding memorabilia from the Mexican Baseball Hall of Fame, and promoted it all with a postcard.

If only there were a way to make a living from all this, he seems to suggest. At the moment, profits from the jewelry side of the business fund Zimmer’s Negro League avocation. Does he look forward to a time when that’s no longer the case?

“That would be nice, because I have a lot more fun meeting the players and bringing them in.” How to reach: A. Sisser Jewelers, (216) 621-3524, www.sisser.com

John Ettorre (jettorre@sbnnet.com) is a contributing editor at SBN.