"I don't exactly know the story behind it, whether the guy drank too much and made an ass out of himself," Baldwin, 55, said last week.
He had been explaining what enticed him to quit college at 19 to join a company that was near death, spend his entire career there, and wind up buying it in 2004 with four other longtime employees.
"I was just young enough and dumb enough," Baldwin said.
Spike's had been around since 1929, founded by Myer "Spike" Shandelman and situated on Race Street in Center City, then in Northern Liberties for 20 years before moving in March 2012 to its current complex in a former furniture warehouse next to Northeast Philadelphia Airport.
"I walked into a shell of a company," Baldwin said of his first days in 1978, after Shandelman had sold the business to Gold Medal Sporting Goods.
Spike's had deteriorated badly, largely because Shandelman was not involved in day-to-day operations, Baldwin said. Inventory was missing; pending orders were in danger of not being filled.
"I can remember sitting there crying," he said. Then he got to work, pleading with customers for more time, and assembling trophies.
Spike's was profitable in five years, Baldwin said. Gold Medal ran into trouble in its core business: competition from big-box athletic-wear retailers such as Dick's and Modell's. It sold the trophy business in 1990 to REP Inc., a venture-capital entity of Russell E. Palmer, ex-dean of the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School.
Palmer mentored Baldwin and made him general manager. The company eventually added advertising specialties (mugs, pens, etc.), imprinted sportswear, and banners to its offerings. Growth also came through networking.
"It's a big word-of-mouth business," Baldwin said. "We're an event company. You do it well, you get it the next year."
Or, in the case of the Apartment Association of Greater Philadelphia, more than 17 years.
"You only stick with a vendor . . . when they continually meet or exceed your expectations," said Pamela Bennett, executive director of the group, which uses Spike's for the hundreds of awards it hands out each year.
When the opportunity came to buy Spike's from Palmer, Baldwin said, it was the culmination of a dream. "When . . . you achieve it, you say, 'What do I do next?' "
The answer, he concluded, was "getting real estate." The refrain had been the same from the business associations he belongs to: "Your retirement eventually comes out of the real estate."
The decision to relocate to Northeast Philadelphia was made despite advice to move out of the city.
"I just had a sense of history or allegiance - not talking from the head, more from the heart," he said. "I have a lot of longtime employees who made us who we are. Some take public transportation."
The company's 40 employees, up from three when Baldwin started working there, caused him to tear up recently.
Corporate giveaways at trade shows are down, and so is the amount youth-sports leagues spend on trophies, he said. To avoid layoffs, the workweek at Spike's during the non-peak months of August through February has been reduced to 36 hours.
Those cuts, and the company's health-care premiums' "going through the roof," contribute to sleepless nights, Baldwin said.
With help from the Merchants Fund, which issues grants to small businesses, Spike's has trained employees in lean manufacturing, to become more efficient and cost-effective.
"What's not to love about a bunch of workers buying out the company rather than let it go under?" asked the fund's executive director, Patricia Blakely. "Boomers are aging out of company ownership; we need to keep this option on the forefront of every owner's mind as a viable option and always better than just closing up and walking away."
In a twist, Spike's won an award of its own in November: 2013 manufacturer of the year honors from the Greater Philadelphia Chamber of Commerce.
"We are normally on the other end of making the awards," Baldwin said. "It was an honor to receive one."
Contact Diane Mastrull at 215-854-2466, email@example.com, or follow @dmastrull on Twitter.