With spring training games starting in both Arizona and Florida this week, I thought I’d devote my next two articles to baseball.
When I was six years old, I began collecting baseball cards as a hobby.
Seven years later … in 1967 … I began collecting autographs of baseball players … eventually on many of those very same baseball cards … and continued off and on for the next 33 years.
Getting autographs was much simpler back then:
*We went to the hotels where the players stayed before the games, and most were great about signing when they came out for a taxi or the team bus.
*We didn’t have Sharpie pens until the early 1970s, so for a few years, I was always nervous that either my ballpoint pen wouldn’t be legible on a card or that it would skip.
*When I got someone’s autograph, I didn’t rush off to sell it. I kept it … expecting to hold onto it for a lifetime. If I had two of the same item, and you wanted it, I would give it to you.
*Collectors became friends and traded inside information: “This guy is really mean … that guy answers his mail … this guy is moody … that guy signs everything.”
*The longer you stayed at a hotel or a spring training practice field, the more autographs you’d get. I was usually the last to go home.
*They didn’t have baseball card shows back then where a player would be paid to sign. You either got autographs in person or through the mail.
*Autographs are all about time and place. Most players would sign if you could catch them alone or somewhere where they couldn’t be rushed.
My wife has encouraged me to write a book about my experiences. I started one a few years ago, but I wasn’t sure many people would care.
But recently, I’ve been thinking, “Maybe people would be interested if I told stories about my encounters with players like Reggie Jackson, Mickey Mantle, and Willie Mays.”
So before my memory fades, here are my experiences … and impressions … of twelve Hall of Fame baseball players from the 1960s.
Here are the first six:
First, Hank Aaron.
Several times, I’ve had a dream that I’m at an airport terminal with Hank Aaron. We’re just talking, and he’s really nice, except that I don’t have anything for him to sign.
And I wake up in a cold sweat.
That’s an autograph collector’s worst nightmare … to see someone whose autograph you want and to have nothing for them to sign.
In April 1974, Aaron broke Babe Ruth’s all-time home run record, and he became world famous.
Before that, I only saw him a couple of times, and got his autograph each time.
In the late 1970s, he became a spokesman for Magnavox, and he made a personal appearance at a large store. Some of my friends showed up expecting Aaron to sign for us, but he didn’t. (I did take a picture of Aaron with my friend Dave. As I was taking the picture, Dave said out loud, “This is my friend Hank Aaron, who won’t sign any autographs.” Aaron muttered, “You understand.”)
Then in the late 1980s, Aaron appeared at a card show in San Jose, and the promoter … who knew I was a good customer … introduced Aaron to me. (I’m sure he’s forgotten.) Each autograph was $4.50 each … a bargain for the then greatest home run hitter of them all.
The first two cards are both from 1958, making them 59 years old. I still find that amazing!
Second, Ernie Banks.
Banks had a reputation for being a super-enthusiastic ballplayer. Every time he went on the field, he’d say, “Let’s play two!”
And he seemed like a very nice guy in person. The first time I got his autograph, he signed 10 cards for me after a spring training game in Palm Springs in 1971. (The second and third cards below … signed in ballpoint … were signed on that occasion. Sharpie pens came into existence the next year, as I recall.)
But many years later, I saw Banks at a golf tournament, and he was downright mean … the worst encounter I’ve ever had with a ballplayer. (Richie Zisk of the Mariners once signed for me in spring training in Tempe, Arizona and told me, “Why don’t you go bother the other ballplayers in Florida next year?”)
I got a lot of the above autographs at a show Banks did in San Jose, and he spent most of his time joking around. He’d sign his first name … banter with the fans for a minute … and then sign his second name.
He’s revered in Chicago, but not in my household.
Third, Roberto Clemente.
Clemente played right field in the very first major league game I ever attended in May 1960 at the Los Angeles Coliseum.
Six years later, I saw him play at Dodger Stadium. He had the greatest outfield arm I’ve ever seen.
The 1967 All-Star Game was held in my hometown of Anaheim, and I got Clemente’s autograph late Sunday afternoon as he was walking toward the Grand Hotel where the National League players stayed. He looked regal in his blue suit.
Several years later, he signed a card for me after a game at Dodger Stadium.
The great thing about Clemente is that he signed all his mail. I’d write to him every year, and he’d sign and return whatever I sent him.
Clemente died in a plane crash on January 1, 1973 while taking relief supplies to Nicaragua. When I read David Maraniss’ biography of Clemente a few years ago, I stopped reading before Maraniss recounted his death. It still hurts.
Fourth, Reggie Jackson.
Reggie came up to the Kansas City A’s in 1967. The A’s stayed at the Jolly Roger Motor Inn across from Disneyland, and you could walk right up to a player’s room outside and knock on the door. (Joe DiMaggio was a coach on that team!)
The next year, the team moved to the Grand Hotel in Anaheim … where all the other teams stayed … and Reggie eventually became a big star. He hit 3 home runs and drove in 10 runs in one game in the summer of 1969.
A kid from my neighborhood named Gordy once introduced Reggie to a woman inside the hotel, and suddenly, Reggie and Gordy became friends.
Whenever the A’s came to Anaheim, Reggie and Gordy were inseparable. Friends told me they even appeared on a post-game show from Anaheim Stadium together.
I once went to Gordy’s house and saw his large Reggie poster on the wall. Reggie devoted a lot of space telling Gordy what a good friend he was.
But when Reggie went to the Yankees, he became a tough autograph. I once saw him lecture a crowd after a Yankees-Angels game of at least 100 people, explaining why he didn’t want to sign for them.
Reggie wrote his full name for many years, but after he hit three home runs (on three consecutive pitches) in the 1977 World Series against the Dodgers (broke my heart), he started writing just “Reggie” or “Reggie J” … sometimes sideways or upside down.
In 1987, when Reggie’s career was winding down, my son Ryan and I visited the A’s at Scottsdale Community College for spring training workouts. Because there was a camera on Reggie, he signed two cards … on the practice field!
One of my best friends growing up became a policeman in Anaheim. He told me that after a game, a car turned the wrong way out of the stadium, and when my friend stopped the driver, it was Reggie, who asked my friend, “Don’t you know who I am?” My friend gave him the ticket anyway.
Wish I had been there!
Fifth, Al Kaline.
Kaline was the star right fielder for the Detroit Tigers and became a batting champion at age 20. He was always a classy guy.
While some autograph collectors were normal people, a few had their peculiarities, including a kid named Gary. (Gary once drove Yankees’ outfielder Bobby Murcer from the hotel in Anaheim to a game show in Hollywood and I feared for Murcer’s life.)
Anyway, in August 1968, as the Tigers were heading for the American League pennant (they beat the Cardinals in the World Series), Gary brought his cassette recorder to the Grand Hotel and asked Kaline if he could interview him. They went to the parking lot where Gary asked Kaline some softball questions and Kaline … classy guy that he is … answered them all.
Twelve years later, Kaline made an appearance before the 1980 All-Star Game in Los Angeles, and I had my picture taken with him at the Biltmore Hotel.
Ten years later, Kaline appeared at a massive card convention at the Moscone Center in San Francisco, and after he signed some items for me, he shook my hand.
Few players … past or present … treat collectors like people.
Kaline always did.
Sixth, Harmon Killebrew.
The second time I went to the Grand Hotel for autographs at age 13, I walked into the lobby and saw Bob Allison, Harmon Killebrew, and Jim Perry of the Minnesota Twins sitting on a couch. They all signed, but Killebrew was especially pleasant.
Killebrew was nicknamed “The Killer.” He was a great home run hitter and was the Most Valuable Player in the American League in 1969.
The Mall of America in Bloomington, Minnesota, is built on the site of the original ballpark of the Minnesota Twins. There is a sign on the wall … high above a flume ride … to mark where Killebrew once hit a baseball.
But he was also one of the nicest ballplayers for autographs. If he had time, he would sign whatever you gave him.
I once asked him to sign a 1956 Topps card. (It was his second card.) He told me, “Are you sure you want me to sign that? It’s worth some money.” But I didn’t collect cards for their monetary value … I collected them so players would sign them … which he did happily.
When I was collecting, Killebrew was one of the two nicest players in the American League.
When Killebrew died, his memorial service was held at the church I was attending in Peoria, Arizona, and the public was invited. The Minnesota Twins were in town to play the Arizona Diamondbacks, so that Friday morning, many of the Twins players attended.
They showed a video of Killebrew … who had been retired for about 35 years when the video was taken … signing autographs for a crowd of fans at Target Field in Minneapolis.
And he had a long name.
Next week, I’ll share more memories/impressions from players like Sandy Koufax, Mickey Mantle and Willie Mays.
And the Mantle and Mays stories are the best.