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I once met the president of the San Francisco Giants while walking to my church.

Nearly twenty years ago, my wife and daughter and I moved from Glendale, Arizona to a city near Oakland, California.  I had been asked by a pastor friend to be his associate pastor with the idea that when he retired, I would become the senior/lead pastor.

The day we arrived in town, a vice president for Safeway, who attended the church, dropped dead of a heart attack.

The executive’s memorial service was scheduled in the early afternoon after Sunday services, and as I walked from home toward the church, I found myself walking parallel to Peter Magowan, the president and managing general partner of my favorite baseball team, the San Francisco Giants, who was walking into the church.  (The following year, he would be named Sports Executive of the Year.)  Magowan was also the former CEO of Safeway and the current chairman of their board and had worked with the vice president.  At the time, Magowan’s group was putting the finishing touches on Pac Bell Park, the Giants’ new stadium, now termed At&T Park.

I greeted him by saying, “Hello, Mr. Magowan.”  I then told him that I had been at Candlestick Park the day before to watch the Giants play the Dodgers.  The Dodgers rallied in the ninth inning to beat the Giants, and I told Magowan that it was a tough loss.  He replied, “Tell me about it.  I didn’t sleep at all last night.”

Over the years, I’ve had the privilege … as just an average fan … of meeting many well-known people connected to baseball, mostly by asking for their autograph.  Intellectually, I know that baseball players are just ordinary individuals, but since I started collecting baseball cards in 1960 (at the age of six), I have admired baseball players, and secured the signatures of many players I first encountered on cards … and there is something magical about that experience.

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I began collecting autographs at the Grand Hotel in Anaheim, California in 1967, when I was thirteen years old.  The visiting American League teams all stayed at the Grand … except for the Kansas City A’s, who stayed at the Jolly Roger Inn.  From 1967 through 1972, I usually went to the hotel at least once per series.

The Grand could be a tough place to get autographs because the bellhops didn’t want any collectors inside the lobby.  Most of the time, we’d have to wait outside for the players to emerge as they took a taxi or the bus to what was then called Anaheim Stadium.

Around 1971, I began going to hotels in Los Angeles with friends to get the autographs of National League Teams.  Most stayed at the famous Biltmore Hotel in Pershing Square (my parents both attended The Bible Institute of Los Angeles across the square from the Biltmore in the early 1950s), while the Atlanta Braves stayed at the Sheraton West near MacArthur Park and the Giants stayed at the Ambassador Hotel (where Robert Kennedy was shot).  On several occasions, after getting autographs at the Biltmore, my friend Steve and I would walk uphill to Dodger Stadium for that night’s game.

When I became a pastor, I always hoped that a current or former major league baseball player would attend my church, but in my last church, I did have the privilege of having Irv Eatman, former 11-year NFL veteran and an offensive line coach for the Oakland Raiders, in my church.  He was the only person who wore a suit every Sunday!

I have hundreds of stories about getting the autographs of baseball players, whether at hotels, the ballparks, spring training, a golf tournament, or a card show.  But most of the time, I’d hand the player some cards, he’d sign them, he’d hand them back, I’d say, “Thank you,” and that would be it.  Sometimes, I was too intimidated to say anything to the player at all.

But as the following stories indicate, on occasion, I’d have a more extended conversation with a current or former player, such as:

Steve Garvey, San Diego, 1972.

The Dodgers used to stay at the Town & Country Inn in San Diego.  It’s a sprawling complex (my wife and I stayed there for an anniversary several years ago).  The Dodgers stayed at the back of the complex in a large tower.  They would come down an elevator and either walk through the complex to get a taxi at the front or wait for the bus in the back parking lot.

One Saturday, my friends Steve and Terri accompanied me to the hotel, and early in the afternoon, we got the autograph of Steve Garvey, who was at the time a third baseman who couldn’t throw.  Garvey and his wife Cyndy were sitting by the pool, and after we got his autograph, they began talking with us … for about twenty minutes.  They were both so nice that we couldn’t believe it.  (By contrast that day, Dodger pitcher Al Downing yelled at us when we asked him for his autograph … and he was known as Gentleman Al.)

Garvey became the National League Most Valuable Player two years later, in 1974, and I watched him hit two home runs against the Pirates in the final League Championship Game at Dodger Stadium that same year.  Garvey was a fan favorite in Los Angeles, and often came through in the clutch, especially in All-Star games, playoff games, and the World Series.

Garvey worked hard at pleasing his fans and was always a great signer.

Many years later, I saw Garvey before an exhibition game at UC Berkeley, and I told him that I thought he should be in the Hall of Fame.  He smiled and said, “Thanks.”

Cyndy went on to become a TV hostess and actress.

Six years later, I took this photo at the same hotel:

Davey Lopes, San Diego, 1978.

I once had the pennant hopes for the Los Angeles Dodgers in the front seat of my car.

In 1978, the All-Star Game was held in San Diego, and my friends Steve and John went with me to the Sheraton Harbor Hotel to get autographs the day before the game.  (It was quite a day.  George Brett was actually nice … I told Willie Stargell a story … and I had my only encounter with Howard Cosell.)

Players from both leagues would emerge from the hotel and take taxis over to the ballpark, but when Davey Lopes – second baseman for the Dodgers – came out, all the cabs were gone.  Thinking quickly, I told Lopes, “I’ll take you to the ballpark,” and after sizing up me and my friends, he said, “Okay, let’s go.”

During the fifteen minutes it took to get to the ballpark, the three of us talked to Lopes about the Dodgers’ pennant chances.  Lopes initially asked if there was anything we wanted him to sign, and he was very gracious.  Since he was leading off for the National League the next day, I told him what kind of pitches Frank Tanana, the starting pitcher for the American League, threw.  (It didn’t help.  Tanana got Lopes out.)

The whole time I was driving Lopes to the ballpark, I kept thinking to myself, “Drive perfectly.  You have the Dodgers’ leadoff hitter in your passenger seat.”

When we got to the ballpark, there were thousands of cars already there for the Monday festivities, but because Lopes was a player, we were escorted right to the front, where I dropped him off.

The Dodgers went on to win the National League pennant in 1978, only to be defeated the second year in a row by the dreaded New York Yankees in the World Series.  Lopes hit three home runs and knocked in seven runs in that Series.  I attended the last game at Dodger Stadium – Goose Gossage got the save – but I got to see the little second baseman who had been in my car hit a home run.

Pete Falcone, San Francisco, 1984.

Pete Falcone was a left-handed pitcher for the San Francisco Giants, St. Louis Cardinals, New York Mets, and the Atlanta Braves in the late 1970s and early 1980s.

At the time, I pastored a church in Santa Clara, California … in the heart of Silicon Valley.  Fridays were my day off, and that usually meant driving north to Daly City and taking BART to downtown San Francisco so I could get autographs of the visiting teams who stayed at the Westin St. Francis Hotel across from Union Square.

On this particular day, a fellow collector named Bob met me in the lobby of the St. Francis (it was a GREAT place to get autographs because nobody from the hotel ever bugged us) and we got Falcone’s autograph.  We started talking, Falcone found out I was a pastor, and he told me he was a Christian who attended a small church of thirty people in the Atlanta area.

The next thing we knew, Falcone invited both Bob and I to lunch at the restaurant in the back of the hotel.

I should have gone home and recorded as much of the conversation as I could remember, but I didn’t.  But Falcone treated us both very well … like men … and it was really cool.  At one point, we both lamented the passing of Keith Green, a Christian music artist who had died several years before in a plane crash.

After lunch, Falcone left us tickets for that night’s game.  After at least a 90-minute ride home, I loaded my brother-in-law Kevin and my four-year-old son Ryan in my 1963 Chevy Nova and headed up the 101 Freeway toward Candlestick Park.  Caught in bumper-to-bumper traffic in the fast lane, the three cars in front of me collided, and to avoid them, I quickly swerved my car to the left … and hit a chain link fence that served as a barrier.  When my head thrust forward, I chipped my two front teeth on the steering wheel.  (Those who were in the collision were all bloodied and walking around in a daze.)

I was in too much pain to proceed to the ballpark, so I turned around … found a dentist the next morning who capped my teeth temporarily … and called Falcone at the hotel and told him why I didn’t show up.

When the Braves next came to town, I said hi to him on the field.  That was the last time I ever saw him … but I’ve never forgotten his kindness.

Luke Appling and Minnie Minoso, Oakland, 1987/1988.

In the late 1980s, the Equitable Group sponsored a series of Old Timers games all over Major League Baseball.  I always looked forward to those games because it meant that former players would show up … and since some of them didn’t answer their mail, the only way to get their autographs was in person.

For example, Jack Smalling, who has compiled a list of current and former players’ addresses for years, once listed the top ten players he couldn’t find.  One of them was Jim Ray Hart, former third baseman for the San Francisco Giants.  Hart turned up before an Old Timers game at the Hyatt Hotel in Oakland, and he signed … and smeared … every card I gave him.  (He didn’t mean to smear the cards.  He probably hadn’t signed anything in so long that he didn’t know autograph protocol.)

Anyway, one Saturday afternoon, my son Ryan and I drove up to the Hyatt Hotel in Oakland to try and get the autographs of the Old Timers who were staying there.  (Fifteen years later, I would be the pastor of a church five minutes away from the site of that hotel … after it had been bulldozed down.)

That night, while waiting in the small lobby of the Hyatt, former White Sox greats Luke Appling and Minnie Minoso came into the lobby and sat down.  There were a few collectors there, and both men signed everything they were handed.  And then they started conversing with us … just like we were regular people.

Luke Appling, a shortstop with the Chicago White Sox his whole career, was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1964.  (I knew a pastor’s wife who babysat for Appling’s family when she was a teenager.)  Minnie Minoso was one of my father’s favorite players.

Minnie Minoso Signed Cards 2 001

Once again, I wish I had gone home and written down what these two men said, but the message I received from them was, “I like baseball fans, and you guys are fans, so let’s talk baseball.”  Few current or former players convey that attitude anymore.

Let me tell you about the camaraderie I once enjoyed with other collectors.  That night, I left the hotel without getting the autograph of Joe Black, a pitcher for the Dodgers from the early 1950s.  I asked a collector if he would get Black’s autograph for me if he saw him, and he said he would.  The next time I saw that collector, he gave me all six cards back … signed.

Alvin Dark, Garden Grove, California, 1980.

Alvin Dark was the shortstop for the famed 1951 New York Giants who beat the Dodgers in a three-game playoff under manager Leo Durocher, who named him team captain.  He was also the Giants’ shortstop when they swept the Indians in the 1954 World Series.

After his solid playing career was over, Dark became the manager of the San Francisco Giants in the early 1960s, managing Hall of Famers Willie Mays, Willie McCovey, Orlando Cepeda, and Juan Marichal, among many others.

He also went on to manage the World Champion Oakland A’s in 1974 and the San Diego Padres a few years later.

Dark, who was a Christian, had just written a book called, When in Doubt, Fire the Manager.  The head of our church’s men’s group asked Dark … who was living about an hour south of our city near San Diego … to speak for our men’s group.

Fortunately, the head of the men’s group knew I was a huge baseball fan, and he arranged for me to sit by Dark for the evening.

Dark’s Oakland A’s beat my Los Angeles Dodgers in the World Series in 1974, and I remembered watching player after player hit weak ground balls to Bert Campaneris (the A’s shortstop) or Sal Bando (their third baseman).  I asked Dark about it.

He told me, “I told our pitchers to throw the ball on the outside corner.  If a pitch was called a strike, I’d tell them to throw it another inch outside.”  Time after time, I watched as the Dodgers’ right-handed batters tried to pull those outside pitches and grounded out easily.  It was all part of a strategy!

Even though it was still painful to watch, we watched highlights of the 1974 World Series and received expert commentary from the A’s manager, who signed all the items I had … including his book … after the banquet.

That was a long time ago!

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As I mentioned at the beginning of this article, I lived near Oakland, California during my last church ministry … and used to see the current manager of the Oakland A’s all the time.

Back in 2000, the A’s and Yankees were playing a best-of-five series in the American League Divisional Series for the right to go to the World Series.  The Yankees won Game 5 in Oakland and it was heartbreaking.

The Saturday after Game 5, my wife and I were working in our garage when I saw A’s manager Art Howe walking his two dogs across the street.  I had been told that he lived in the apartment complex across from us, and there he was.  My wife told me, “He looks so sad.”  I said, “He thought he was going to manage the A’s tonight in the World Series.  Instead, they’re at home and the Yankees are in the Series … again.”

After that, I saw Art Howe from time-to-time in our community.  I once passed an ice cream parlor and he was sitting next to the window.  One time, I was backing out of a parking place, turned around, and Howe was waiting to take my place.  He smiled and waved at me.

If you’re read the book Moneyball or seen the movie, Howe was the manager during that period in A’s history.

When I first started collecting autographs, it was like torture for me to overcome my introversion and ask a player to sign something.  Over time, I learned to become more extroverted while approaching players because that was the only way I was ever going to get anything signed.  I have always tended to defer to people who have a greater social status than I do, so I’m grateful for those few times that someone connected to baseball treated me like a human being.

I’ll share some other stories soon.

 

 

 

 

 

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When my father was a kid, he and his brother Carl sneaked into the top floor of a hotel where a large group of major league baseball players were meeting … probably in the late 1930s.

I’m told they got the autographs of Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig, among others, but that their mother eventually threw them out.

My grandmother may not have had much use for those autographs, but my mother knew what baseball meant to me.  So when I wanted to get autographs of players in my hometown of Anaheim … or in downtown Los Angeles … she let me go … nearly always with a friend or two.

Last time, I wrote about experiences I had with six baseball Hall of Famers from the 1960s: Hank Aaron, Ernie Banks, Roberto Clemente, Reggie Jackson, Al Kaline, and Harmon Killebrew.

Here are encounters with six more players, including the three most celebrated superstars of the 1960s:

Seventh, Sandy Koufax.

I can’t begin to tell you how much Sandy Koufax meant to me as a kid growing up in the greater Los Angeles area.

Due to Walter O’Malley’s stinginess, the Dodgers only televised nine games per year … all from Candlestick Park in San Francisco … so I could only see Koufax pitch on television three times a year, at best … unless the Dodgers went to the World Series, which they did three times in four years.

I did see Koufax pitch twice in person: a three-hit, 3-0 shutout against the Houston Colt 45s (now the Astros) on June 14, 1963, and a 4-2 victory against the Milwaukee Braves on October 2, 1965 … a game that clinched the pennant for the Dodgers.

Koufax pitched four no-hitters, one each year from 1962-1965 … won five consecutive ERA titles … set the (then) all-time record for strikeouts in a season with 382 … twice struck out 18 batters in a game … and had a mystique about him that’s unique even for today.

In 1966, he won 27 games and lost only 9 … and then retired at age 30 due to injuries.

I once saw Koufax on the field before a game and yelled “Sandy!” … from the Bob Uecker seats … and he actually looked up toward me.

Following the 1965 season, Koufax published an autobiography appropriately titled Koufax.  My parents gave it to me for Christmas … personally signed.

I couldn’t believe it … and still have it.

In 1967, Koufax became an announcer for the Game of the Week on NBC, and he was in Anaheim for the All-Star Game.  The night before the game, I got his autograph in my autograph book.

Although he threw left-handed, Koufax batted … and signed … right-handed.

Then I went home for dinner … begging to be taken back to the hotel … and grabbed a mint condition 1955 Koufax rookie card for him to sign if I saw him again that night.

I did see him … and he did sign it … and this may have been the first baseball card I ever got signed.

I have not taken it out of this binder for nearly 50 years.

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Of course, all this was before vintage cards … or rookie cards … were worth anything monetarily.

I’ve been told that by getting the card signed, I have greatly reduced its value, but I never collected cards with the idea of reselling them, and I never got autographs to sell them, either.

Koufax was a good signer through the mail in the early 1970s, and I was able to get all my cards signed that way, although I risked losing some increasingly valuable cards.

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The only other time I saw Koufax in person was at spring training in Vero Beach, Florida, in 1980.  My brother and I went together for a week and had an absolute blast.

Here’s Koufax being mobbed by fans:

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Sandy is still alive and in his early 80s.  Jane Leavy’s book Sandy Koufax is a terrific read, as is Michael Leahy’s book The Last Innocents, which takes a close look at seven Dodgers’ players from the 1960s, including Koufax.

Eighth, Mickey Mantle.

The first day I ever got autographs at a hotel was at the Grand Hotel in Anaheim in April 1967.

The New York Yankees were in town, and I brought along an autograph book that had been signed by friends from fifth and sixth grade … I kid you not.

When we arrived at the hotel, there was a huge window looking into the coffee shop, and there sat Mickey Mantle … eating an ice cream sundae.

Upon spotting Mantle, some kids rushed into the coffee shop, but Mantle said he would sign when he came out … which he did … in my autograph book.

Over the next two years … 1967 and 1968 … Mantle signed at least five times other times for me … once every road trip.  (The Yankees came to Anaheim three times a year back then.)

Here are three of those signatures (remember, we didn’t have Sharpies back then):

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Here are a few Mantle stories:

*A friend of mine joined me at the hotel one day to get Mantle’s autograph, and when he did, Mantle made a snide comment about his appearance, which ended up circulating all around our Jr. High school.

*My brother John and another friend decided to ride the central elevator at the Grand Hotel (which they weren’t supposed to do) and when the elevator stopped at a certain floor, Mantle got on.  When they asked him for his autograph, he yelled at them.

*A kid in a wheelchair once waited for Mantle to emerge from the hotel, and when he did, Mantle went right up to him, but the kid didn’t have a pen for Mantle to sign anything with.  I quickly offered my pen, and when Mantle was done, he asked, “Whose pen is this?”  I said, “Mine,” and Mantle signed my item next.

*I wasn’t there, but I was told that a fan wanted a picture taken with Mantle in front of the small fountain outside the hotel.  The fan was so nervous that he fell in the fountain.

*My brother’s friend Mark joined us one afternoon to try and get Mantle’s autograph.  When Mantle came out of the hotel, he signed for my brother, then boarded the bus.  When we motioned for Mantle to open the bus window, he did.  When Mark asked him for his signature, Mantle mistakenly told him, “I already signed for you,” and signed another one for my brother … which he turned and gave to Mark.

The last time I saw Mantle was before an Old-Timers game at the Sheraton Hotel in Anaheim around 1971.  Mantle took my card … turned and stared at me for a moment … and then signed it.

He and Johnny Bench were the most intimidating players I ever asked for autographs.  Maybe Bench is nice now (as he seems to be on a TV commercial), but he was tough during the latter part of his playing days.

According to former teammate Bobby Richardson, Mantle became a Christian in the closing days of his life in 1995, so I look forward to seeing the Mick again.

Ninth, Juan Marichal.

Growing up a Dodgers fan, the San Francisco Giants were their rivals … and when the Dodgers went to Candlestick Park, they could not hit Giant pitcher Juan Marichal.

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Marichal threw nine different pitches from three different angles (overhand, three-quarters, and sidearm) … a total of 27 different looks for a batter … but he was best known for his high leg kick, portrayed in this statue outside AT&T Park in San Francisco.

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Believe it or not, the Giants used to hold a picture day at Candlestick Park in the early 1980s, and I got this picture of Ryan in front of Marichal’s number on the outfield fence.

The first time I got Marichal’s autograph was in 1968 at the Grand Hotel when the Giants came to Anaheim for an exhibition game on a Saturday before the season started.

The next time I saw him was at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles around 1971 … the same hotel where Bobby Kennedy was shot in June 1968.  Marichal looked at me and asked, “Why don’t you go and get a job?”  (I worked for McDonald’s at the time but got off work to go and see the Giants.)  He usually signed only one item back then.

But the following year … 1972 … Marichal changed his disposition and signed everything in sight!

(The typical pattern is that players start off as good signers … become grumpier after gaining fame or stardom because average people, not just baseball fans, start to recognize them in public … become even worse as they near retirement … and then after a year or two out of the game, become better signers once again.)

Besides the “job” comment, I had only two other encounters with Marichal.

In 1983, Marichal appeared at a card show in Santa Rosa, California, and the autographs were only $2.50 each.  Marichal signed a lot of cards for me that day, and shook my hand afterwards.  He couldn’t have been nicer.

Several years later, Marichal appeared at a baseball clinic for kids several miles from my house, and he generously signed six cards.

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Marichal may be best known for clubbing Dodger catcher John Roseboro with a bat at Dodger Stadium in the heat of the pennant race in August 1965.

John Rosengren has written an inspiring book about that incident and the subsequent relationship between the two men called The Fight of Their Lives: How Juan Marichal and John Roseboro Turned Baseball’s Ugliest Brawl into a Story of Forgiveness and Redemption.  I keep meaning to write a blog about the book and hope to get it done sometime.

Tenth, Willie Mays.

Willie Mays is considered by many baseball experts to be the greatest all-around player in the history of the sport.  He played with passion, charisma, and daring.

And he was my brother John’s favorite player.

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The first time I got Mays’ autograph was at the Grand Hotel in 1968 … the same occasion when I first got Marichal’s autograph.

When the players came off their bus, my brother and I followed Mays into the hotel, and I took a photo of the two of them.  I still have it … somewhere … but the flash didn’t work, and Mays made a comment about it at the time.

I was fortunate enough to get his signature three times that day … unlike Mantle, Mays never looked at who he was signing for … but all three signatures were different.  His autograph didn’t become uniform until he started signing at shows years later.

The next time I got his autograph was at spring training in Palm Springs in 1971.  My friend Dave and I went to the Giants hotel but we saw Mays slip away while wearing his uniform.  We jumped in Dave’s Volkswagen, followed Mays to the park, and got his autograph just as he was going into the clubhouse … but his signature (which I still have) was lousy.

This sets up the craziest autograph story I’ve ever experienced.

Remember how I mentioned earlier that the Giants stayed at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles when they came to town?

Well, one time in 1972, five of us went to the Ambassador in my friend Dave’s VW bug.  We got the autographs of most of the Giants … they came out the front for a cab or to take the bus … but we missed Mays … who usually rented a car, parked out back, and drove to Dodger Stadium himself.

If we waited for Mays, we’d miss the other Giants, and we didn’t want to do that … but maybe, we thought, we can get him after the game.

However, the Giants boosters were also staying at the hotel, and somehow, one of our group found out the room number where Mays was staying … information that didn’t interest me at all.

So after the game, Mays came out of Dodger Stadium, signed maybe one autograph (with a huge crowd surrounding him), got in his car, and took off.

Please understand that back in the early 1970s, the best way to get a player’s autograph was at the team hotel.  You could write a player in the mail, but if he didn’t answer, you’d lose your valuable cards, and that was a tough risk to take.

I don’t remember who made the suggestion, but somebody said, “Hey, let’s see if we can catch Mays at the hotel.”  So we drove to the Ambassador and waited … but there was no sign of Mays anywhere.

And then someone made this fateful suggestion: “Hey, I’ve got Mays’ room number.  Why don’t we go up to his room and ask him to sign for us?”

I’m sure I said, “No!  Bad idea!  Let’s just go home.”

But what if Mays was really cool and signed for us?

Someone else prevailed, and the next thing I knew, two of my friends were knocking on the hotel room of Willie Mays … just after midnight.

Mays opened the door, and he was wearing maroon pajamas.  He took a look at the five of us … I was hiding a bit down some stairs … and one of the five asked, “Willie, can we have your autograph?”  Mays asked, “Who are you guys with?”  My friend replied, “We’re with the Giants boosters, Willie.  Can we have your autograph?”

As Mays peered into the hallway and saw five of us, he said, “I’m going to call the house man on you.”

We ran … down the stairs … into the basement … up some stairs … across the back lawn of the Ambassador … and found Dave’s VW.  Dave peeled out down Wilshire Boulevard, and when he hit the Harbor Freeway, went 85 mph … as far from the Ambassador Hotel as we could get.

The next morning, I had a crew meeting at McDonald’s, and I kept waiting for the cops to come and arrest me.

Years later, I started a sermon with that story, and Dave … who also became a pastor … has used it as well.

While discussing this incident a few years ago, we both admitted that we’re still waiting for someone to come and arrest us for what we did to poor Willie 45 years ago.

Since that incident, I’ve gotten Mays’ autograph through two main venues: in spring training and at a card show (where his signature was only $2.50).

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I once read where Mays said that everywhere he goes, if he signs one autograph, he ends up signing 100.  I can’t imagine what it’s like to be so visible … and so popular … and Mays has gained a reputation as somewhat of a grouch over the past few decades.

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And after what we put Mays through at the Ambassador Hotel, I can’t blame him.

Sorry, Willie.

Mays can hardly see anymore … if at all … and the last I heard, he charges $100 per autograph.

Eleventh, Willie McCovey.

McCovey played on the Giants with Marichal and Mays, and when Don Drysdale of the Dodgers pitched against him, McCovey absolutely murdered him.

Big Stretch became the Most Valuable Player in the National League in 1969 and hit 521 home runs in his career.  He and Mays formed a powerful one-two punch.

McCovey was always pleasant and would sign one item whenever we saw him.

One time, we left the Ambassador Hotel and followed the Giants’ bus all the way to Dodger Stadium.  McCovey sat in the very back of the bus, and we saw his silhouette all the way to the ballpark.

In 1982, McCovey made an appearance at the Old Mill Shopping Center in Mountain View, near our home in Santa Clara, and I took the whole family after church.  Each autograph was only $1.00.

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I took this picture of my son Ryan with McCovey:

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After he retired from the Giants, McCovey held an annual golf tournament at the Olympic Country Club near San Francisco every November.  Back in the 1980s, I went up there a few times and had a great time getting autographs.  Baseball players and other celebrities (like Huey Lewis) would practice their drives and putts, then go to their golf carts and just sit there waiting to go to the first hole.

Some collectors would wait by a certain hole and wait for the golfers to finish before asking them to sign something, but I went early and got autographs while everyone was still loose … and happy.

When I was a pastor in Silicon Valley in the 1990s, a guy in the church did landscaping for McCovey at his home in Woodside.  I asked him if he would ask McCovey if he’d sign a few things for me.

McCovey said no.

When the Giants built their new ballpark in south San Francisco, they named the cove behind the right field fence “McCovey Cove” in honor of Willie.  Many years later, I had the privilege of riding in the cove in a Duck Boat … piloted by my pastor friend Peter Muthui from Kenya.

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If you look closely at the photo below, you’ll see a statue of McCovey swinging a bat just above the rocks.

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Finally, Frank Robinson.

Frank Robinson was the first player to win the Most Valuable Player Award in both the National League (1961) and American League (1966).

I first got his autograph at the Grand Hotel in 1967.  I was by myself, and Frank was okay.

But Frank could be a bit on the mean side.  With no one else around, I once asked him to sign his rookie card from 1957 in spring training as he was going from the parking lot into the clubhouse.

I can still hear him let out a yell … but he signed it.

Because he lived in Los Angeles, I saw him a few times at Lakers games in the late 1960s.

Frank was traded to the Dodgers in the early 1970s.  One night, he came out to his car and signed for everybody … something I wasn’t used to seeing.

Frank became manager of the Giants in the early 1980s, and I took a photo of him with Ryan at a Picture Day:

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Frank did a card show in the Bay Area in the 1990s … along with Ricky Henderson … and each autograph was $4.50 … bargains then and now.

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The last time I saw Frank was after Harmon Killebrew’s memorial service at Christ’s Church of the Valley in Peoria, Arizona.  Due to the solemnity of the occasion, I wasn’t about to ask him … or anyone else … for a signature, but I did take his photo with my (pathetic) Blackberry.

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After the Mays incident, I never violated a player’s privacy again, asking for an autograph only when they were in a public place.

I’ve got a lot more stories to tell … like the time a player invited me to lunch … or the time I drove a Dodger to the stadium the day before the All-Star game … or the time the league’s leading hitter sat down and talked to me for twenty minutes … or the time …

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A few months ago, my daughter Sarah told me, “Dad, I know you like to write about church conflict and pastoral termination, but I like it when you write about something else, too.”

So since it’s almost baseball season, let me write about something else … my long-time hobby of collecting the autographs of major league baseball players … both past and present.

It all started when I was 13 years old.  I grew up in Anaheim, California – two miles from Disneyland.  My friends Kevin and Steve called me one day – two months after my father died – and told me they had gotten the autographs of New York Yankee greats Mickey Mantle and Whitey Ford several hours before.

I asked where they got them, and they replied, “At the Grand Hotel where the Yankees are staying.  We waited for the players to come out for the bus to go to the game (at nearby Anaheim Stadium), and when they did, they signed for us.”

The Grand was about 3 miles from my house.  I HAD to go the very next day … because I was … and am … a HUGE baseball fan.

Since the age of six, I collected baseball cards … seriously.  I still have thousands.  But until that day in 1967, I had only met a handful of ballplayers in person … and had less than 10 signatures.

Many of the kids in my Anaheim neighborhood eventually made their way to the Grand Hotel to wait for the players to come out.  Some went only once.  A handful went many times.

I went more than most.

We never knew who we’d see around the hotel.

One time, actor Jimmy Durante appeared.  He was performing at the adjacent Melodyland Theater – which later became a church – and I got his autograph a couple of times.

Another time, two friends – both named Steve – took the shuttle from the Disneyland Hotel (which went toward the Grand) to get autographs from the Detroit Tigers on Labor Day in 1968 … and sat next to famous actor Fred MacMurray (Double Indemnity/My Three Sons) … who talked with them and gave them his autograph.

Many players were great signers.  They would sign whatever you gave them … sometimes many cards.  Brooks Robinson of the Baltimore Orioles and Harmon Killebrew of the Minnesota Twins were especially nice.

But some were tough, including Elston Howard of the Yankees (he always yelled at you); Ted Williams (who managed the Washington Senators for several seasons and could be very intimidating); Frank Robinson (who has never liked signing); and Mickey Mantle (who stared sideways at every person who asked for his autograph).

Over the years, I was able to obtain the signature of nearly every player I saw at that hotel, including Willie Mays, Juan Marichal, Willie McCovey, Tom Seaver, Nolan Ryan, Gil Hodges, Jackie Robinson, Sandy Koufax, Roberto Clemente, and Joe DiMaggio.

One guy was super-tough, though.

Mike Marshall was a pitcher for the Detroit Tigers in 1968.  He came out of the hotel one day … I was the only collector there … and he stood against a pillar, waiting to take a van to the ballpark.  I asked him to sign a 3×5 card, and he didn’t look at me … didn’t answer me … didn’t respond in any way.

Years later, I learned that Marshall determined from the time he was in the minor leagues that he would not sign autographs for anyone.  I don’t have his signature, and don’t really want it.

But there was another player whose signature was almost impossible to obtain … and I wanted it very much.

His name?  Richie Allen … or as he later asked to be called … Dick Allen.

Richie Allen was both talented and troubled.  He played initially for the Philadelphia Phillies, and he was a superb hitter, but he also marched to his own drummer.  I recently read the autobiography of the late Hall of Fame pitcher Robin Roberts who said that early in Allen’s career, the Phillies were playing a doubleheader, and Allen just didn’t show up for the games.  Roberts found him at home instead.

Today, that would be a MAJOR scandal.

In 1967, the All-Star game was held in Anaheim, and I spent Sunday night, all day Monday, and Tuesday morning at the Grand, where the National League players stayed.  Monday night, just after dark, Richie Allen showed up, and I got his signature in my autograph book: R. Allen.

He signed it on the wrong page.

Allen didn’t seem to like fans, and he certainly didn’t like to sign his name.

Over the next few years, I never saw Allen anywhere, but whenever I spoke with other collectors, nobody else had gotten his signature, either.  He was nearly impossible.

Some of us used to write to players in the mail, and if someone was mean in person (like Elston Howard), they might be cordial in the mail … and Howard was.

But if you wrote to Richie Allen … he didn’t respond.

In 1972, Allen was on the Chicago White Sox, and he had such a great year that he was later named the Most Valuable Player in the American League.

I went to the Grand one day that year hoping to get Allen’s autograph on a 1967 Topps card that had already been signed by former teammate Johnny Callison.

I had read in the newspaper that White Sox manager Chuck Tanner allowed Allen not to take the team bus and to skip most pregame preliminaries, so after the bus left at 5:30, the collectors went home … but I stayed … determined to get Allen’s autograph on my card.

I almost never got autographs in a crowd … like from the stands before a game … and I wouldn’t follow a crowd chasing a player after a game, either.  It was too undignified.

But if someone is a tough signer, but you can catch them by yourself in a solitary place, you have a better chance of getting their autograph than if there’s a crowd waiting.

So about 6:40 pm that night, Allen came out of the hotel, accompanied by another man.  My heart pounding, I walked toward him and said, “Mr. Allen …”

He held out his right hand and waved me off.

That was it.  I had waited 70 minutes after the bus left, only to be dismissed outright.

I quit collecting the following year.  When Roberto Clemente died in 1973, I had 30 autographs of him … but just one of Richie Allen.

After I got married, I picked up the autograph hobby again, even taking some guys from the youth group to spring training games in Palm Springs, where we did very well.  (Going to spring training workouts … before the exhibition season starts … is the single best way to get autographs today … especially if you can have access to the practice fields.)

Years later, my friend John heard that Dick Allen owned horses at Santa Anita racetrack here in Southern California.  He took his items to be signed, went to the track, asked when and where Allen might show up, and waited.

Allen finally came by.  John asked him if he would sign for him, and Allen replied, “No, but I’ll shake your hand.”

John … who had a knack for getting the signatures of even the toughest players … told me later that was it: he figured he would never get Allen’s autograph.

Fast forward ahead many years.

In 1992, I was pastoring a church in Santa Clara, California, in the heart of Silicon Valley.  My collecting days were over, but if somebody asked me if I would ever collect again, I’d always say the same thing: only if Dick Allen comes to town.

How likely was that to happen?

One day, my old neighborhood friends Kevin and Steve – the same ones who had told me about getting Mantle’s autograph 25 years before – came to visit me in Santa Clara.

For some reason, we went to Vallco, a shopping center in Cupertino (near Apple’s headquarters), and there was a baseball card show in the mall.

While looking at a few signed photos, I noticed that one collector had Richie Allen’s signature.  I asked where he got it.

He told me that he had obtained it at a show … maybe back east … and I said something like, “Wow, I wish Allen would come here.  He’s always been the hardest guy for me to get.”

The collector told me, “Well, he’s coming to Santa Clara,” and he handed me a flyer.

Sure enough, in about a month, Richie Allen was scheduled to make an appearance at a card show at the Santa Clara Convention Center … about two miles from my church!

Card shows both hurt and help the autograph hobby.

They hurt it when players sign for money at shows … and then won’t sign for free anywhere else.

They help it when tough players like Richie Allen go to a show, where they are paid to be nice … and to sign whatever you hand them … as long as you pay for it.

My specialty in the hobby was trying to get the signatures of each player on every card I had of them.  (It was much more doable when Topps was the only card company around, and nearly impossible when Fleer, Donruss, Score, Upper Deck, and others started up in the 1980s.)  I didn’t sell any duplicates.  If someone wanted one, I’d make a trade … or give it to them.

I had about 40 different cards of Richie Allen, and at $6.00 a pop, that was going to require $240.00 … but for me, this was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

But I knew how to get the funds.  I went to my local baseball card shop … cashed in some old cards … and walked away with the money I needed to meet Richie Allen … finally.

That Saturday afternoon, I went to the Convention Center, and there weren’t many people there.  Away from Chicago and Philadelphia, Richie Allen wasn’t much of a draw.

There in the back sat Allen, next to former A’s pitcher Steve McCatty … whose signature I had many times.

I bought my tickets, went up to Allen, and asked him to sign my cards … and while he was signing, I told him my story from 1972 … how I had waited for his autograph and he just waved me off.  (Steve McCatty couldn’t believe all the cards I had of Allen.)

Here are some of the cards he signed that day … including the card with Callison in the middle:

Richie Allen Signed Cards 001

Okay, maybe Allen was being nice because he was being paid, but the last item I asked him to sign was his autobiography entitled Crash.

Here’s what he wrote:

Richie Allen Book Signature 001

A while later, my friend John visited me, and when I showed him the Allen signatures, he couldn’t believe it … regardless of how they were obtained.

I gave him a couple of items Allen had signed, and John was ecstatic.  He finally had his man.

Several years ago, the Veterans Committee for the Baseball Hall of Fame voted on whether or not to induct some veteran players, and Richie Allen got the most votes … but fell one vote short.

Maybe someday he’ll go into the Hall … I’m not really sure.

I have sometimes wondered, “Why do I like collecting baseball autographs so much?”

Is it a way of saying, “I met someone famous?”  If so, wouldn’t a photo work just as well?

Is it a way of saying, “I’ve had contact with that person?”

A lot of collectors get autographs on bats, balls, and expensive things … items that will later increase in value.

That was never my intent.  I liked getting signatures on cards, which were relatively inexpensive to purchase and easy to categorize and hand to a player.  The cards were a direct tie-in to my childhood when baseball was my passion.

The great British preacher Charles Spurgeon founded the Metropolitan Tabernacle in London.  Last week, while on holiday, I visited the church with my wife.

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Spurgeon loved to get books that he valued signed by the author, sending them away for their signatures.

Even in Christian circles, when an author comes out with a book, some bookstores … or churches … will host a book signing.

I do know that a creative signature signed with a Sharpie pen on an item of your choosing can look like a work of art … and they make great items to display in your house.

To the left of my desk, I have a bookshelf filled with signed photos of baseball players: Mays, Mantle, McCovey, Aaron, Musial, Snider, and Koufax among them.

Among those greats – all members of the Hall of Fame – is a signed photo of a young man who became a great ballplayer … and who became one tough signature.

Like many things in life, finally meeting him was well worth waiting for.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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