Part I: My Favorite Possession in My Collection
I have a decent baseball card and memorabilia collection. Not spectacular. No Babe Ruth jerseys, no Joe Jackson bats, no Hank Aaron autographs.
I own a few “hits,” which I have procured from various sources. A Troy Tulowitzki rookie-auto-relic card. A 1949 Bowman Whitey Lockman card. A rookie Gaylord Perry.
The most valuable member of my collection, and my favorite, is not a card, or a relic, or even an autograph, per se. It is a memory. In particular, it is my father’s memories.
This may not excite many, nor will it seem logical. However, because of the age of my father and the beginnings of a struggle with Alzheimer’s Disease, it is the most precious part of my collection.
In its physical form, those memories come in the form of an autograph book. It is my father’s book from 1941 when, as a sixteen-soon-to-be-seventeen year old, he worked as an usher at Municipal Stadium and League Park in Cleveland. The fact that I have it now, and that it was not thrown away by my grandmother, his mother, is amazing and fortuitous.
Not long after that summer, the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, and the United States was pulled into World War II. My father was drafted, which all young men were at the time, did his basic training at Camp Landing in Florida near Jacksonville, and then was deployed with his unit to Europe in 1944 and 1945. I believe he was with the Army General Corp,, and while in Europe was fortunate enough to not be on the front lines. He clerked in various locations, but most memorably was in Berlin after the downfall of the Third Reich. He remembers getting his cigarette rations, then selling them to the Russians that he would meet at the Potsdamer Platz for $100 (in 1945!) in military money. He would later serve at the Potsdam Conference that partitioned Germany.
These are only part of the memories that are so important today. During his time in the Army, his mother, as many mother’s did at the time, took the opportunity to clean up his room.
She threw away his baseball card collection.
This sad fact alone breaks my heart, but in a way that is sad for my father, not necessarily anger or frustration on my part for not having some very valuable cards, but in the regret that my father expresses when he talks about them. I’m sure there were some amazing cards from the 30’s in that collection. His family was not wealthy, but he worked and sometimes bought gum “that came with a baseball card,” as opposed to today when I sometimes find a piece of gum hermetically sealed off from a stack of cards in a pack, if at all.
One relic of his childhood still exists, though. It is his autograph book from that last summer of childhood for him. He was a big baseball fan, and probably was thrilled to work at the games and be so close to his idols. He would take his autograph book with him to work, and spend the game seating those who could still afford to go to baseball games in the stands. His location would vary, as would the venue. I did not realize until recently that the Indians would play during the week at League Park, an ancient downtown ballpark that had wood fences around most of the outfield where boys would try to peer through, and who’s outfield was almost as expansive and odd-shaped as the famed Polo Grounds.
After the games, he would wait for the Indians and the visiting team to leave the locker room, then ask them to sign his book. The litany of players from that era that signed it is astounding. Ted Williams. Luke Appling. Lou Boudreau. Mickey Vernon. Joe Cronin. And the list goes on.
The stories about the autographs are what I cherish the most. The ability to take my father back to a time that he loved, to a place he loved, to a family he loved, to a job he loved, to a pastime he loved.
He loves to tell the story of the day he got Joe Dimaggio’s autograph. Remember, 1941 was an historic year. Joe D set baseball on fire by hitting, and continuing to hit, for almost two months straight. He arrived in Cleveland in late July, 1941, with a 50+ game hitting streak. Ken Keltner, who’s signature graces the autograph book as well, made several outstanding plays to stop Joe’s hitting streak at 56 games, a record that may never be broken.
My father was there. And he says that Joe signed his autograph book on that day.
Now, there is no way to prove this succinctly. But, during a recent post-surgical recovery period, I researched the names of the players in the book, matched them against rosters from 1941, determined the Indians home schedule that year, and have verified that, indeed, that autograph is from the weekend that the famous hitting streak was stopped. I doubt that I will ever be able to prove that it actually came from that day, but I don’t need to. You see, I have my father’s memories of it. And right now, that is the most precious thing of his that I have.