Some of my older friends will remember that in my youth, I was a raging baseball fan. Growing up in upstate New York, we got New York Yankees games on the NBC affiliate out of Syracuse, most often on the weekends. My mom’s parents lived in Phelps, New York, and their TV could pick up WPIX, which was the Yankees’ main affiliate at the time. Soon, I could spout the names, dates and figures of all the great Yankee teams, as well as others.
From the start, I was as interested in baseball of the past, as I was in the present. There was something more interesting to me about that time. Some of it probably came from my grandfather’s stories of playing semi-pro ball in the 1930s. I have this fantastic pic of my grandfather’s high school baseball team, and my grandfather has three buttons undone on his jersey, his cap sideways, and a grin that looks like he loves what he’s doing.
I played sandlot ball for years, but I only played Little League baseball for two years, and that was in New York. The team that I was with, sponsored by the local Manhill Vending company, were 10-2 the first year I played with them, and were probably the best sports team I ever played with. We lost in the semi-finals of the regional tournament, to an all-star Rotary team from Geneva. I got a walk in the final inning, when our team needed a baseruner (I'm still proud of that), but we lost 6-5. And I still want a rematch.
When my parents and I moved to North Carolina in October of 1983, I soon discovered that there was a fledgling scene for baseball card collecting in Charlotte. For the next few years, I started going to card shows, and began to meet some of the older players that were doing signings on the circuit.
I met and hung out with Bob Feller at least twice. He was a bit ornery occasionally, but generally nice to me. He reminded me of my grandparents’ friends, so I was used to it. Just about everyone I met was very nice. Gaylord Perry, Enos Slaughter, Mickey Mantle (somewhere I have a Polaroid of me with Mantle that my mom took), and many others. This was in my mostly BC (Before Camera) days, and I wish I had some photos of these people.
Back then, you could also write to baseball players, and ask for their autograph. Somehow, I got a copy of a book with many players’ addresses, and I wrote away. Several did write back, including Bill Terry (last national leaguer to hit .400), Phil Rizzuto, Earl Averill and a few others. At the same time, I was also collecting baseball cards from 1920s to 1970s. Why did I want a Dwight Gooden card? I could get a Ty Cobb tobacco card for $20. This was all before the big boom (and bust) of card collecting, and it was a lot of fun.
I’ve been to a few ballparks. My parents took me to opening day of the Atlanta Braves season in 1985, where I met Steve Garvey, Tony Gwynn (who were playing for the San Diego Padres, at the time), and others, and got them to sign my program. I also was interviewed for local TV, and I got to see it air that night in our hotel room. I also went to Yankee Stadium in 1998, sitting way up in the bleachers. I also saw the then-World Champion Baltimore Orioles play against, and lose to the Charlotte O’s in the old Crockett Park (a minor league stadium I really miss) in 1984. Somewhere, I do have photos of that game. I also visited Wrigley Field in 2001, but did not get to go in.
I still have my baseball card and autograph collection. I’ve toyed with selling it a few times, but it’s hard to sell something that is so close to one’s heart, and childhood. I still follow the major leagues, and still follow the Yankees. I even forgave them (sort of) for tearing down Yankee Stadium. There have not been a lot of constants in my life, but the seasons, and baseball have always been there, waiting for me to re-discover it all again.
October 27, 2011