June 13, 2008

I don't remember my father as much of a baseball fan. I knew he'd been a pretty good left-handed pitcher in prep school, throwing against some future big leaguers. I also knew that Dad, having grown up in St. Louis, later in life worshiped Cardinal's Hall of Famer Stan Musial. But unlike a lot of sons, I don't recall any golden moments playing catch with Dad in the summer twilight. We never sat down in front of the television and watched a baseball game together.

So, not long ago, it came as a surprise to discover that my father had not only once been a baseball fan, he'd been a fan of the most rabid kind, an autograph hound. Dad died of cancer in December 2002. That year, ill and closing in on 80, he'd begun to arrange his affairs, completing a detailed family history, parceling out personal effects to his four children and cataloguing his beloved library of several thousand books. He did a thorough job of it. Once Dad left us, there was a minimum of family fuss about sifting through the artifacts of his life.

Still, when he passed, my father hadn't fully completed the tasks of his last days. Among the items left not dealt with on his desk was a manila envelope. Inside, was a small green book with a cracked leather cover. In my sisters' and my last rush to sort through everything before returning to our respective homes, the envelope went to me. Then, within the month, I had a heart attack. Shortly after that I underwent quintuple bypass surgery. Then my cat died. I forgot all about the little green book.

Not long ago, I came across the envelope again when rummaging through a drawer. The book was still inside. I now noticed that on its cover was labeled in ornate gold letters AUTOGRAPHS. Folded into it was a slip of paper. This read:

FOR SALE Autograph book containing the signatures of about 200 baseball figures, including 24 Hall of Famers, that I collected in the late 1930s. The cover of the book shows its age, and a few of the autographs are faded. But most are in pretty good shape.

The list that follows is a veritable who's who of a bygone baseball era -- Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Joe DiMaggio, Hank Greenberg, Leo Durocher, Bob Feller and many others. Dad would have been 11 and 12 in the summers of 1937 and 1938, his primary years as an autograph hound. The son of a U.S. senator from Missouri, he spent equal time living in St. Louis and Washington D.C. Because of this, Dad was in the unique position to collect the signatures of both the National League Cardinals and their visiting opponents, as well as the American League Washington Senators and theirs.

Opening the now-fragile book, I saw the oversized boyhood scrawl inside the cover announcing, "This book belongs to CHAMP CLARK." What follows are the penciled autographs of the great, the not-so-great and the up-for-a-cup-of-coffee ballplayer alike, four or five names often indiscriminately grouped together on one of the pastel pages. Babe Ruth lives forever on a field of egg blue alongside Goody Rosen, Tuck Stainback and Kiki Cuyler. Joe DiMaggio teams with Jake Powell, Kemp Wicker and Tom Henrich on a page of pink. Though already tagged for sale, Dad (being Dad) didn't simply throw his book onto eBay and wait for bids. Instead he lingered, making notes about the ballplayers he had encountered so long before on pieces of paper that he slipped between the book's pages. Through this little book my father seemed to find a way to rekindle a youthful passion at a time when his life was heading into the late innings.

Moe Berg -- Was notable among ballplayers of his day because he could read without moving his lips.

Al Sabo -- A Washington catcher, has the highest lifetime batting average of anyone in my autograph book -- .375. Of course, he appeared in only five games, collecting three hits in eight trips to the plate.

Clark Griffith -- The cheapest man in baseball. The Senator's owner, he once traded his own son-in-law for $100,000 and a bum shortstop. The day I got his autograph, Griffith came out of his team's dressing room wearing a white Panama hat, from beneath which jutted the planet's bushiest, whitest eyebrows. He silently signed my book and then carefully deposited my pencil in the breast pocket of his jacket before walking away.

Rube Walberg -- This guy must have been one of Babe Ruth's favorite pitchers; in 1927, Ruth got four of his 60 homers off Walberg.

Jake Powell -- Possessed the second biggest nose in baseball. (The biggest: Ernie Lombardi's.)

Bump Hadley -- His first pitch in the major leagues was to Babe Ruth with the bases loaded.

Charles Godwin -- He must not have felt very secure about his place in history -- he added the words "3rd baseman" to his autograph.

Kemp Wicker -- Once pitched 19 innings for a 2-1 loss.

Buddy Lewis -- A prototypical Washington slap-hitter, playing in a park that made sluggers weep in frustration. While signing his autograph for me, Buddy seemed like a nice guy -- so nice, in fact, that I decided to give him a buzz a few nights later. I accomplished this by looking him up in the telephone book. When he answered, I said I wanted to thank him for his autograph, whereupon we chatted for at least 20 minutes. How many modern players would talk to a kid who called like that?

Buddy Myer -- Speaking of Myer, teammate George Case said: "Off the field he was the nicest, most placid guy in the world; but the moment he put on his baseball uniform he became aggressive and pugnacious. You wouldn't think it was the same person."

That was Buddy, all right. Once, when Ben Chapman slid into second spikes-high while Myer was making the pivot on a double-play, Buddy hauled off and kicked him square in the ass, thereby clearing both benches and setting of a melee in which Buddy joyously participated. But when I asked Buddy for his autograph, he was as friendly as could be, to the extent of asking me what school I went to and what grade I was in. That may not sound like much, but autograph hunters in that era (and perhaps to this day) cherished whatever small courtesies they could get.

Joe Kuhel -- He played a fancy first-base and was a fair hitter (.277) while shuttling back and forth between the Senators and the Chicago White Sox for 18 years. When I handed him my pencil stub for use in signing his name, he swallowed the damn thing -- and then, as I was still looking goggle-eyed, he extracted it from his ear. Kuhel, you see, was an accredited member of the American Society of Magicians.

Wes Ferrell -- A great pitcher renowned for his vile temper. Once Ferrell gave up a grand slam to Jimmy Foxx. Returning to the dugout, he banged his head hard against the wall. Then he unloosed an uppercut against his own jaw that knocked him flat on the floor. Lying there, he continued his assault against himself until his teammates finally broke up the one-man brawl.

Roger Cramer -- Incredibly, in 9,140 times at bat, "Doc" Cramer struck out only 345 times.

Paul Schreiber -- What? You never heard of Paul Schreiber, holder of at least two major league records?

1. Schreiber pitched 10 innings for Brooklyn in 1923, the year I was born. He did not appear in another major league game until 1945, just as I was 22 and about to get out of the Marine Corps after World War II. Surely, that's baseball's longest interval between appearances.

2. Between those playing dates, Schreiber, as an employee of the Yankees, became the game's first full-time professional batting practice pitcher. As such, throwing marshmallows day after day to Ruth, Gehrig, DiMaggio & Co., Schreiber probably served up more home-run balls than anyone in history.

Johnny Marcum's record with the Athletics, Red Sox, Browns and Yankees came to a near-perfect wash -- 65-63 -- but he left his imprint in other ways. During his stay in Boston, Marcum's tonsils were removed by Harvard doctors, who informed Marcum that the appendages were the largest they had ever seen. So proud was Marcum of this fact that he had them pickled and carried them around in a bottle to display to anyone interested.

Gabby Street -- Old catcher, manager and radio announcer best known for having caught a baseball dropped from the top of the Washington Monument.

Stu Martin -- In his rookie year, Martin was leading the league in hitting when sidelined by a severe dose of the clap. Never worth a damn thereafter.

Willard Hershberger -- The only player I can recall whose batting slump drove him to suicide.

Mike Gonzalez -- A former catcher, he was a Cardinal coach and scout when he invented the phrase, "Good field, no hit."

Jake Powell -- When I asked him for his autograph, he took one look at the page to which I had opened my book, saw the name of hated rival Joe Cronin, muttered something about "that son of a bitch," flipped the page and signed on the next one.

Bobo Newsom -- One day while pitching for Connie Mack's Athletics he was getting hit hard when Coach Earle Mack, the venerable manager's sycophantic son, came out to the mound and said, "Daddy thinks you'd better come out."

"Well," replied Newsom, "you just tell Daddy to go f--- himself."

Johhny Fenton -- Fenton was once traded by Memphis in the Southern Association to the Pacific Coast League's San Francisco Seals for -- honest to God -- a case of California prunes.

Karl V. Eiker -- How he got in here I'll never know. He was the father of my best friend.

Lou Gehrig -- The sportswriters were always saying what a sweetheart Gehrig was, but he was meaner than hell to me. He cussed me up one side and down the other, and only when tears came to my eyes did he cuss me a little more, make me promise not to put anyone else on the same page in my autograph book -- and then he signed.

That may be my favorite of Dad's comments. It was the only time I ever heard anything about my father crying.

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