It's a drab olive file box with traces of rust, like the one on the kitchen windowsill in which my mother vouchsafed her recipe for ratatouille. On the front I affixed a brightly colored Mets decal, three inches in diameter, that is chipped and peeling now; across the lid I stuck a label, ammo from one of those dial-a-letter label guns, reading NY METS AUTOGRAPHS. Inside I keep the autographs of (almost) every member of the 1969 world champion New York Mets, all sequestered alphabetically by tabbed dividers. I throw that parenthetical "almost" in because with it lies a story, one that bears telling this summer, as the Mets celebrate their silver anniversary by sitting atop the game once again.
I flip the lid and inhale an archival mustiness. Some other aromas in the box are only implied. That of pickle brine, for instance.
Nolan Ryan had soaked a blistered finger in pickle brine during the late '60s, at the urging of Gus Mauch, the Mets' trainer. It was to the tonic powers of pickle brine that the kid from Alvin, Texas, could attribute the continued verve of his already legendary fastball.
I take a 3 X 5 file card signed by Nolan Ryan out of the box and smell it to see if it smells of pickle brine.
September 14, 1986
"Gus, get me some brine for soakin'," I imagine Ryan saying a few hours before a game that sceptered summer. "Think I'll knock off some of this fan mail between dips."
I can't recall exactly when I took up autographs, but it coincided roughly with my giving up baseball cards. In the sports memorabilia collecting community there has always been a tension between devotees of cards on the one hand and autographs on the other. I ultimately came to believe that cards were too impersonal and regenerative: Once you had acquired your 1966 Willie Mays, there would be a '67 Mays to collect and soon a '68 Mays, along with the 600-odd other cards that the Topps bubble gum people put out each year. Autographs, by contrast, were little concessions that players made directly to their public, without a corporate middleman. There was one per life, not one per year.
I had no idea what the '69 Mets would accomplish as I began writing to them for their signatures early that season. But one imperative lingered from my baseball card days, and that was to complete the set. I had to get every Met, no matter how inconsequential.
It would be a thrill to petition such stars as Tom Seaver, Cleon Jones and Tommie Agee for their autographs. But it would be an altogether different sort of challenge to get the scrubs: Duffy Dyer, third-string catcher; Amos Otis (some scrub he would turn out to be); Rod Gaspar—or Ron Gaspar, or Rod Stupid. (Baltimore's Frank Robinson, on the eve of the World Series supposedly said, "Bring on Ron Gaspar!" A teammate told him, "Not Ron—Rod, stupid!" Said Robinson, "O.K., bring on Rod Stupid!")
I would never trade my Kevin Collins, though the Mets did—had to, that June, to the Expos, along with Steve Renko and a couple of minor league pitchers—for Donn Clendenon, the righthanded power hitter they so desperately needed.
I had to have the coaches, too: From Rube Walker, the pitching coach, to Joe Pignatano, cultivator of tomato plants in the bullpen.
Card collecting had also alerted me to a problem attending the task of set completion. The cards in Topps' sixth and seventh series always appeared on store shelves in my area in late summer, when they would barely get in circulation before being chased from the shelves by football cards. The analogous hurdle for the autograph collector came when the Triple A season ended and farmhands came up. There was little time to collect those September call-ups from Tidewater and Memphis, but they belonged in the metal box, too. I had to scramble to get Bob Johnson's autograph, as well as Jim Gosger's. The signatures of Bob Heise and Jesse Hudson. And Les Rohr. Les Rohr is right in front of Nolan Ryan in the metal box. Though he appeared in only one game that season, giving up five hits, a walk and three earned runs in 1‚Äö√Ñ√∂‚àö√±‚àö¬® innings (an ERA of 20.25), Rohr is just as essential to me as Ryan. His is a minimalist name—Les is Rohr—and a rendering of that name is all he sent me. Some of the other September Mets, new to the majors and likely intrigued by fans' solicitations, seemed to want to do more than merely sign. They wanted to engage in dialogue.
"I don't have any photo," Jesse Hudson scrawled on the back of his file card. I must have asked Jesse for one, to use as trade bait.
Bob Heise had added, "Best Wishes." And Bob Johnson, inexplicably, wrote "Thanks."
Whatever for? Thank you.
To the extent that one can control such things, I modeled my handwriting after Jerry Grote's. A very slight leftward slant; prominent initial letter; much smaller subordinate ones.
Grote was my absolute favorite, and nothing about him seemed unworthy of emulation. I would glow while reading encomiums about him in The Sporting News—Lou Brock once called him the toughest catcher to steal against, tougher even than Johnny Bench. I had seen Grote hit his first major league home run on TV; had coerced my dad into taking me to a particular pregame promotion at Shea Stadium, where Grote met with and signed for his public; had even, through the willful titration of prepubescent hormones, developed a crush on Grote's lovely wife.
Only later would I learn that Grote was considered one of the game's great sour-tempered sonsofbitches. He left baseball briefly in 1979 with the soi-disant goal of spending more time with his family, but his wife soon left him.
Yogi Berra's Berra is a matter-of-fact scrawl, over when it's over. But his Yogi has some surprisingly baroque touches. The styles of those first and last names coexist stubbornly, not unlike Yogi's subway series of stints as a player, a coach and a manager with both of New York's baseball clubs.
Yogi's dual allegiances raise the age-old and profound question: Why follow the Mets and not the Yankees? Today it's easy to answer: One ball club is owned by a book publisher, the other by a convicted felon. But back then, it was much more complicated. I think I ended up with the Mets because 1) I had no older brothers and 2) both of my parents were overwhelmingly apathetic toward baseball. There was no hand-me-down prejudice toward excellence, of the sort that might be imparted with indoctrination into the game from an elder—I had no kin critiquing my swing with, "You have to watch Mickey Mantle. Now there's a stroke," or "If you'd been around in '27 you'd have seen the greatest team of all time, the Yankees."
The Mets, like me, were green and still learning.
Like other fringe groups of that era, sports memorabilia collectors of the '60s communicated with one another through a crude, almost underground press. The hobby's samizdats were cranked out in towns with names that seemed to have been lifted from a Kerouac itinerary: Yarmouth, Maine; Coffeeville, Miss.; Lake Ronkonkoma, N.Y. My favorite was Sports Collector's News (the exact pluralization and positioning of the apostrophe I can't quite remember), a dittoed journal produced in some Wisconsin backwater by a man with a Ukranian surname. SCN wended its way to most of its readers via third-class mail, so by the time each copy reached our mailbox it had (fortunately) long lost the clammy scent of duplicating spirit that I had learned to fear in grade school as heralding a pop quiz. It had (unfortunately) also long lost much of its legibility.
It indulged every idiosyncracy. Nominally a monthly, but in fact a maddening occasional, SCN helped galvanize the farflung collectors of cards and books and autographs who, but for the News, would have been oblivious to one another's existence. Oh, there were other publications: The Sports Trader, published by a Mississippian who feuded openly with SCN's editor, was a spare shopper, packed with ads from card collectors. But SCN ran more articles than ads, and its editor favored autographs over cards. In SCN's many pages of blurred purple I learned how to store signatures, how to assess them for authenticity and—this was crucial, for we lived in upstate New York, hours from the nearest big league park—how to write away for them.
Collectors were implored to follow the strictest canons of etiquette when requesting an autograph through the mails, so as not to besmirch the hobby's good name. We were to enclose a fan letter, with an obligatory line or two about how we hoped that his sore shoulder would mend, or that he could avoid getting optioned to Memphis. We had to provide the courtesy of a stamped self-addressed envelope. And, for signing, we were to include a couple of 3 X 5's—more than one if we were bold, so as to have duplicates with which to trade.
Once, in a gala Christmas issue or some such, SCN even published a short story. The plot centered around a fictitious collector who tried everything to get the signature of a certain star. This star, alas, had a policy of not signing. Ultimately our hero wrote his hero a check; to cash it, the player had to endorse the check's backside, and the protagonist got the coveted signature with his next bank statement. To a kid innocent of the ways of commerce, the tale was bewildering. But it did provide me with a reassuring trump card, for several Mets were proving to be recalcitrant.
The story's very publication confirmed for me that readers of SCN were the humanists of the collecting world. They tended to favor the article over the advertisement, the warm signature over the cold card. It was a fellow humanist, whose SCN ad I had answered, who would turn my collecting life around.
To this day I'm not certain where Seminole, Fla., is, though I suspect one could hit fungoes from its center to St. Petersburg, where the Mets trained each spring. Mark Jordan lived in Seminole, and with day trips to St. Pete he came naturally to obtain all sorts of arcane Mets memorabilia, for which I sent him large chunks of my pocket money. As I sift through some of those items, it occurs to me that Mark must have pillaged Al Lang Field after every spring game. Here's a 15¬¨¬®¬¨¢ Grapefruit League scorecard; a mimeographed radio script detailing what the Mets' play-by-play men would drop into their broadcasts back to New York; even a green-tinted lineup card, filled out in Gil Hodges's hand and signed by him, surname only.
Most of all, Mark Jordan had autographs. He would get them in person, in black felt-tip (as the hobby papers recommended), and on the reverse of each file card he would fastidiously type the date and circumstances of acquisition. As we began exchanging letters, I savored my good fortune. I made my Mets affections clear. Mark sold me some signatures, while I, dipping into my modest cache of programs, yearbooks and media guides, bartered for others.
Mark and I weren't pen pals, exactly, and to this day I know almost nothing about him. I imagined him to be tow-headed and living with his father in a house with a two-swamp-buggy garage, for my only exposure to young male Floridians came from the TV series Flipper. In one letter Mark referred offhandedly to an autograph as a "John Henry," and I was impressed that he could make such a worldly allusion. At that point, neither of us had undergone enough schooling to nail down the difference between John Henry and John Hancock.
Flipping through the box, it's obvious which John Henrys I got from Mark. They have his inscriptions on their backs: "Jim McAndrew in person 3/20/69," for instance.
I had resolved to get as many Mets as possible without Mark's help—on my own, through the mails—and snap up the occasional one I could in person. We lived near the upstanding minor league town of Rochester, N.Y., home to the Triple A Red Wings, Baltimore's top farm club. Rochester had the liability of breeding Orioles' stepfans, whose presence would later cause me great aggravation. But it also permitted me to corner Met-to-be Jim Bibby during one of the Tidewater Tides' swings through town. Bibby signed the back of a Wings' program for me, and I carefully cut out his autograph and taped it to a file card.
Steadily the metal box filled up. In retrospect, I'm amazed at the alacrity with which most Mets answered. But Tommie Agee could have wallpapered his locker with all the envelopes and file cards I plied him with over the rest of that summer; he could have featherbedded his ego with all the letters, each more fawning, I enclosed. September delivered to me a strange ambivalence: giddiness as the Mets conjured up one victory after another, and despair as nothing from Agee came in the mail. I had long since checked with Mark, who confirmed that he had somehow missed Agee during the spring. Oh, to have been one of those Game 3 outfield drives off the bat of Elrod Hendricks or Paul Blair, and meet up with Tommie Agee.
I considered the canceled-check solution. Back in 1969 a major leaguer just might have found tribute from an adoring fan something other than mere chump change, and gone through the trouble of cashing that check. Yet at age 12 I was at an interstice of personal finance, between my last piggy bank and first passbook savings. I had no check to write, no account on which to draw.
I pleaded my case to my parents, but to no avail. They didn't believe we had any business paying for Tommie Agee's lawn furniture.
Ever so gradually, the Rochester Democrat & Chronicle that crossed our doorstep each morning began to tell of the most extraordinary occurrences. The Mets seemed to have forgotten how to lose. By noon the mailman would have retraced the paperboy's steps, and I would have begun to consider each incoming autograph a sort of personalized notarization of whatever the Mets had done the night before. A few of our red-letter days, both mine and the Mets':
•May 28. Bud Harrelson's 11th-inning single beats the Padres, beginning an 11-game winning streak that causes much consternation around the NL. (On Sept. 23 Harrelson would hit another 11th-inning single to allow the Mets to clinch a tie for the Eastern Division title.)
•June 3. At the midpoint of the Mets' streak, Tom Seaver pitches New York past the Dodgers and past .500. Of course, these being the Mets, there is the strong likelihood that they will lose the next night and fall back to .500. But Jack DiLauro, some Tidewater flotsam, keeps them afloat. He shuts out L.A. for nine innings, and New York wins 1-0 in the 15th.
•June 13. Al Jackson, the last original Met, is sold to the Reds. A shame, for he has creditable penmanship. His sale must be a requisite act of exorcism.
•July 9. In the midst of winning the first "crucial series" in their history, the Mets watch a cub Cub, Jimmy Quails, spoil Seaver's bid for a perfect game with a one-out, ninth-inning single. Does this look like the signature of a man obsessed with perfection? Seaver later calls his biography The Perfect Game and writes therein of that night: "I wanted that perfect game more than I'd ever wanted anything in my baseball life."
I felt the same way about Tommie Agee's autograph.
•July 15. The Rematch at Wrigley. Today, Mets manager Gil Hodges delivers the riposte of the ages. Consider please Tug McGraw's signature: The whimsical loops to the capital "T" and "G"; the irrepressible flourish on that final "w." Now, recall Cubs third baseman Ron Santo, who had taken to clicking his heels to celebrate Chicago victories. And picture Santo exchanging lineup cards with Hodges at home plate before the game, protesting that he had to perform his fancy footwork, or the Bleacher Bums would boo him.
"You remind me of Tug McGraw," Hodges tells Santo. "When he was young and immature and nervous, he used to jump up and down. But he doesn't do it anymore."
The Mets take two of three again, including a 9-5 win the next day, which is assured for reliever Cal Koonce by a late double play. Koonce makes bold strokes with his capitals, getting all he can out of that hard-consonant alliteration. He had irony and scansion down pretty well, too; after the game Koonce pens these lines in his infield's honor:
The Cubs have Kessinger to Beckert to Banks.
Their ability carries no shame.
But for general purposes
I would just as soon have
From [Al] Weis to [Ken]
Boswell to [Ed] Krane[pool].
In fact, Donn Clendenon had entered the game, replacing Kranepool in the fourth inning. But even relief pitchers are entitled to poetic license.
•August 13. Only 24 hours earlier the Mets were 9½ games behind the Cubs. But Jerry Koosman and Don Cardwell win, to finish back-to-back doubleheader sweeps of the Padres. The stretch drive has begun.
Here, I hoped.
•September 12. Koosman and Cardwell win both ends of another doubleheader. But this time, with Art Shamsky out in observance of Rosh Hashanah, the Mets sweep the Pirates by twin 1-0 scores—and the pitchers single home each run.
Here, I knew.
•September 24. The demipennant is clinched 6-0 over the Cards at Shea. Gary Gentry throws the shutout, and the next morning's New York Daily News carries this headline: THE MOON: ASTRONAUTS TOOK 9 YEARS, METS 8.
•October 6. The pennant is won 7-4, as the Mets take their third straight from the Braves. The Mets don't normally make shrewd moves. They once drafted someone named Steve Chilcott when they could have chosen Reggie Jackson. But homers from Wayne Garrett, whom Atlanta had pawned to New York for $25,000 over the winter, and Boswell finish off the Braves.
•October 15. Handwriting analysts believe that the closer the dot of an i is to its base, the more attentive to detail the writer is. Thank goodness for J.C. Martin's lack of attention to detail. Martin's dot over the "i" is the graphological equivalent of a passed ball, which reminds us that if the Mets backup catcher had tended to the detail of staying outside the first baseline while running out his notorious bunt in Game 4, Oriole reliever Pete Richert's throw wouldn't have struck Martin's left wrist, and Rod Stupid might never have scurried around from second with the winning run.
Graphoanalysis can tell us more. Seeing that "T" crossed well above the stem, one would suspect Ron Taylor of being a dreamer. But a stopper out of the bullpen, as Taylor was, should believe that nothing is impossible. So should a doctor, which Taylor is today, for the Toronto Blue Jays.
For contrast, look at third base coach Eddie Yost's autograph. The "t" is crossed squarely in the middle, suggesting practicality—exactly what you'd expect from a guy who drew 1,614 career walks, and what you would want in the coach's box at third. Today Yost lives in semiretirement in Wellesley, Mass., repairing antique clocks.
A far-forward slant indicates a willingness to reach out to others. Good thing that, after his retirement from baseball, Ed Charles worked as a talent scout for the Mets.
Those who underscore their signature envision themselves on a line of movement. They are self-reliant, it is said, and sometimes unusually motivated. Hodges was the only Met who underscored his.
If there was only one, best that it was the manager.
I have always thought of strikeouts and Ron Swoboda together, as a sort of hand-in-hand, bat-in-hand-back-to-the-dugout couple. That may stem from Swoboda cracking a pair of two-run homers off the Cards' Steve Carlton on Sept. 15, obviating Carlton's 19 strikeouts and giving the Mets a 4-3 victory. Or from my being at Shea with my grandfather on a day Swoboda chose to whiff four times. Baseball normally passed my grandfather by, but this was so prodigious an exhibition of ineptitude that even he was impressed. Soon afterward he sent me a clipping from The New York Times about some Czechoslovakian politico named Svoboda, and a note suggesting that an Eastern European exile awaited the failed slugger. I was duly amused.
Two years ago I had the chance to conclude that Ron Swoboda might have been amused, too. I was in Phoenix, covering a meaningless early season basketball game between the Suns and the Cleveland Cavaliers. Soon after tipoff, as I sat in the press tribune above halfcourt, another foot soldier of the Fourth Estate slid into the seat beside me. We began chatting. He was full of gossip and spoke with a cynical edge—about the travails of the Arizona State athletic department, and Phoenix's prospects for a pro football team, and a particular Suns rookie who looked good out on the floor.
He introduced himself as Ron Swoboda, sports anchor for KTVK-TV in Phoenix.
The man who had sprawled his form blindly across Shea's rightfield greensward to preempt Brooks Robinson's liner in Game 4 was now my peer. I couldn't permit us to talk merely sports; we had to address transcendent things.
"You know, I lived and died with you guys then," I said. "Skipped metal shop to see your catch."
Swoboda looked as if someone had just jarred the ball loose. Quickly he steered conversation back to the Sun Devils' dirty laundry and NFL expansion franchises and Jay Humphries.
If I ever meet Tommie Agee, I resolved, I'll approach him differently. I won't let him know.
The "C" in his autograph comes right off of Cleon Jones's face.
The man with the fishhook scar caught the final out of the Series, an ironic fly ball off the bat of current Mets manager Davey Johnson. Then he genuflected on the warning track. Not long after the Mets gave Jones his release in 1975, a friend of mine, vagabonding through the Deep South, found himself in Mobile and decided to look him up. Cleon and his wife, Angela, received him graciously in their rambling ranch house, which sat on a manicured lawn surrounded by shotgun shacks.
"I'll never forget that scar," my friend recalls. "You could be standing right in front of him, yet when he spoke to you, he'd position his shoulders and face so you couldn't see it at all. It was obviously a learned behavior. The only time I'd seen anything like it was when I was once introduced to Bob Dole [the senator from Kansas, whose right arm is disabled from a war injury]. Dole locks you in with his eyes and sticks out his left hand, and he waits for you to make the necessary adjustment."
Cleon told my friend that he had shed most of his bitterness over the Mets' handling of the incident from the previous year, in which St. Petersburg police (perhaps patrolman Mark Jordan?) found him sleeping nude in the back of a station wagon at 5:00 a.m. with a woman who was not Angela. Mets president M. Donald Grant summoned Jones to New York and forced him to read a public apology. Cleon did just that, in a scene that Red Smith described as "an exercise in medieval torture."
It was so wrong for Cleon Jones, a man who had lived his life behind a scar, to be humiliated by M. Donald Grant, a man who had lived his behind an initial.
I swung a deal during the 1969-70 hot stove season. I sent several NFL media guides to a collector in Jim Thorpe, Pa., for a '68 Mets program (cover mottled during a rain delay) and a '67 Tommie Agee autographed bubble gum card that, in theory, completed my set.
But I have always had misgivings about that card. Agee is posed heretically in a White Sox uniform. The autograph doesn't resemble to my satisfaction the facsimile signature on the card's face. And, as a card, it's somehow violate in and of itself. So from time to time over the past decade and a half I have cast about for a purer and more persuasive Tommie Agee.
Several years ago I contacted R.J. (Jack) Smalling, an Ames, Iowa, insurance salesman, to enlist him in my search. Smalling is to autograph collecting what Ted Williams is to hitting, both fount and exemplar. In addition to having one of the largest collections of baseball autographs extant, Smalling has for years compiled The Sport Americana Baseball Address List, which includes a mailing address, or date and place of death, for nearly everyone who has ever played in the majors. Hobbyists use the addresses to obtain signatures and the necrology to fix their value. Like undertakers and lawyers, autograph collectors profit from death, and Smalling relies on a nationwide network of sources to track down death certificates for the most obscure ex-ballplayers. (Only one '69 Met player, Daniel Vincent Frisella, is dead. He was killed on New Year's Day, 1977, in a dune-buggy accident near Phoenix.)
Soon enough Smalling wrote me to confess that he was similarly bamboozled in his search, for Agee's current address. Yet he did have a 3 x 5 Tommie Agee kicking around the house, which he enclosed, gratis.
The "T" up front is vaguely J-like, and there's a healthy loop in the "o," both features that match Tommie Agee facsimile autographs.
But the first name has been spelled Tommy.
And so I'm in a metal box filled with autographs, bound for Queens. This box is a graffiti-defaced subway car on the A train, though I'm not taking it in the direction that Duke Ellington had in mind. Smalling's latest Address List has only an old entry for Agee, at 112-08 Astoria Boulevard in East Elmhurst, not far from Shea. But I have heard that he keeps a saloon called The Outfielder's Lounge, and there's just such an establishment in the phone book, at 114-12 Van Wyck Expressway in Ozone Park.
Just into Queens the A burrows above ground, before bending abruptly south toward Kennedy Airport and the Rockaways. I alight at that elbow, descend from the trestle and begin walking east along Rockaway Boulevard through the land of hyphenated house numbers: past Aqueduct Race Track, past storefronts of Italian-American fraternal organizations, and finally into a tidy neighborhood that straddles the Van Wyck Expressway.
At 114-12 there's no sign of an Outfielder's Lounge—only a brick building with a corrugated steel grate over its facade, and a sign reading SUPPER CLUB/ CATERING/DISCO. I duck into the Car Clinic next door and tell the mechanic I'm looking for Tommie Agee. Agee and his bar have been gone for a few months, he says, and suggests that I try a spot up near Shea, hard by the Grand Central Parkway on-ramp.
"On Astoria Boulevard?" The site he describes sounds much like the address listed in Jack Smalling's book. "Is that the place he used to own?"
"That's it. It's not his place anymore, but that's where you'll find him."
A cabbie takes me to 112-08 Astoria, a restaurant called the Stadium Inn. It's early on a Saturday evening in July, and there's a small group around the bar—black, well dressed, middle-aged. I take a stool and ask the barmaid whether Tommie Agee ever stops by.
"All the time," she says. "He was in here Thursday night. He usually comes by Saturdays, too."
I show her my Agee bubble gum card. She laughs at his callow face, then passes the card among the other patrons, who all seem to know him.
I feel good. Soon the Temptations come on the jukebox, singing Silent Night, and I feel even better. A '60s group crooning a timeless hymn to a festival of gift giving: This would be the perfect fanfare to accompany Tommie Agee striding through the door.
But this is another season, and I sit, and sit some more, and he doesn't walk in. After I've tippled a little and felt the hours pass, the barmaid—by now I know her as Janice—offers to tell Tommie I've been by. I write out my address and hand her a 3 x 5, and ask if she might ask Agee to sign it and forward it to me. She agrees to, and I settle my account, tipping her handsomely.
"Tell him," I say to her on my way out, "it's for a 12-year-old I know."