This Week's Question: Favorite Piece of Memorabilia
This week, Pandemic Baseball Book Club members talk about their favorite piece of memorabilia, and how it came to be.
I grew up in a family of Dolphins fans. From a young age, I was taught that the Dolphins were my favorite football team, and that Dan Marino was my favorite football player.
We used to go to Miami all the time to visit my grandparents. One year we stayed in a hotel called the Harbor Beach Marriott in Fort Lauderdale. I remember the name because that was where I met Dan Marino.
It was the mid-'90s, and I was maybe 10 years old. It must have been summer, because I had been bugging my parents to take me to a Dolphins practice — which, now that I’m a parent myself, I can appreciate was an insane request in the heat of Florida summer. Somebody at the hotel must have overheard one of these conversations because, as I was finishing a cheeseburger at the poolside restaurant, a hotel staffer came up and, under his breath, told us that Dan Marino was down on the beach.
I took off sprinting. The beach was almost totally empty. And there, in a tank top, unloading Jet Skis from a trailer, was Dan fucking Marino. My mom ran up behind me holding a piece of paper and a pen.
It all happened very fast. Dan Marino was nice. He signed an autograph. He even asked if I wanted a picture, but we didn’t have a camera. I was heartbroken, but another gawking tourist offered to take a photo and mail it to us. We exchanged addresses. Dan Marino loaded his Jet Ski into the ocean and disappeared to frolic among literal dolphins (I presume). This is where the story should end. But it isn’t where the story ends.
Months went by. I was excited to see my picture with Dan Marino, but then I forgot about it. I was a kid, after all, and had other stuff on my mind. I still had the memory. That was enough.
About a year later, a big envelope showed up at my parents’ house, addressed to me. The return address was in New York, which was weird. I didn’t know anybody in New York. A big envelope from a stranger is not the kind of thing a kid normally gets in the mail. When I opened it, the first thing I pulled out was a letter from the man on the beach in Fort Lauderdale who took my picture with Dan Marino. He’d written to apologize. None of his photos from the trip had turned out. This kind of thing happened at that time. It was a disappointment, but it was no big deal.
What followed, however, was a big deal. Feeling guilty about the photos, this kind stranger had written a personal note to Dan Marino explaining the situation. And, amazingly, Marino responded. He a signed a personalized 8x10 photo and mailed it back to the stranger in New York. And now the stranger, this kind, random man, had sent it along to California. It’s still on the wall in my old bedroom in LA. The glossy photo of Marino with his arm cocked back, with the black sharpie lines across the middle: “Best Wishes, Eric. Dan Marino #13.”
Every year at Cubs Convention, the team's annual fan fest, attendees got to pick ping-pong balls out of a hat for the chance to win prizes. When I was 13, I got ping-pong ball No. 25, and it won me a chance to meet my favorite player, Derrek Lee. I was speechless.
There were a couple hundred fans in line for Lee's autograph; not many compared to the "open" lines where anyone could jump in. While I waited, I envisioned what I'd say so as not to embarrass myself. I figured to keep it simple: thank Lee for his time that afternoon and as a Cub. When my spot finally came up, I walked up, excited but nervous. They say never to meet your idols.
"Hey, thank you for coming out today," D-Lee's voice bellowed as he extended his hand. I thought he was trying to grab a Sharpie to sign the glossy photograph I had purchased. It took me a moment to realize that he was extending his hand toward mine. Trying to keep my cool, I shook it. He thanked me for being there and for supporting the Cubs. Lee had probably done this thousands of times, but I’d been in autograph lines for players who didn't so much as look up when they signed.
The photo featured him in his follow through, bat in hand, wearing the Cubs' blue pinstripes on a summer day at Wrigley. He signed below his own left hamstring.
One interaction doesn't define a person, but that moment with my baseball idol felt genuine enough to convince me of Derrek Lee's character. At the very least, he didn’t shatter my hopes.
For my 15th birthday, my father took me to opening day at Candlestick Park. Our tickets weren’t great, but we did like we usually did, my dad and I, making a beeline for the lower boxes and camping out in some open seats about a dozen rows up from the visitors’ dugout. This was the 1980s; unoccupied seats at Candlestick Park were not difficult to come by, even on opening day. Joe DiMaggio, ever dapper in coat and tie, threw out the first pitch, and as it happened, watched the game from the front row directly below us.
I thought about getting Joltin' Joe's autograph but was quickly discouraged. For one thing, security guards at either end of his row were turning away everybody who approached. For another, I didn’t have anything for him to sign.
That dilemma resolved itself when my father left for the restroom and, in the walkway above us, caught a foul ball off the bat of Bob Brenly. When he returned with it, I realized that fate had forced my hand. I no longer wanted DiMaggio's autograph — I needed it.
I waited until inning’s end, and watched as fans flooded the aisle on either side of the old ballplayer, demanding the guards’ full attention to keep them at bay. Then I slipped into the row above his, unnoticed, and hopped over a nearby seat, ball and pen extended. By the time the guards caught on, Joltin’ Joe was already signing.
DiMaggio was nice. He autographed my ball and gave me a smile when I thanked him. The guard glared hard at me as I departed. He knew he’d been beaten.
That ball is now one of many in my collection, but it is the only one I truly care about, set off on its own in a place of prominence in my office. I am fond of saying that in a fire, once I’m sure my family is safe, that ball is probably the next thing I’ll fetch.
When my son Matt was young, his best friend was a die-hard Yankees fan. We lived only about 125 miles from Yankee Stadium, but Dustin had never been, so we decided to take him. This brainstorm happened rather late, and for most dates the only available seats were in the nosebleed section at the rim of the old Stadium ... except for a Sunday interleague game against the Expos, a bad team that not that many New Yorkers wanted to see. We picked that one. To the boys, a big league game was a big league game. Or so we thought.
Soon thereafter, the Yanks declared it "Yogi Berra Day," and Yogi returned to the Stadium for the first time in 14 years, ending his alienation from the team after a feud with George Steinbrenner. Don Larsen threw out the first pitch, and Yogi caught it. I was already happy, no matter what happened in the game. It was hot and so humid that it actually rained enough to stop play for a while. A lot of time went by, we were three hours from home, Monday was a workday and it was still only the third inning. The Expos were hitless, and I turned to Ellen and muttered, "I hope somebody gets a hit soon so we can leave." No Expo did, though. This was July 18, 1999, when David Cone spun his perfect game.
I carefully sliced the New York Times story from the next day's paper and sped to a high-class framer who matted it, along with our family's tickets and my trusty scorecard full of zeros. I hung it in my home office in our old house, and I'm looking at it right now in our new one.
I have other pieces of memorabilia that would certainly be more valuable to a collector, but the story of my baseball signed by Vida Blue is what makes it valuable to me.
In 2017, my good friend Matt won a contest for a "special day at AT&T Park" that included the opportunity to play catch on the field and test out the clubhouse batting cages. Lucky me, Matt invited me to be his guest.
When we hit the field, however, I realized that I had accidentally grabbed my childhood glove, not my current, much larger one. Not ideal, but good enough for a short-distance game of catch ... until Vida Blue, sassy and salty, emerged from the dugout in full uniform and ordered a small group of us to the outfield. There I was in my favorite yard, living out a dream in right field. At home plate, Vida hit fungos, all of which seemed to be aimed at me (a perplexing observation at first, until I realized I was the only woman out there). This was when my fourth-grade glove became problematic. Nothing — I mean nothing — stuck. After my third or fourth fumble, Vida's voice blasted to the outfield, "You're fucking KILLING ME, girl!"
He kept at it. "JESUS CHRIST, come ON, girl!"
When he called us in and offered his autograph, he took my ball, looked me up and down and said "Damn, girl! Where'd you learn to field?" Then, looking down at my glove, he added, "You rob a TODDLER for that glove?!"
Despite the humiliation, I couldn't help but delight in every moment. I was the only person there that day who got the full-on Vida Blue treatment.
I love the letter I received from Al Downing in 1965, a reply to one I wrote to him while he was in spring training. And I love the broken, game-used Don Mattingly bat I won in a raffle at an Association for Women in Sports Media convention. But my best of the best: a baseball signed by Sandy Koufax and Don Drysdale.
The backstory: It was the month before ESPN Magazine launched, and I was talking to Steve Wulf, the well-known baseball writer for Sports Illustrated who was now one of two executive editors for our fledgling magazine. Naturally, Steve oversaw the baseball department. Our conversation turned into a debate over which team would win the World Series. A lifelong Yankees fan, I told Steve that my favorite team had an excellent chance to take it all.
"I'll tell you what," Wulf said. "I'll bet Yankees don't even make the postseason."
"You're on," I told him.
Steve said we had to make it interesting, so the wager could not be about money. "The loser has to give the winner a ball signed by Sandy Koufax," he posited. "Done," I agreed, a bit nervous. Where would I come up with a Koufax-signed baseball? Turns out I didn't have much to worry about. ESPN Magazine debuted in March of 1998. The Yankees won 31 of their first 40 games, on their way to a then-record 114 wins. A few days after New York swept San Diego for the title, Steve handed me a perfectly white baseball with the signatures of Koufax and Drysdale.
Steve Wulf is an unquestioned expert on major league baseball. He just had one huge blind spot in 1998.
When I was in Kansas City on my Hall Ball journey, I paid a visit to Satchel Paige's home. The house was falling into ruin even before arsonists did more damage. The family still owned it, but nobody had the means to do anything about the disrepair since his wife Lahoma died in 1986. The front porch, constructed of bricks baked in Neodesha, Kansas, had collapsed and was spilling across the front lawn. I rarely took souvenirs from my Hall Ball travels, figuring the ball was the memento I was really after, but I am so drawn to the Negro Leagues that I couldn't resist. I grabbed one of the bricks and brought it home. (Airport security wanted to know why I had such an odd object in my carry-on.)
Now, I take the brick with me when I give lectures about the Negro Leagues. I use it to highlight how important it is that we tell those stories, because without them the histories of even the most famous of heroes will crumble into oblivion, just like Paige's front porch.
I've been collecting T205 cards for a couple of years now. Early on, I focused on the cheaper commons in the set. One day I decided to branch out and pay good money for a "name" card. I always liked the story of Christy Mathewson, and I found one of his ungraded cards on eBay, with some minor creasing and worn corners and a tape stain on the back. I wanted that card, and could probably afford it. I started bidding, and eventually won it for $265. When the card arrived, I was pleasantly shocked to see that the tape stain was actually on the sleeve holding the card, rather than on the card itself. I sent it in to be graded, and though it only earned a 1.5 on a 10-scale, it meant that I had gotten a bit of a bargain compared to what similar cards were going for. Matty is now my prize possession in the set.
It's funny that, for someone who collected and curated baseball cards as a kid and then wrote a book based on that childhood obsession, I have very little in the way of memorabilia. Somewhere in my 20s, perhaps around the time I became enamored with living in poverty, I decided to invest more in experiences than objects (which explains why my interior decoration skills are represented by a gas station map of Oakland and a hand-written to-do list taped to the wall). My favorite piece of memorabilia, worth approximately $5, is my complete set of Senior Professional Baseball League cards from 1990. The Senior League, along with the replacement players of 1995, represent the zenith (nadir?) of my underdog obsession. It wasn't enough for me to idolize players like Pete Falcone and Rick Waits in their 1.0 iterations; when they were reincarnated as Fort Myers Sun Sox or St. Lucie Legends for the Senior League, they truly stole my heart.
I grew up a Braves fan in the Philly area during the 1990s, and my favorite player was Mark Lemke, a short, glove-first second baseman who wore glasses — exactly like me! Fast forward to 2015, and I've moved to Atlanta for work. My Saturday morning commute ritual includes "The Baseball Show," hosted by Chris Dimino and Mark Lemke. One day they ran a segment in which, if you could stump both Lemmer and Dimino with a baseball question, you won a signed ball.
I called in and said: "From 1991 to 1999, only three non-Braves won the NL Cy Young — who were they?" They got Pedro Martinez (1997) and Randy Johnson (1999) quickly, but were stumped by the third.
It wasn’t exactly a trick answer for Braves-centric broadcasters, but was close to it: Greg Maddux, with the Cubs, in 1992. I picked up the ball later that week — Lemke signed it “Almost ’91 World Series MVP.” It’s now my most prized possession.
A few years ago at a farm auction, I successfully bid $75 to obtain 25 never-worn hats affiliated with various pro teams. They are all on display in my sports room.
I’ve got a bunch of oddball stuff, like the name cards that graced Bud Selig’s Fenway Park seat at the 2004 World Series, and Roger Clemens’, from the ballpark’s 100th anniversary in 2012. I also have a game-used Ted Williams bat, but my most unique piece is the steamer trunk used by USMC Capt. T. S. Williams 037773 during the Korean War.