One of the things about collecting autographs was always being ready for the unexpected. It’s one thing not having an index card handy if a minor player is signing and you don’t happen to have a card of him. But missing an unexpected star because you weren’t prepared is one of those things you might find yourself regretting for a lifetime.
The thing I never mention about my Kevin Mitchell/Hank Aaron story is that I didn’t have anything to be signed by Aaron anyway. I only bought a ball after I realized Aaron was a possibility and then, as a kid, felt that I had to get it signed otherwise I would “waste” it.* This led to the only time I really got frustrated as an autograph hunter but also taught me a few valuable lessons—the primary one being “always carry a spare ball.”
*Note, I didn’t even “waste” that ball on that trip.
So I began carrying a spare ball, frequently three of them—two National League and one American League*—just to be ready for anything. I’m glad I did. Many of my favorite signatures were the unexpected ones where a player I wasn’t expecting ended up being in the dugout. I didn’t give up a ball easily but when I did it was for someone good. If my mom was watching me she’d know immediately that I got something special.
*As a Giants fan it was always more likely for me to run into a former Giants player. But back in the days before interleague play and one baseball with the Commissioner’s signature to rule them you had to prepare for both leagues.
The first time this happened was at Tacoma Tigers game in 1993. We were on a family trip to Seattle but a large part of our trip involved going to baseball games—Tacoma, Everett, and the Kingdome were all on our itinerary. I was excited by Tacoma because I knew the seats in Cheney Stadium were from Seals Stadium and because Bob Boone was their manager. As a Stanford fan I’d wanted his autograph for a while so I duly prepared by acquiring his card. And I packed a couple balls just in case.
I did not know there would be an old-timers game going on in Seattle during our trip. I did not know that there was a 1963 Tacoma Giants reunion scheduled the same weekend. I definitely did not know that Gaylord Perry would be part of that reunion (I believe he was the only big name who showed up). I just saw a guy in a panama hat holding court in the dugout when I was getting Bob Boone’s signature before the game and kept my ears open to determine who he was.
I didn’t quite believe it when Perry signed. He was the first Hall of Famer I’d gotten and for a kid who couldn’t afford to buy autograph tickets at cards shows, any Hall of Famer was a white whale. That Perry was a Giants Hall of Famer—albeit one whose number had yet to be retired—was even more exciting.
The problem with getting such a big autograph before the game is that I don’t really remember the game itself at all. Faint memories of the Tiger mascot and the stadium being filthy. But what happened on the field? No clue. What other players I saw? No idea. I’ve looked over the rosters for both Portland and Tacoma and, while I recognize many of the names (this was AAA so there would’ve been many people with MLB experience) I don’t recall having watched any of them play.
I’m very glad that I brought more than one ball with me on that trip to Seattle.* The following day we drove up to Everett to catch an Everett Giants game.** I didn’t prepare for this one at all otherwise I’d have brought a Norm Sherry card with me. And I had no idea the Giants would be playing the Yakima Bears. Only after we were seated and I had a chance to look at the rosters did I realize that Luis Tiant was the Yakima Bear’s pitching coach.
*Looking back on it now, carrying multiple balls on this trip was wildly audacious and optimistic.
**The same game I mentioned previously.
This was exciting. While not a Hall of Famer, Tiant was—still is—one of those guys. Someone who probably should be in the hall. Someone whose legacy as an important, fan favorite, player shines stronger than his actual (also solid) statistics. When people talk about Tiant they talk about him emotionally.
That I had to wait until the end of the game to get his signature meant that I had time to enjoy Everett’s clean ballpark and minor league silliness (Trash Man and Garbage Boy!). I remember this game being nice and crisp and enjoyable. Once the game ended I wandered toward the Yakima bus and waited for Tiant.
If autograph collecting maxim number one is “always carry a spare ball,” maxim two is “always carry a spare pen.” The only time I ever had a pen fail on me was when Tiant started signing. You can see the aborted first attempt on the ball still. He seemed so apologetic when he told me the pen didn’t work. I’m just glad that I had an extra pen in my bag.
I didn’t do a lot of autograph hunting at Candlestick when I was a kid. Minor league parks and Spring Training were definitely more my style. But I did occasionally hang over the visiting dugout rail when the timing worked out and if there was a star player who I really wanted to try and get. Ryne Sandberg was one such player so I spent the hour or two ahead of a Giants-Cubs game down on the railing.
I was not successful. Ryno did sign for some little kids but didn’t make it down the rail to me. By the time batting practice was winding up and we were all about to get kicked out of the box seats it looked that I was going to return empty handed. Then someone recognized that the guy who’d been sitting in the dugout the entire time was Billy Williams.
By that time there were only a handful of us left and I may have been the only other collector who had something appropriate for Williams to sign. So I handed down my ball and minutes later was getting shooed away from the dugout and back to my seats in Upper Reserve. To be honest, I wasn’t confident that I’d gotten a real Hall of Famer’s signature until I got home after the game and looked pulled out my reference books.