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Spring is in the air and so is Baseball

By Bob Brill
Mar 6, 2019 · 4,792 words · 18 minutes


From the author: 2001 Induction at Cooperstown; the adventure of youth


Tuesday night before I left for Cooperstown for the annual Hall of Fame Induction Weekend, a rap came to my front door. Behind it, two young boys who couldn’t have been more than 10 years old.

   “Mr., we were playing baseball in the street and we hit the ball into your back yard,” one of them spoke up. “Can we get it?”

This was a line I was not unaccustomed to. Perhaps however what struck me most is that this was the very first time in my life, I was on the receiving end of the lost ball question. As I motioned to the boys to pass through the house on their way to the back yard I felt a bit of freshness in the air. Maybe, after all we’ve been hearing in the hobby, baseball is still alive in the hearts of the young.

Two days later I was winging my way from California to Albany, the jumping off point in upstate New York for the Mecca known to baseball fans over the world, as Cooperstown. No name, no city, no place has such a definity to it for the fan of the game than Cooperstown. It is the place of baseball’s shrine; the Hall of Fame.

 This was the annual induction ceremony and I was going for the very first time. I had been to the Hall previously to enjoy its treasures and bask in its grandeur, but I always said I would only go the ceremonies (as a fan, not a sports reporter, but as a fan) if Bill Mazeroski got elected and was being inducted. Maz was my hometown hero and the baseball player I admired most.

The Pittsburgh second baseman was elected by the Veterans Committee and was going in with Dave Winfield, Kirby Puckett and Negro-leaguer, Hilton Smith. Maz would steal the show in the end, just like he did October 13, 1960 when his final inning homer (now they call it a Walk-off homer) ended the World Series and gave Pittsburgh its first championship in 35 years.

My brother Jim lives with his family in Rome, NY, about 60 minutes away from the HOF, so my plan was to stay there as a base of operations, while spending some quality time with my family which I don’t do often enough. And this is a business trip to boot so all things are good.

I always take two boxes of cards to open on the plane when traveling (one to open each way). I open them slowly, drawing a lot of attention from other passengers and flight attendants. It opens the door to talk trading cards. I pull what I want from the packs and give some other cards to my neighbors. I then turn over the entire box of singles to a friendly attendant with instructions to give them out to kids on the plane. The crew loves it because it helps keep the kids quiet and occupied. Even adults were seen reading the card backs within the next 20 minutes.

    I pulled a couple of Ichiro Rookie Cards out of that box but no jersey cards.

I like to hit the local stores whenever going to a new place, so before a quick 9 holes on the local golf course, we stopped at several. First stop; The Zone Sportscards, in New Hartford, NY. We hit it off instantly with owner Drew Taylor who is a regular reader of this column and a fan we learned. We immediately spent $50 in his store. It was good to see a storeowner seeking advice on how to run promotions such as Pack Wars and Monthly Drawings, etc., and we found the small shop very friendly and organized. It was a nice time.

We picked up several packs of Bowman Chrome Baseball and nine packs of UD Legends Baseball. We were rewarded with a couple of nice rookie cards and a Sammy Sosa Bat Card. Not a bad day.

A second stop at Hall of Frames in New Hartford found us buying a St. Louis Rams White Rose truck and trailer for a friend. He loves the Rams and Thomas Napoli gave us a good deal on the item. We did not bring up the fact we write this column but did let on we bought and sold sports cards for fun and profit.

A young lady who runs Ravenswood Comics in New Hartford gave us our best deal of the day. We never caught her name but we asked about autographs. Before our trip was over we purchased a 1978 team autographed ball of the San Diego Padres with a very nice Ozzie Smith and Rollie Fingers autographs for $40. We also picked up a Sports Impressions Lou Gehrig still in the box and two mint condition Hartland’s. They were Harmon Killebrew and Dick Groat, and were complete with bats. Not a bad day.

That night my brother and I laid out our plans on how to attack Cooperstown, the holiest shrine in all of sports. We’d have to get there early, that was for sure. The earlier the better, before even the locals got out and before any of the regionals had a chance to scoop up the parking near downtown.

My plan was to snare a place to park within two blocks of central Cooperstown. The heart of the city is only two blocks long, lined with card shops and memorabilia stores. Most would have signers during the weekend. This we knew for sure. There was even a small card show in one of the venues but we’ll get to that later.

We also knew the stores and restaurants which sponsored the signing athletes, whose prices ranged from $8 an autograph to $85 for Willie Mays, would have flyers on their tables with times, names and prices. If we got there early enough we could quickly plan our day and the best way to get the most with the least amount of effort on what was going to be an 85-degree and humid day.

 

Admittedly it was tough sleepless night. I’m not sure if it was the jet lag or the anxiety over the next day’s events, but sleep never entered my dreams. The six o’clock alarm only served to mark the time as I was already awake.

A quick shower, a light breakfast, some coffee to fill the veins and we were off in a large rental car. Armed with 40 baseballs the plan was to get as many single signed balls as possible and as many freebies as we could. After all, Hall of Famers were going to walk the streets during this weekend and who knows who else might be in attendance for the event.

Across the rolling hills of ever green upstate New York we drove. Patches of fog rising above the farms close to the lakes, which dot the landscape. Small herds of cattle, a flock of geese and a very brave turkey tolling along the roadside out for his morning stroll. Alongside the road lay a dead deer, felled by a passing truck. It must have got caught in the proverbial headlights as the saying goes when it comes to deer meets machine.

As we got closer to the Big C the old homes, some of them two centuries past with an occasional slanting barn, I was reminded of James Fennimore Cooper’s “The Last of the Mohicans” and his hero, Hawkeye. How the hunter, clad in leather moved through the land covered with forever forests, sliding in and out of farms. Endless berry bushes surround the tall standing corn.

This was cool. California holds nothing like it.

Traveling down the two-lane roadway in the rented Pontiac Bonneville we passed through a town so small its stretch of highway, the sign stated, was named after a local VFW Post chairman. I felt the irony of it all. Men of the Revolution had trod these hills for freedom, life and liberty. Yet what the area is most known for is where a man named Doubleday played a game, legend says he organized into the National Past Time. Yea, this was really cool.

I felt my heart pounding as we approached the end of Highway 28 South and pulled into the side streets of Cooperstown. I recognized the area right away from my previous trip here and immediately headed for the center of town. Already people were milling about, moving to the local restaurants for breakfast.  Evidence of this special weekend was everywhere.

Signs proclaiming “Official Bill Mazeroski Items Here” could be seen, street venders were getting their tables set up for quick food sales. Before the day was out hundreds of pizzas would be consumed as would probably a thousand hot dogs, and sausage and pepper sandwiches. The latter is a particular favorite of mine. Like the smell of the baseball field remains glued to the fan, the aroma of food was in the air.

Dotting the fronts of many stores were colorful handwritten signs proclaiming who would be signing there today, Sunday and even Monday. Yup, the town was already abuzz and the soft sound of green paper with pictures of dead presidents was ooohhh so evident.

We drove the two blocks through town surveying the lay of the burg. Turning right we noticed a sign “Parking All Day, $15.” For someone who is used to paying at least that much in downtown Los Angeles it sounded like a bargain and it was. As we pulled into the driveway, we noticed it was a printing company behind a bank which was using its own parking lot for a paid parking lot.

“Hello Mr. Barton,” my brother proclaimed to the attendant.

“Well hi there Jim,” the old man returned.

Seems the man was a customer of my brother in the printing business, which was nice.

No there wasn’t a discount given in the parking lot! Not on Induction Weekend. Perhaps at another time, but then, if this were another time, the parking would have been free. It seems that in Cooperstown on this weekend, every home with a two-car driveway and a one-car family puts out the “Park Here” shingle. The closer you get, the more you pay. Still, at this point $15 all day was a bargain.

I divided our baseballs into two separate shoulder bags so we could share the load. Once we picked up the sheets, which told who was signing what and where and for how much, we would develop our strategy. We decided my brother (this was his first experience with autograph gathering) would plant himself at Tunnicliff Inn on Pioneer Street. This was where Pastime Productions would host dozens of players over the next two days. I would hit the other venues and sort of “freelance,” my way to the other autograph guests.

Since I was the moneyman, we made our way together to the Tunnicliff. I would purchase the autograph tickets and Jim would plan out his day around them. On the way we saw a sign proclaiming Ernie Banks would be signing. We figured two baseballs of Mr. Cub would be good, even at $60 per signature. Willie Mays would be signing across from the Tunnicliff. Another purchase, but this time $85 per signature. Willie is going up in price as he gets older.

The flyer from Pastime Productions was very nicely laid out with prices and times of day and who would be signing. Sparky Anderson Saturday 2-4, Flat/Ball $35, Equipment $45, Bat $75, Warren Spahn, Earl Weaver, Dave Parker, Reggie Jackson and the ever present “Subject to Change.” This not only meant times for the players but also prices consumers had to pay (this particular notice was posted pretty much everywhere players were signing).

As we stood in line for tickets it was quickly becoming evident many places were not set up for credit cards, just cash, although some did have a program for credit cards. Go inside, use your credit card, come back out, get in line, and get your ticket and then your autograph. It really wasn’t too bad, just a little challenging. But nobody said this was going to be a piece of cake weekend.

While we were standing in line, signs were going up on the window with changes as fast as changes could be made. “Tom Seaver was going to appear tomorrow, not today. Bob Feller would be at 4 o’clock and not 10 o’clock and Dave Parker is here NOW. Juan Marichal won’t appear here.”

I got to the front of the ticket line.

“All on baseballs please, give me Sparky Anderson, Lou Brock, Jim Bunning, Feller, Ford, Irvin, Reggie, Parker, Perry, two Johnny Podres’, Spahnie, and one Sutton.”

“That will be $324 please,” was the reply.

Hand over the long green and get in line. There were already 100 people in line.

“Here you go Jim, you’re on your own,” as I gave my older brother the tickets. “I’m off to get Mays.”

A quick look at the tickets was confusing. Several of the tickets were good for more than one person. That was only the beginning of the problems Pastime would face before the day was over and as the day got hotter.

Willie Mays was as expected; less than cordial. Banks was just as expected; completely conversational and responsive. Willie at $85 evidently doesn’t feel the need Ernie does at $60.

I visited with my brother after the Mays signing, he being a virgin autograph hunter, and he was excited and happy about his first experience. Monte Irvin was very nice to him, as was Bob Feller. He waited for the next batch; I was off to Main Street.

TJ’s Place, The Home Plate on Main Street was my next big stop with a dozen guests on the day. Several Negro League players would be signing at the tables out front throughout the day alongside the former major leaguers. Perhaps it is just the way things are in this world of dollars and cents and “how much can I get for it?” mentality. Negro league players don’t command the price their white counterparts do and the average fan still doesn’t know who they are despite all the educational programs. When I passed their table, I rarely saw someone asking for an autograph.

Early in the day TJ’s had George Kell and Enos Slaughter while Ralph Kiner, Bob Gibson, Frank Robinson and Harmon Killebrew would also make their way to the tables. It was very nice as far as the setup went. Tables lined the sidewalk in front of the restaurant, a ticket seller at one end, the players ready to sign when approached. Robinson, Gibson and Whitey Ford were top dollar at $40 each with Jim “Mudcat” Grant and Paul Blair at the bottom with $15 each.

The practice of charging more for “a second line” was very much in evidence. Add “500 Home Run Club” to the inscription was going to cost you an extra $80, while inscriptions in most cases would add another $5 to $40 to the cost of an autograph. With many collectors looking for a new challenge, adding “1958 ROY” or “World Series MVP” to a signature is quickly becoming less attractive as players charge more for the extra verbiage.

Perhaps the most reasonable of the stores with multi-signers was “Where It All Began Bat Co.” While the players were not HOFer’s, the prices only ranged from $15-$20 on a ball or flat. Among them were Ed Kranepool and Goose Gossage.

The lowest prices were for Walt Dropo and former Red Sox player Micky McDermott. Both only charged $8 for their signature. Dropo, the 1950 Rookie of the Year remains popular on the circuit however.

 As the day progressed we spelled each other from the lines for lunch and kept a lookout for any former player who might be easy prey for a free autograph.

They strolled down the street but always with an entourage. Who could blame them? If they stopped for one, they would be swamped and after all this is free enterprise. Why should they sign for free when $40 could be had for the same signature?

Mainly the players walked the streets to get to their next signing anyway so it wasn’t as if they had any time. Players might sign in two or three places in a day. As it turned out the only free autograph I got was none other than Gregory Hines, the actor/dancer. Celebrity autographs on baseballs are always popular and the popular Hines is no exception. He was happy to sign but rushed off quickly when others started to follow my lead.

Pete Rose and Orlando Cepeda were side by side at one location, signing autographs and being very cordial. Don Sutton chatted with whoever came up as did George Kell and Ralph Kiner. All three spent time in the broadcast booth so it was a natural to be ready for the PR. Mays and a few others don’t seem to get that part of it.

Perhaps the biggest blunder of the weekend was Pastime Productions choice of the Tunnicliff as a venue. Like so many older hotels in small eastern towns it was built long before current laws governing access and space. In many places a Fire Marshall might have shut this one down.

Wheel chair access was non-existent, there wasn’t any air conditioning and the few electric fans spread throughout the room did little to abate the 85 degree temperature outside, which felt like it blossomed to 95 inside. At times there were scores of people in the two room signing area with as many as seven signers and their ticket handlers. The room wasn’t made for that many.

 

In addition, the ticket purchase and get in line system didn’t work well. The line of site was so confusing; people were coming off the street and going up the steps long before those who had been waiting in line for hours.

Surprisingly, despite the pushing, shoving and a few upset collectors, the entire thing completed itself without a punch being thrown or a person being ejected. Patience was long on the side of the organizers and it seemed that baseball collectors understood that the guys inside signing, many of them well up in age, were not to blame.

It got so hot 83 year-old Warren Spahn, the oldest living HOFer, had to take a break. After about 10 minutes Spahn returned, but his signature looks very, very shaky. If he wasn’t 83, you would complain and perhaps want a refund, but the fact is, he is 83 and just doesn’t sign well anymore. In this case practice does NOT make perfect.

With the day winding down the signers were wrapping up their responsibilities so we started thinking about dinner and meandering around the streets of Cooperstown. We ducked into the small card show for a few minutes. The heat there was also unbearable and the cramped space kept the dealers locked in. Everyone said they did well. Lots of Mazeroski cards were selling we were told as were other Pirate players from his era.

Dropo and McDermott were still signing in front of one store, so we got their autographs. Red Schoendienst was signing in the cellar of another with none other than Warren Spahn. It seems Spahnie had regained his strength and a cellar was much cooler than the upper room at the inn down the street.  At 83 he still keeps pace.

We had contemplated spending the night in the car knowing there wasn’t a room to be had. Since however, my brother only lived an hour away we decided after checking the morning program with the Visitors Bureau we could drive the hour, get a night’s sleep in a bed, and return in time for the events.

The Induction Ceremony is held a mile away from downtown at a facility used specifically for this event. The HOF hires about 15 school buses to shuttle people from Doubleday Field downtown to the large grassy field and sound stage for the Induction. It is only a two-minute ride and well handled. We learned of a free parking lot just one mile beyond the site and it is a spot where the busses make a regular trek. This would be perfect. We could set up our lawn chairs with everyone else, bring some food and lots of water and still get back into town for the remaining few autographs we planned to get the next morning. It worked like a charm.

The exhausting ride back to my brother’s house finally hit us about nine o’clock Saturday night. We both felt like we had been run over by a truck. Every bone and muscle ached. Standing in the long lines for hours had taken its toll.

“You know this was great, but I don’t think I’d want to do it every year,” Jim said. “But it was fun.”

Speaking of hit by a truck, we passed that same deer on the highway. Maybe no one had noticed during the day.

We decided to head out for Cooperstown at 6:45 the next morning. Getting an early start was essential. Wearing my Pirates cap and my Bill Mazeroski #9 shirt, I was ready to show my allegiance.

Again the mist could be seen rising in the glen as we got closer to the lakes. The dead deer hadn’t moved yet. It was Sunday morning so chances are the government agencies that deal with his sort (or her sort) of problem, don’t work on weekends.

We pulled into Cooperstown along the same path we rode previously and headed toward the empty field we had heard about. Along the way I couldn’t help but notice the locals had expanded their front porch parking lots. Three quarters of a mile away you could park in someone’s driveway for $10. Half a mile away from the facility it jumped to $15 and right close to the darn place it was a full $30 to park! Christmas comes in August for some folks but it does come every year at this time. Free enterprise reigns full.

To the free lot we went, took the shuttle bus through town and back to the site. We plopped our lawn chairs down and chatted with our new neighbors.

“Oh, could you keep an eye on these for us, and if you sell them, get us a good price,” I joked.

  “Yea, we’re going to hold it for a guy in a Pittsburgh shirt, right?” He jokingly shot back.

  Even now the growing crowd was awash with Pirate and Twins jerseys, caps and signs. It was evident Kirby Puckett and Bill Mazeroski were the most anticipated of the day.

  Back on the shuttle bus we decided we’d try to wrap up the remaining early day signers, get some lunch and come back out for the ceremonies. I knew Bob Friend a longtime Pirate pitcher more from my brother’s era than mine, was signing. He of the 1950’s, me of the 1960’s. Goose Gossage was also inking baseballs at the same place along with Ed Kranepool. The three would make a nice wrap-up for the trip.

  We got outside and placed the last strips of Scotch Tape over the boxes holding our autographed baseballs. Taping the boxes shut after getting the autograph is important when obtaining single-signed balls. Otherwise you may get more than one signature on a baseball by mistake. I purchased two Bob Friend autographs and had my brother get one of them. He was pleasantly surprised when I told him that autographed ball was for him to keep. Friend is someone he watched growing up and this was his first autographed baseball of what hopefully will become many.

  We decided food was the necessity now and off to breakfast at TJ’s. It was so crowded we agreed to share a table with a couple of ladies who knew baseball like no one else we’ve encountered. We’ll leave their last names out but Joy has not missed a Dodger game behind the dugout for 35 years. Her friend Teri has been just about as loyal and knows many of the players personally. Their credentials for the ceremony and VIP status assured us that the interesting stories they shared about their sexual exploits with ballplayers, which won’t be repeated here, were true. The phrase “Baseball Annies,”  was in truth befitting. We had a fun lunch and onto the busses.

  Arriving an hour and 30 minutes before the event began we thought we might be early. Guess again Sherlock as at least three quarters of the 22,000 people who turned out, were already on hand. The grassy hill beyond the front of the stage was filling up. People with tents and binoculars were ready for this one. Temperatures were already approaching 88 degrees when I bought six bottles of water ($2 each really wasn’t bad considering what you might pay at Disneyland).

  “You bought six bottles of water?” My brother asked.

  “For the next several hours we’re not only going to be drinking this water, but we’ll be wearing it and six is about right,” I said.

  Bets were being placed as to how long each honoree would speak and how long the event would last. I suggested Dave Winfield would talk forever, Maz would probably be short and Puckett would be just about right. I was right on the money. Winfield started getting “boo’s” as he continued to say “I just want to say one final thing” and proceeded to go into another 10 minutes. Mazeroski had the shortest speech on record, at two minutes and thirty seconds. Puckett ran a nice even course and said just enough.

  The wait to start officially was interrupted often by chants of “Kirby, Kirby” and “Let’s Go Maz, Let’s Go Bucs.” Maz signs seemed to outnumber Kirby signs but in the jersey department they were pretty close. The Minnesota jerseys actually seemed to outnumber the Black & Gold of the Pirates, but not by much. When Puckett was introduced for his speech, the roar of the crowd was heard clearly two miles away.

  One Pittsburgh man carried a sign proclaiming “Thanks Bill for getting us out of school early,” signifying the fact kids were let out of school for the town’s celebration after Maz hit is historic home run in 1960.

  Soon the ceremony began and despite all of the speeches that take place in addition to the main speeches at events such as this, things went well. It went better when the Sun ducked behind the clouds for a few minutes giving the sweltering crowd a break from the heat.

  By now you know from reading other papers and seeing TV clips that Mazeroski stole the show. Humbled to be in the presence of the men on the stage behind him, to be considered good enough to join a HOF class and be recognized for more than a monumental home run, Maz broke down. He could not continue. Others wept with him including fellow classmate, Kirby Puckett who shared that experience later with the crowd. Remembered for perhaps the most dramatic home run ever hit, Mazeroski will now be remembered for the most touching moment at the Hall of Fame. A humble man, touching the lives of men who must sustain egos just to get and stay where they are. This was a moment. Several standing ovations came from the crowd in support of the former Pirate infielder. Several minutes each.

  As we began the long walk back to our car just over the hill in that free parking lot the rest of the ceremonies were still on going. I looked to my right though and at the top of the hill, in a flat makeshift field, a dozen youngsters were playing whiffle ball. The ceremony was oblivious to them. Free agents, $85 autographs, stadium luxury boxes and labor strife, were far from their minds. What occupied their tiny minds was the fun, hitting the “big one” over the left fielder and running like the wind to race home. It was “try and hit this curve ball,” and “c’mon man, put it here.”  It was catch the ball coming down and “tossing a knuckler cause you could,” and “hey mister can we get our ball, it went in your back yard?”

  And most of all I thought, man, baseball is fine. In fact, baseball is more than fine, it is good. And being good is a very Good Thing.

 


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Bob Brill

Bob Brill writes fiction, non-fiction, novels, real world books including his own youth memoir plus a western novel series "Lancer: Hero of the West"