Grand Cards: Blog Bat Around #5: It's all in how you get it

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Blog Bat Around #5: It's all in how you get it

The Black Background on the site today is in memory of George Kell, Hall of Famer and Tiger great.

Blog Bat Around #5: What is the best experience you've had acquiring cards or memorabilia?

Thanks to Cardboard Junkie for hosting.

The latest topic for the Blog Bat Around stumped me a little bit. I mean, I have been interested in Baseball Cards and Sports Memorabilia in varying degrees for my entire life, and I have a number of stories on how I’ve come to acquire different pieces.
Of course, there is the most memorable and significant story of the only ball I’ve ever caught as a fan. You might remember that as the saga surrounding my Mark Teixeira Home Run Derby ball. Not wanting to rehash that in all its excruciating detail, I thought about my other memorable stories and tried narrowed them down based on how I felt about them today, knowing full well that one could be more memorable tomorrow as circumstances change.

I have a number of non-traditional stories that make different pieces of my collection memorable and special. Ernie Banks, Lloyd Carr, Monte Irvin to name a few. These are stories for another time I suppose—because for some reason one sticks out to me above all others. The quest for Al Kaline’s Autograph.

In the summer of 2007, I was lucky enough to travel up to the Hall of Fame induction ceremony that featured Cal Ripken Jr. and Tony Gwynn. Having never been to an induction before, I was completely unprepared for the chaos that is induction weekend. I had checked out the schedule for autograph guests—a record number of past Hall of Famers were attending the ceremony that year—and saw that Al Kaline, Mr. Tiger himself, would be signing for a short 2 hour window. I can’t remember the exact time, but let’s call it 1-3pm. The trick was that the bus that I was on wasn’t scheduled to get into Cooperstown until 1:30, and that was without accounting for traffic.

Here’s the thing about Al Kaline. He is the greatest living Tiger and among the greatest Right Fielders of All Time. His name is revered in Detroit and elsewhere. He is a Baltimore kid who made it big in Michigan, I’m the other way around (substituting “made it big” for “holds a job”). More importantly, he is my Dad’s all-time favorite player, and his Birthday was coming up.
My dad had actually met Al Kaline once before, as a kid growing up in Cleveland. Surrounded by fans of the Tribe, he grew up a Tigers fan, having lived in Detroit from birth through early toddler-dom. In Cleveland, he could easily wear #6 on teams, or get Tigers baseball cards from schoolmates because nobody down there cared about Kaline or the Tigers. But my dad sure did, so much so that when he finally had a chance to meet him, he was too shy to introduce himself. Thank goodness for Moms. Yep, after a game at old Municipal Stadium against the Tigers, my Dad and Grandma spotted Al Kaline leaving the stadium. After trying to get my dad to go up to him, she yelled out and said “Mr. Kaline, you’re my son’s favorite player. Will you sign this program for him?” With that, he walked over and with a ballpoint pen, signed that beautiful signature of his on the somewhat glossy cover of my dad’s program.

After he left, my dad looked down and saw…the indentation from the signature, where no ink from the pen had flowed.
Years later, as an adult, my dad saw Kaline again, this time at Detroit Metro Airport where he was waiting for a flight with his wife. Always courteous, and feeling as though it would be rude to bother him in public like that, he simply observed from a distance.

When I was a little kid, I had already heard these stories and knew how much of a Kaline fan my dad was. If I recall, I was going through the same thing with Travis Fryman at the time (or was it Milt Cuyler?). During the winter at a local card shop, I had seen an autographed Kaline ball that I knew that he would love. When my mom and I went back closer to his birthday to get it, it was gone. I got him a big poster instead—which, after sitting in a closet for 10 years as punishment for not matching any of the home’s d├ęcor, was lovingly framed and installed in a newly finished basement a few years ago. Still, that Kaline autograph, for a man who had no other memorabilia other than his card collection from the 60s, remained elusive.

The bus got in at 2—I had one hour to go. I raced around the main drag of Cooperstown trying to find the signing location. Bingo. I bought a baseball and a ticket with an inscription and went to wait in line. If I could only find the end. With all of the signings going on, lines slithered this way and that, and Kaline’s—remarkably—was the longest one of all. I got to the back of the line, and began my wait. An autograph collector in his early 30s and a full supply of photographs, bats and balls to have signed for resale came by and started chatting to the Yankees fan in front of me.
“Who’s signing?”
“Al Kaline”
“Al Kaline? Why is the line so long?”
enthusiastically “Kaline was a tremendous ballplayer, one of the best there ever was.”
“Oh, ok” (leaves)

I’ve never heard a non-Detroiter express those thoughts before. A little sense of pride swelled up. Looking around the line and seeing people wearing hats or jerseys from at least fifteen major league teams, and knowing that they were waiting for Kaline when a dozen other Hall of Famers were signing simultaneously made me feel even better. I’m not just a homer, this guy is one of the All-Time Greats.

But the clock was ticking—it was a quarter to 3. At 3pm, would he just get up and leave? I mean, the line was across and down the street at this point and I was still a ways away. Turns out, Kaline got in an hour late, according to a fellow line-mate. Relieved that I no longer had to sweat it out, I resumed literally sweating it out in the hot mid-day sun. When my time came I stepped up and, never knowing what to say in these situations, simply said: “Can you write “Happy Birthday Steve” on it? It is for my Dad and you were his favorite player.” He smiled, happily obliged and a month later I was able to give my dad the Birthday Present that was 50 years in the making.

And, if I was going to go through all that trouble for my Dad, I might as well get one for myself too, right? :) For all of those reasons, and just the pure aesthetic of Kaline’s signature (not to mention the months of trying to find this particular baseball on eBay), this proudly stands as the centerpiece of my collection and is hands down my favorite autograph to date.


  1. Very nice story. I'm not a memorabilia guy, but I can see why that's your centerpiece.

    By the way, George Kell was a regular signer at Cooperstown, too. He was there all the time during Induction Weekend.

  2. Indeed he was! In fact, I had planned to get both Kaline and Kell on that same ball (it was going to be a Tigers HOF ball), but they were signing at roughly the same time when I was there (poor planning for us Tigers fans), and given the long wait for Kaline, Kell was finished by the time I was done.

  3. I recently came accross your blog and have been reading along. I thought I would leave my first comment. I dont know what to say except that I have enjoyed reading. Nice blog. I will keep visiting this blog very often.