During the 1920s and into the period just before World War II, my family lived in various apartments in the Bronx, New York. In those depression years, it was cheaper to move than pay the rent, and so they did.
Those were also the years before television, and, indeed, before the times when baseball salaries became rather high. I am not complaining about what major league players earn; as far as I am concerned, this is America and there is free enterprise, after all.
The point, however, is that major league players did not do much in those days that took them away from the hotels that they stayed in when they were visiting other cities.
Somewhere in the late 1920s, my family rented an apartment situated in a building on the Grand Concourse in the Bronx. Said apartment house was located not far from the Yankee Stadium, the Polo Grounds (the now demolished home of the former New York Giants of the baseball variety), and the Concourse Plaza Hotel.
My late brother Joe, who loved baseball as much as I do, and probably was the impetus for my interest, began to spend time at the three venues above mentioned. He did it from the time he was nine or so years old, and continued into his teens. There was a mission connected with these visits; acquiring autographs of baseball players.
Understand, now, that back then the players congregated in hotel lobbies when they had time off. They were therefore rather easy to find. Getting them to sign autographs was not difficult since the players had yet to discover that they could earn money by selling their signatures. Because he lived close to the Concourse Plaza Hotel, which became the gathering place when teams came to play either at the Yankee Stadium (American League teams) or Polo Grounds (National League teams), my brother found that the players were there for the “pickings,” so to speak.
And did my brother pick! He would head for the Concourse Plaza Hotel whenever he was not otherwise engaged playing baseball himself, running errands for my father’s business, and/or doing school work. Tangentially, in later years, my brother was to become an outstanding “sandlot” player who played on Army Air Corps all-star teams during World War II.
My brother had autographs of almost every player from both leagues who stayed at that hotel, and his collection grew to include signatures on baseballs, pictures, scorecards, newspapers, scrap paper, and, of course, baseball cards. Eventually, his collection included signatures of major leaguers that were said to be reluctant to sign; but he got them somehow.
Many are the treasures that were in his collection. Closing my eyes, I can recall a rare baseball with two signatures; those of Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig. Other examples of rarities that were included in the collection of items he amassed in his youth included a newspaper picture signed by five pitchers who would go on to become Hall of Famers, among them Walter Johnson and Christy Mathewson. Quite a group to be included in one picture indeed!
Obviously, his collection grew to include baseball cards. All his cards bore actual autographs of the players. Again, it was a singular collection, and in my mind’s eye I can see some of the classics he had. Always a rather meticulous individual, my brother took exceptional care of the cards, and no doubt intended to preserve them. Speculation on what they might have been worth in the period that the value of baseball cards skyrocketed would be difficult.
Shortly before World War II (in 1940, to be exact), my brother departed New York, never to return as a resident. He left to follow his girlfriend (who had moved with her family) to Florida. Shortly thereafter, they were married, and in 1941 my brother enlisted as an Aviation Cadet in the United States Army Air Corps.
From the standpoint of his baseball card collection, leaving New York was his undoing. You see, his move was rather quick and unexpected since he did not want my parents to know that he was scurrying off to Florida. Among his last minute preparations was turning this seemingly priceless collection of autographed baseball cards and other memorabilia over to me for safekeeping.
At the time, I was eight years old, and not possessed of the insight to see that baseball cards (particularly those that he had) were to become collector’s fodder. To me, they were sort of toys; no more, no less.
As I best recall now, somewhere around 1942 or so, at the age of eleven, I was bedridden with some childhood ailment. Looking for things to pass the time, I pulled out my brother’s collection of autographed baseball cards. What I did with them was sinful!
Deciding that the cards would look better if the players’ pictures were separated and stood on their own, so to speak, I took a pair of scissors and cut around the images, so what I considered “extraneous matter” would fall away. Thus, for example, consider the card of the immortal Mickey Cochrane, the Hall of Fame Detroit Tiger catcher (for whom Mickey Mantle was to be named, by the way). Putting my pair of scissors to work, I cut around the image of Cochrane’s body in the typical pose of a catcher; squatting with his right arm cocked as if to throw.
And so, a one of a kind baseball card collection was destroyed by the whim of a feverish (literally) eleven year old. Arguably, my destructive behavior decreased the supply of available collectible cards and thus added to their ultimate value.
Upon returning to New York on a furlough in 1944, my brother inquired as to his collection. Needless to say, by then I knew that a crime had been perpetrated, and my brother was rather disappointed and upset. It may well be that this is the reason that I was never interested in collecting baseball cards.
Forthwith, I ceased to be the “curator” of his baseball memorabilia.
Eventually my brother stopped being annoyed with me. Also, over the next fifty or so years, he would go on to amass a collection of autographed baseballs and baseball bats, and assorted other baseball items. When he passed away a few years ago, he left his children an outstanding collection of rare baseball items that were displayed in the living room of his home. The only thing missing were his cards, which never could be duplicated, of course.
There was one baseball collectible that he did not leave to his children. For years, a statuette of Babe Ruth that he had acquired in some manner sat on a credenza behind my brother’s desk. It was a beautiful plaster piece, about twenty-four inches high, and I always admired it, as my brother knew. Shortly after his death I received a package. Inside, very carefully wrapped, was the Babe Ruth statuette. Seems the instructions that he left his wife were that I was to receive it.
These days, “Babe Ruth” sits on top of a bookcase in my study, ruling the roost, as it were, and serving as a reminder of my brother, as well as our love of baseball.
» Sam Person is a retired CPA and university professor of accounting who has been a baseball fan for sixty years. He enjoys writing on baseball history.
Copyright © 2001 by Sam Person.