Hall of Famer Johnny Mize, World War II veteran, transformed every day into Memorial Day

The real autograph
Did you ever wonder as a kid, looking at the facsimile autograph on a card? What did that player’s autograph REALLY look like. Johnny Mize showed at a 1980s card show, that his autograph hadn’t changed in three decades!

Here’s a memory I shared back in 2011. It’s a story worth telling, again and again. Have you ever sent an extra card when asking for an autograph? Here’s an example of what your gift might inspire.

When I think of Memorial Day, I think of the “Big Cat.”

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Imagine a baseball Hall of Famer sauntering through an airport concourse or hotel lobby. He’s friendly. Not just when someone recognizes him and asks for an autograph.

He greets strangers. Then, he opens his sport coat. From the breast pocket, he produces a Perez-Steele postcard, a Hall of Fame plaque postcard, or a vintage 1950s Topps card.

For uniformed military personnel, he adds: “Thank you for your service.”

This wasn’t a rumor. This was the life of Johnny Mize.

During my brief tenure as co-editor of Sports Collectors Digest, I represented the magazine at an Iowa card show. When the show organizer came up short on tables, he asked if I’d be willing to sit at the autograph table.

Was that okay with me? Uh…YES!

When a young girl in a wheelchair approached the table, having just an index card, Mize said, “Just a minute.”

He slowly, gently lowered himself (on two new surgically-repaired knees) to be at eye level with the young fan. “I want you to have this.” Out came a 1952 Topps card. No. Not a reprint. This was the real thing from the real “Big Cat.”

He seemed a bit embarrassed when he returned to his seat and my jaw still hung wide.

“Sometimes, someone sends me an extra,” Mize shrugged. “I share them.”

Mize said he liked to seek out “special” children or men and women in uniform. “I know what that’s like,” he said of his World War II service.

Mize felt a sacred obligation more than three decades after leaving the field. The public counted. Every collector mattered.

“I did one of these shows with Lenny Dykstra,” he said. “Do you know who he is?”

I nodded slowly, preparing myself for the possible bombshell. It came. Boy, did it ever!

“He showed up in a jogging suit wearing headphones. He wouldn’t talk with the people. .In my day, he couldn’t carry my jockey strap.”

(Sorry, “Nails.” That’s how he felt. That’s what he SAID. Serious shade!)

I was saddened that more people didn’t bother to spend a moment with Mize. The show was lightly attended. He would have talked to anyone, not just paying holders of autograph tickets. I believe collectors thought he’d be at more hobby shows in the future. They had gotten his signature before.

He was easy to get by mail. Mize had started asking for a small donation for his local Georgia boy scout troop. (Previously, the boys had to sell Vidalia onions door-to-door to raise money for community projects, he explained.)

Still, he was a bargain. (I believe his initial fee by mail was $2 per autograph). To the end, he could produce a signature that matched his 1952 Topps to the letter. I saw him do it again and again.

Everyone got a small, sincere smile and a noble nod with their autograph. In fact, collectors got thanked by the man himself.

That’s why I write to so many names from baseball’s past. I know that, behind every signature, is a story.

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P.S. – While I’ll never recreate in words the sweet sound of a conversation with Johnny Mize, the next best thing is hearing his humble, sincere Hall of Fame speech in 1981.

Catcher Caleb Joseph shows TTM autograph collectors that Major Leaguers are human, too

For this 2015 makeup game with no fans, Caleb Joseph signed for his invisible supporters.

Applause to the Facebook site “Baseball TTM Autographs” and collector Ryan Hilliard. They reminded us of one shocking but needed fact. Current and former major leaguers are human, too.

Caleb Joseph has been a part of baseball autograph lore since 2015. The Orioles and the White Sox played a makeup game in Baltimore, due to civil rights protests cancelling the original contest. Only the media attended the makeup, due to safety concerns from the local police.

Caleb got into the spirit of a “ghost game.” Before play started, Caleb approached the box seats and started his pantomime impression of signing a real autograph for a real fan. Photographers loved his antics.

Well, Caleb still understands what fans and collectors mean to baseball. When his basement flooded, he sent Ryan and other collectors a photocopied note of apology. He was sorry many TTM cards got ruined by the flood, but he tried to sign even the most-damaged ones. Caleb closed with the offer to collectors that he’d welcome fan mail at home after the 2021 season.

What does the Caleb Joseph story confirm? It points out that major leaguers are people, largely without secretarial staffs to sort and send signed replies. They are busy trying to keep their baseball jobs, all the while maintaining a personal life.

Therefore, I’d urge readers to make their letters and requests as easy as possible to reply to. Especially during the season, it’s unlikely you may land the undivided attention of a current player. When you do, appreciate the backstory that each reply must have. And, consider those damaged cards one-of-a-kind collectibles.

Sandy Koufax, Don Drysdale led by example, says Dodgers teammate Claude Osteen

In 2010, long-time Dodgers pitcher Claude Osteen sent me a stunning response to my letter. In honor of the team’s 2020 World Series title, I wanted to share Osteen’s insights one more time.
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Dodgers pitcher Claude Osteen
(Photo courtesy Mark Langill, Dodgers team historian)

Pitcher Claude Osteen overwhelmed me with his reply. His was a letter filled with the insights of a winner.

I related to him the amazing conversation I overheard before a 1980s AAA game in Tacoma. Coach Osteen chatted with young pitchers in the bullpen, telling how getting your elbow “scooped” (bone chips removed) was great.

I realized his passion for pitching. The minor leaguers hung on his every word. He could relate to their journey to the bigs. They knew was a devoted member of the Dodgers family, focused on the organization’s future.

Where did that passion and devotion come from? Did he find role models in Los Angeles? Osteen wrote:

“I learned from Koufax and Drysdale what it meant to be a Dodger and how the name was synonymous with pitching. I was embarrassed not to pitch well.”

Claude Osteen with Sandy Koufax and Don Drysdale
Claude Osteen (center) clowns around with fellow pitchers Sandy Koufax (with cap) and Don Drysdale. Behind Osteen, it seems, hangs a pair of boxer shorts with either polka dots or tiny hearts.

Osteen’s name will always be synonymous with autograph collectors. My favorite resource, www.sportscollectors.net, reported that the 81-year-old has responded to more than 800 autograph requests. The collector success rate, says the website, is 97 percent!

 

 

 

Pitcher Bobby Shantz, age 95, is sidelined temporarily as an autograph signer

Recently,  I enjoyed a chat with Bob’s wife Shirley Shantz.

1955 Bowman card of the Shantz brothers
Younger brother Bill, a catcher, got his own 1955 Bowman card. That card front read “W. Shantz,” referring to his full name of Wilmer.

The left-handed pitcher/husband fell in October, breaking his left elbow and hip.

Mrs. Shantz said the 1952 MVP is looking forward to returning home, but didn’t know when that date might be.

“His mail has been piling up since his injury,” she said. “It may take three weeks to a month until he can catch up and sign all that.” Mrs. Shantz mentioned that he keeps ahead of his mail, “…not wanting to let it sit around.”

I consulted www.sportscollectors.net, to see some Bobby Shantz autograph stats. More than 1,700 collectors had recorded TTM successes. The number of special requests he’s agreed to, such as including special inscriptions with his autograph, astounded me.

Of course, the most telling number was the average time of reply. For years, it seems that the norm for getting a Bobby Shantz reply is one week. At his age!

I asked which elbow was broken. She thought his left elbow and hip were the ones injured.

Then, his autograph-signing arm will need longer to mend?

“He’s always signed with his right hand,” Mrs. Shantz said.

Not sending autograph requests now should go without saying. However, I wanted to know if we could send get-well cards or even cards of thanks for the past autograph replies he’s sent to us.

“I’d rather that everyone hold off,” she said. “He has a mountain of mail to go through as it is. I don’t want him to have more waiting.”

I blogged about Shantz for the first time in 2010. I await good news on his recovery, which will be shared in this blog. He’s an autograph icon, the likes of which the hobby may not see again.



Will

Cincinnati Reds pitcher George Culver recalls making no-hit history in 1968


Pitcher George Culver’s major league career spanned from 1966-74. His moment of glory as a Reds hurler came on July 29, 1968. The right-hander twirled a no-hitter against Philadelphia, the team he concluded his career with.

The inning-by-inning results only hint at the drama, which included a pitcher who started the DAY with an upset stomach.

George showed his gratitude after the no-hitter, writing the home plate umpire Harry Wendlestedt a thank-you note!

Ironically, that same 1968 season, he led the league with 14 hit batsmen.

What did he remember about his no-hit batterymate? And, did batters start crowding the plate after his no-hit success?

Culver’s reply:

“Tom,

Thanks so much for your interest in my career.

1. The catcher is crucial to any pitcher in any game, good or bad. The reason Pat Corrales caught the no-hitter is because it was the second game of a doubleheader and Johnny Bench had caught the first game and needed a rest. They were both great defensive catchers and I enjoyed throwing to either of them. But because Bench was obviously the regular catcher, I ended up throwing more to him.

2. I wasn’t really wild, but the main reason I led the league in hit batters was because I was known for having a pretty good slider. So right-handed hitters would get caught leaning out over the plate looking for a slider and would get hit with a fastball inside.”

Culver’s enduring fame is found at his grateful alma mater. He’s raised funds and awareness for the baseball program at Bakersfield College. He may be 66, but Culver never will be a guy to lean over the plate against.

This blog post appeared back in 2010. In the past decade, Culver has been a TTM autograph collector’s best friend. He never gets tired of affixing “7/20/66” on request when signing. (But, hey, if you were a no-hit pitcher, wouldn’t you want to tell the world?)


 

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