Monday, August 9, 2010


This blog is dedicated to Mitch Miller who died last week at age 99. When I was 14, I had the good fortune to spot him during a Mets rain delay. He was not only cordial but he appreciated that I recognized him. While signing his autograph, Mitch complimented me on my taste in music and my memory, (his show was off the air for three years). "SING ALONG WITH MITCH," WAS A HIT TV SHOW FROM 1961-1966. THE PROGRAM FEATURED A BOUNCING BALL THAT CORRESPONDED WITH SONG LYRICS, ALLOWING HOME VIEWERS TO...SING ALONG. MANY FEEL THAT GIMMICK INSPIRED THE CONCEPT OF KARAOKE.

In reality music wasn't my schtick. To prove it, when I was twelve, I was heavily annoyed to find out that we were going to see a play on Broadway. I thought getting all dressed-up was stupid and driving into Manhattan was a waste of time. And for what, to see a show whose name made no sense, "FIDDLER ON THE ROOF."

My lack of appreciation wasn't appreciated by my parents. They took the direct approach and told me I better get the chip off my shoulder and start loving everything because dad went through a lot of trouble and expense to get the tickets.

Once we got into the theater district, the drudgery got worse because it was a long walk to the restaurant. I was freezing and couldn't stop shivering. Through chattering teeth, I bitched and moaned the whole time until we got to some steakhouse. With a delicious meal under my belt, my pissy attitude began to evaporate.

We were among the first people to get to the Imperial Theater, (West 45th Street between 7th and 8th Avenues). We sat upstairs. My folks were tired of my intermittent whining so they gave me carte blanche to wander around and explore the upper deck, (that's a nice way of saying, they told me to get lost). In my travels, because I was stubborn, I didn't admit that when I looked down from the balcony at the fancy people filing in that I felt a positive buzz. During my budding euphoria there was suddenly commotion in front of the orchestra pit. In the center of the ado was a black couple getting mobbed by happy people.

I called the stir to my dad's attention. He came by and said with reverence, "That man is Jackie Robinson." I said, "Oh." My father added something to the effect, "Don't let his white hair fool you, he is the bravest man you'll meet and a tremendous ball player." After he explained what Mr. Robinson represented dad lamented, "If the show wasn't starting, I'd run down there, and shake his hand. And if I was lucky enough to get you his autograph, it'd be the best one you ever got." DAD POINTED OUT THAT JACKIE WAS PRE-MATURELY GRAY BECAUSE OF THE INTERNAL ANXIETY HE ENDURED WHILE BEING TARGETED BY RACISTS, WHEN HE BECAME MAJOR LEAGUE BASEBALL'S FIRST BLACK PLAYER. PERHAPS RELATED TO THAT PRESSURE, HIS HEART FAILED AND HE DIED WHEN HE WAS ONLY 53. I RECENTLY SAW HIS WIFE RACHEL ON TV. SHE IS STILL BOTH BEAUTIFUL AND VITAL AT 88 YEARS YOUNG.

I began to treasure autographs when I was eight. In August 1963, dad took us to Hershey, Pennsylvania. We went to the typical hot spots, the chocolate factory tour, the amusement park and an airplane ride that circled the city. But he cleverly included a few hours at the Philadelphia Eagles training camp. On that day I got (and still have) twenty or so of their autographs.

In 1966, autographs were part of another vacation in Peekskill, New York. There were only two things to do in that tiny town back then. Spend a week at a dude ranch and see the New York Jets in their training camp. By this time, I was autograph savvy and got many of the big names that would star in the Jets' one and only Super Bowl appearance. That is, all but the biggest name...Joe Namath. I certainly had enough signatures after they filed in but "Broadway" Joe was the creme de la creme...and he wasn't signing. During the player's workout, an announcement was made on the P.A. system; after practice, Joe Namath will give autographs for fifteen minutes.

My parents and sister were champs and we stayed till the end. So did several million other kids from sleep away camps. When the drills were over, our area was cordoned-off as Namath stood behind another rope on the far side of the field. All the kids jockeyed for position waiting for the rope to drop. When they let us go, the fifty-yard stampede to Namath resembled the Oklahoma Land Rush of 1889.

I was aware that there was a time limit, so like a maniac, I sprinted like never before. On the other side, a security team tried to get the kids to form an orderly line. I seized the opportunity during that delay and like a mercenary, I clawed my way forward and pushed aside anyone who stayed in my way. When the first kid was let through, I was second...right behind him.

My instinct was to say something clever to Namath. I wanted to stand out and leave my mark on him. But I was star-struck and got tongue-tied. I doubt I even managed to thank him. Years later, I thought of the perfect way that I could have left my imprint. I should have said, (in my pre-puberty voice), that I use his endorsement products. Once I got his attention I would have added; Yes Joe, thanks to you, hardly a day goes by without me cranking up my Hamilton Beach blender. And the pure genius of Soap-on-a-Rope is worthy of the Nobel Peace Prize to incarcerated men everywhere! Then while he's digesting those accolades, I hit him with; my life has changed for the better since I started wearing pantyhose...just like you, (imagine the look on his face when he noticed eleven-year old me with a pair of opaques under my Bermuda shorts). EVEN WITH MY FIGURE SKATER LEGS, I DOUBT I HAD ENOUGH OF JOE WILLIE'S PANACHE, TO PULL-OFF THE PANTYHOSE THING.

The rest of my modest collection of autographs isn't valuable. I got them before the sports memorabilia craze set in. That means they weren't preserved in a way that is conducive to economic appreciation. Most of my autographs were written into game programs. At home, I cut them out and mounted (taped) them into a notebook. Forty years later, the tape has yellowed and obliterated many of the signatures. Therefore Hall-of-Famers like Johnny Bench, Bernie "Boom-Boom" Geofferion and Tony Perez only have a sentimental value. And even worse, by slicing up the vintage programs, they too have been rendered worthless.

More recently, I have had two great opportunities for Hall-of-Famer autographs but they both slipped through my fingers. One was Johnny Unitas, (that whole story will be a separate blog in September). The other involved going to Baltimore in 1992, to visit the grave site of Edgar Allen Poe. After lunch in the Inner Harbor, my wife Sue and I heard that the Orioles where playing that night. We drove to Camden Yards and found out that they were sold out. But that a few hundred standing room tickets went on sale at 5:PM.

We got back in the car in search of the Poe graveyard. In front of the Hyatt-Regency, two blocks from the stadium three different swarms of young boys were surrounding men in the street. When I saw some of them were holding baseballs, I guessed that these were ball players and autograph seekers. I explained the situation to Sue and she thought it was exciting. After we parked, I grabbed a pen and pad and advanced on one of the crowds. In a short time we got three of the Texas Rangers to sign. The only star we saw was Ruben Sierra. Despite a combination of English, my pigeon-Spanish and my wife's more refined Spanish, Sierra still ignored us. Due to that snubbing, you might note that the hex I put on him, immediately put his burgeoning career in the toilet.

Inside the hotel lobby, I spotted all-star catcher, Jim Sundberg. He turned our autograph plea down, even when I told him when his birthday was, (thus further proving my status as a storehouse of useless information). We were about to leave when the grand-daddy of all Texas Rangers came out of the elevator and drifted into an alcove of pay phones. It was Nolan Ryan and we lingered a couple of minutes until he was done. Being a right handed pitcher, I was surprised that he shook my hand. But I was completely shocked that considering we were hidden from anyone else and alone, he wouldn't give me his autograph. He then made matters worse by saying, "Come back at 4 o'clock."

The Poe graveyard turned out to be a 60-second thrill. Despite the tradition of a hooded figure leaving black roses and a bottle of cognac at Poe's crypt every Halloween, we didn't get much of a rise out of it. After a few snapshots, we left...and we did NOT get his autograph either. Outside the fence was a sign that read: 3/4 of a mile left, to the Edgar Allen Poe Museum. It was a 90+ degree day but we decided to take the walk. Ten blocks later, we hadn't seen another sign and gave up. When we got back to our car, I decided to drive there. Two blocks beyond where we gave up, there was the first in a series of signs. Then, like a corn field maze, we were lead up one street and down another.

The Edgar Allen Poe Museum was in a dingy, beat-up house where he once lived. The sign said: Open 1:PM-4PM on Saturdays and Sundays. If it wasn't a Thursday, we might have been in luck. Instead, to fill the void till game time, we went to the Babe Ruth Museum. It was so lame that 18 years later, I still want my four bucks each back.

The Oriole Stadium was a short walk from the Babe Ruth Museum. It was a little after 4PM, so we went towards the box office. A few hundred feet from the window, we came across an orange line painted in the pavement. Next to the line was a sign that read: If you're behind this line, you won't get standing room tickets. We left because there were already fifty people behind it.

We got back in the car and headed past the same hotel where we saw the Texas Rangers signing autographs in the street. On the corner before the hotel, we saw a long line of people, a half block long...that extended around the corner. As we approached the main entrance, we saw Nolan Ryan flanked by a posse of bodyguards, signing autographs under the hotel's portico.

I parked five blocks away and we ran to get in line. My wife and I agreed that Ryan was cool after all. We then planned to give our nephew Adam the autograph. More importantly, Sue was going to take a picture of Ryan and me, as he signed. We were fourth on line with only two people behind us when one of his security people said, "Its five o'clock, times up." The Texas golden boy thanked us, (the shocked losers), as he was ushered away by his entourage to the ballpark.

Fueled by shock and frustration, I wished I could have shoved Mitch Miller's bouncing ball up Ryan's posterior. Maybe that element of uncertainty is what makes getting autographs such a rush.

On the brighter side, about ten years ago, a great autograph fell in my lap. My mom went to see a Broadway show matinee with her senior center. In a similar situation than Jackie Robinson, a celebrity, prior to the curtain going up, was mobbed by other theater-goers. My mom didn't care and remained behind. However, when one of her lady friends showed her the autograph of such a famous made the ultimate sacrifice (for me) and walked twenty rows up the aisle.

Mom called me the next day. She told me that she got me an extra special autograph but made me guess. Of course I failed. Then she told me the circumstances of her getting astronaut Neil Armstrong's autograph.

I really wasn't expecting it but my mother getting Armstrong's impressed me. Weeks later when she actually gave it to me, I was still impressed...but vintage was John Glenn's signature.


Anonymous said...

Great piece on autographs!

A few years ago at a Philly 76ers game, my son spotted Eagles receiver Todd Pinkston and asked for an autograph. He was told to come back after half time. Pinkston NEVER came back. The following week, he began to develop a reputation for "alligator arms." He was out of the league before he was 28.

My son said he put the jinx/hex on him. Blow your NFL career over an time, be kind to kids --- SKIP

Anonymous said...

I enjoyed this autograph blog.

I was 10 and my mom got me a bimmie job at her office. I was coming out of the building and recognized former boxing champ Rocky Graziano. When I asked for his autograph, his reply was pure Rocky, "Sure ting kid." He signed a bill of lading and I treasure that autograph even more than Bill Dinwiddie's. --- SLW

Anonymous said...

I love your blogs. You certainly got around, that's why I thought it was funny that you called yourself a "homebody."

We loved Mitch Miller. I wonder why they never show them as re-runs? My family definitely sang along...and I'd love to do it again. Whenever I think of those days, the song, "THE YELLOW ROSE OF TEXAS," comes to mind.

The Joe Namath part was very funny. And your mom deserves a lot of credit for getting the "Neil Armstrong" autograph for you.
--- M of M&T

Anonymous said...

One of my favorite memories is watching Mitch Miller with my grandmother and following the bouncing ball as we sang -or tried to sing. I was pretty young and couldn't read much and my grandmother couldn't see well or read. But there we were with my brother sitting on her other side doing our best. God how I miss that lady. ---The Donald