Signs of the times: a peek inside my autograph collection

What's so strange about a kid wanting a photo signed by NBC News economics correspondent Mike Jensen?
A record player
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Baltimore Orioles Hall of Fame third baseman Brooks Robinson.

Baltimore Orioles Hall of Fame third baseman Brooks Robinson.

“Neil Young is in the bathroom,” my friend and work colleague Peter Krouse announced to me.

It was an evening in the mid-1990s, and we were at a table at the Roosevelt Tavern in York. Pete and I were business writers for the York Daily Record, and we were sitting with David Carver, who was the president of the York County Industrial Development Corp.

The IDC had hours earlier held a ceremony to mark the opening of the Industrial Plaza of York, which transformed a long-abandoned factory complex into mixed-use space.

Neil Young had nothing to do with it. But the Canadian-born rocker apparently was in town (as he was known to have been in the past) for a model train-collectors show at the York Fairgrounds.

He and his entourage occupied a corner booth for much of the evening, but I waited him out (Pete and David were long gone) and managed to wrangle his signature on a paper napkin.

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Rock and Roll Hall of Famer Neil Young

Sending letters

I’ve been collecting autographs for decades but mostly in my youth. I sent countless letters to hockey players, comic actors and TV news personalities asking for signed photos.

What’s so strange about a kid wanting a photo signed by NBC News economics correspondent Mike Jensen?

It was always about making a connection with people whom I admired, at least until I had reason not to (this means you, John Stossel, whom I had the misfortune of interviewing when I was with the Daily Record). I never would sell an autograph.

I have organized most of my collection by profession — hockey player, baseball player, musician, comedian, etc. — in manilla folders. The fading of ink on some of the photos reminds me of the need to buy archival storage boxes.

One folder is dedicated just to members of the 1980 U.S. Olympic hockey team. I also targeted members of the old Maine Mariners hockey team, in my home state. One player shall remain nameless as he added a swastika to his signature; another scratched his name into a photo, Sharpies not being so common in the 1980s. Goalie Rick St. Croix sent me a handwritten letter in which he included a key chain in lieu of a photo.

John Cochran, NBC’s chief correspondent in London, apologized for only having a small passport photo to offer. Jane Pauley, of NBC’s “Today,” dictated a nice letter and signed her photo, “See you in the morning.”

How did I get started in this hobby? As with many things in my life, I blame the Boston Red Sox.

Doug Griffin, a second baseman for the Red Sox, came to Auburn, Maine, for the opening of a sporting goods store called Valley Sports. I was so shy that he misheard my name, which required him to use two photos to get it right.

“To Neal Doug Griffin,” he wrote. I subsequently traced over part of the “To” and punched three holes in the left side of the photo so I could keep it in a binder.

Doug Griffin of the Boston Red Sox

Doug Griffin of the Boston Red Sox

Run-in with Rick Leach

When I was in high school, the Maine Guides were a minor league baseball team in Old Orchard Beach (the franchise is now the Scranton/Wilkes-Barre RailRiders). Visiting players would have to make their way through the concourse to their clubhouse.

For one game, I brought with me baseball cards for a couple of Syracuse Chiefs who had played in the big leagues. When I asked Rick Leach (who also played in three Rose Bowls as quarterback at Michigan) to sign his card, he walked past me without a word until I gave him a sarcastic “Thanks a lot.”

“You’re welcome,” he said over the chip on his shoulder.

But karma got him, or was it the cocaine? Leach made it back to the major leagues, but he also became a drug addict, his career finished at age 33.

Leach’s teammate Willie Mays Aikens signed for me, which made me more sympathetic when he succumbed to his own demons. He even served 14 years in federal prison for drug trafficking.

One ballplayer who never disappointed me — if he ever let any fan down — is Baltimore Orioles legend Brooks Robinson. I’ve had the opportunity to interview him as a reporter and converse with him at a couple of events, and he always was the sweetest of human beings.

I have his autograph on baseballs, photos and a baseball card. Each one is a treasure, but nothing compares to the photo I have of him with my son, Jack.

Calling Chris Isaak

Ted Turner has a connection to baseball, having formerly owned the Atlanta Braves. But on Oct. 12, 1988, the founder of TBS and CNN spoke on “U.S.-Soviet Communications” as part of a “Peace Perspectives” lecture series at the University of Missouri.

I attended the speech and a reception in the alumni-faculty lounge. I positioned myself so that I could intercept Turner on his way out. He seemed to be more or less alone, maverick that he is.

I asked him to sign my program.

“Sure,” he said without pause.

In the next afternoon’s Columbia Daily Tribune, there was a black-and-white photo of Turner waiting to speak. Sitting in the front row, his back to the crowd, this business titan was playing with a piece of string.

Months later, perhaps under the influence of a beer or two, I dared to track down musician Chris Isaak in his hometown, Stockton, Calif. Somehow I ended up leaving my autograph request with his brother’s girlfriend.

It wasn’t until the next fall — after a summer away and a move up the street to a different residence — that a postcard from Isaak reached me.

“HEARD YOU WANTED A PICTURE … TAKE IT EASY — I DONT AND LOOK AT ME,” he wrote.

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The last time I sought autographs was May 2015, when the band The Baseball Project played in Harrisburg. The members have ties to some of my all-time favorite groups, including R.E.M. and The Dream Syndicate.

As the name suggests, The Baseball Project writes songs about the national pastime.

In this case, an autographed photo just wouldn’t do.

I asked the members to sign an authentic Major League Baseball. They obliged.

Mike Mills, bassist for R.E.M. and The Baseball Project.

Mike Mills, bassist for R.E.M. and The Baseball Project.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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