By Paul Post
Jack Rooney has his fair share of autographed bats, balls and jerseys, the same as any baseball memorabilia aficionado.
But one piece, at the heart and soul of his collection, is so rare that he’s spent years trying to learn more about it.
The Springfield, Ill., resident has a cardboard poster signed by every member of the 1955 Brooklyn Dodgers right after they beat the Yankees to win their first and only World Championship.
“The story that went with the poster is that it was made with cardboard and a laundry marker right in the locker room,” Rooney said. “I’ve always imagined that it was the first thing that group of players signed as the official World Champs.”
The makeshift article was no doubt made in a hurry, in the midst of the Dodgers’ celebration. The words “Brooklyn Dodgers World Champs” are spelled out in large dark letters, no doubt made with a marker. Individual autographs are all in pencil.
In the excitement, however, three players never put their “John Hancock” on the piece, including Dodger hurler Johnny Podres, whose Game 7, 2-0 shutout clinched the Fall Classic, earning him the Series MVP Award.
Years later, in 2005, Rooney tracked him down on the 50th anniversary of that historic baseball feat, and Podres finally autographed the poster and several other items, including an 8-by-10 photo with the inscription: “Sorry I didn’t sign your poster 50 years ago. I was kind of busy at the time.”
Podres was born in a little town called Witherbee, in upstate New York’s Adirondack Mountains. After his playing days, he became a major league pitching coach – most notably for the Phillies – and settled about one hour south of his hometown in Queensbury, N.Y., where he lived for many years prior to his passing in January 2008.
“I met him at a restaurant in Albany,” Rooney said. “He was in a booth waiting for me. His big Cadillac was parked right in front with license plates: MVP 55.”
After they ordered, Podres said: “OK, it’s your dime. What do you want to hear about?”
Rooney rifled one question after another at this Brooklyn baseball legend for over an hour.
“He gave me the straight scoop,” Rooney said. “I wish I’d had a tape recorder. Some cool things I remember him saying were that Carl Furillo treated baseball just like his job. He came to the park super early, with his lunch box, worked like he was working in a factory and went home.”
Podres said that fiery Jackie Robinson was much easier going than movies portrayed him. Dodger players sometimes needled him with off-color remarks just to be funny and Robinson would laugh and fire back with zingers of his own.
Only two other players didn’t sign the poster in 1955 – pitchers Billy Loes and Carl Erskine – and Rooney found them both.
“Billy Loes was having a private signing and I got it all done very carefully through his agent,” he said. “Carl Erskine was at a show in St. Louis. He really thought it was cool and looked at it for a long time. He looked for Karl Spooner’s autograph right away and explained that it needed to have Spooner to be 1955. We had a very nice visit.”
Podres, Loes and Erskine all signed the poster with an old-style pencil to maintain its authenticity.
Rooney isn’t old enough to remember the 1955 Dodgers. In fact, having grown up in Illinois, he’s actually a lifelong Cubs fan with a special liking for the 1969 Cubs, managed by Leo Durocher.
“I put together a complete set of ’69 Cubs game-used bats and had them all personally autographed,” he said. “I’m working on the ’84 Cubs now.”
But he’s always admired Brooklyn teams from the 1950s for their “Wait Till Next Year” battle cry that was finally fulfilled when Podres beat the hated Yankees on the early autumn afternoon of Oct. 4, 1955.
That’s why Rooney bought this unique item on eBay more than a decade ago. He paid $2,000 for it and has probably spent at least half that much again on travel expenses to have it signed by Podres, Loes and Erskine.
“I’m proud that I went ahead and went all the way to New York on that special day to see Mr. Podres,” Rooney said. “I’m really glad that I didn’t put it off and just went ahead and did it.”
Rooney has an extensive collection of baseball memorabilia. He bought his first pack of baseball cards in 1970 and has been collecting cards and just about everything else baseball-related ever since.
At 16, he bought a 1956 Topps set still in the gum box.
“I had it PSA-graded and it’s loaded with nines and even four 10s,” he said.
However, Rooney also realized early on that it’s impossible to get everything he wants, so he began focusing on niche markets.
He has a special fondness for autographs that have a player’s real and nickname such as Phil “The Scooter” Rizzuto.
“It’s hard to find autographs with both their given name and nickname,” he said. “I’ve been doing it for over 40 years and have some really tough ones left to get. Most I have never even seen, such as Paul ‘Big Poison’ Waner, Jimmie ‘Old Double X’ Foxx, Charlie ‘Jolly Cholly’ Grimm and lots of others.”
Among living Hall of Famers, Rooney wants to get autographs from Willie “Stretch” McCovey and Hank “The Hammer” Aaron. To date, however, they’ve managed to elude him.
“Getting those kind of signatures is my big goal,” he said. “I wish I would have driven to Carl Furillo’s house and got him to sign, ‘The Reading Rifle.’ ”
Rooney is a good role model for fellow autograph hounds and knows some pretty good tricks of the trade.
“During the 1983 All-Star Game in Chicago, at the Hyatt Regency Hotel, if I saw a player or former player coming through the lobby I would head up the escalator,” he said. “That would buy me time to pull out the right picture. I would then walk down the escalator to get the player as he was coming up. I did that all day and got Duke Snider, Stan Musial, Ralph Kiner and many other all-time greats.”
However, his ultimate quest won’t be complete until he finds an old photo that shows his 1955 poster and Dodger players signing it during the clubhouse celebration. Somewhere, he believes such a photo exists and he’ll go to just about any lengths to find it – like Indiana Jones looking for the Lost Ark, or Jack Colton hunting down The Jewel of the Nile.
The poster is so valuable to him that he keeps it in safekeeping under lock and key. Some day, maybe he’ll have the nerve to display it. For now, it’s for his eyes only and the fortunate few he’s willing to share it with.
It’s refreshing, when many baseball collectors only want things for their monetary value, to find someone like Rooney who’s totally enamored with a piece just because he understands the meaning behind it. By owning the poster, he shares the joy that Dodger players and their fans experienced so many years ago.
Rooney would be forever indebted to anyone who knows more about the poster, or knows where to find a picture of it being signed in the clubhouse.
“I’ve been looking at 1955 World Series pictures for years, especially locker room shots, hoping to catch a glimpse of someone holding it,” he said.
Maybe it’s a long shot, but as another New York hurler, the Mets’ Tug McGraw, used to say, “Ya Gotta Believe!”
Rooney may be contacted at (217) 652-1645 or by e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Paul Post is a freelance contributor to SCD. He can be reached at email@example.com.