Fresh to the West Coast and The First Autograph…

By T.J. Schwartz

I moved to California from Da Bronx in 1974 when I was 20. I wanted to be a comedy writer, and I soon became a fixture behind the scenes at the famous Comedy Store. During these early years, I needed some kind of job that enabled me to be at the Store till 2 a.m. and gave me leeway to pitch scripts and such during the day. I had driven a taxi during my late teens in NYC for extra cash, so I became a cab driver on the side. I thought I’d share some of my celebrity experiences with you as a change of pace and a trip down memory lane.

I’m driving my cab down this side street in 1975, going to my favorite place to drool. No, not some strip joint, but the now defunct Muntz Electronics store. This was the 1970s and a new-fangled thing called a VCR and a big-screen TV were thousands of dollars, so I would go in there and see what I couldn’t afford. Anyway, as I pull in, I see this amazingly tall black man exit and head to a Jaguar. That’s Wilt Chamberlain! I throw the cab into park in the street and run over to his car. He had the back seat removed to accommodate his legs.

chamberlainwebI tap on the window, pen and phone book in hand. He rolls it down and eyeballs me. I’m dribbling all over myself as this was my first real celebrity sighting and as a ballplayer myself, he and KAJ were my idols.“Wilt . . . could you please … hamanauh … sign?” He looks me up and down. “That your cab kid?” Yep. He slowly opens the door and (keep in mind that I’m 6’7”) gets out as I crane my neck upward and extends his hand. I’m now shaking Wilt’s hand! “You play ball kid?” Yep again was all I could muster. “What position?” They make me play center, but I really want to play guard, I say. “Just play kid!” He grabs my phone book and signs “Peace, Wilt Chamberlain.” “Take it easy kid.” He gets back in and drives off. I stood there for what seemed like an hour in awe. This was my first autograph find, and I still have it (see image).

Flash forward some decades and I’m in the business. I go to a show where Wilt is signing just to tell him the story. When I relate it to him, he looks up and says, “Yeah, by that TV store, right?” Wow!

In 1977, my Yankees played the Dodgers in the World Series. When they were in L.A., they stayed in the Continental Hyatt House, which was adjacent to the Comedy Store. On Oct. 14, I got up real early and parked my cab on the taxi stand in front of the hotel. My cab was all tricked out in Yankee stuff inside, from pennants to posters. It looked like a mobile Yankees man cave. I refused every fare offered, citing a bad transmission. I was there to get autographs, not fares.

The Yankee team bus pulls in front of the hotel, and I’m 10 feet away. There was no real security in those days, and I had full access. I walk over and am about 4 feet from the bus’ door. I notice a Mercedes sitting there, too, with someone that looked curiously like Frank Robinson behind the wheel. I guessed that he was here to pick up my baseball idol, Reggie Jackson, as he didn’t usually ride the bus. I go into my tap on the window routine that I have now perfected thanks to Wilt. Frank rolls the window down a tad and I show him a ball and Bic, asking for an auto. “Can’t do it.” C’mon Frank, I’m a cabbie and that’s my cab. “Sorry.” Now keep in mind that there were hundreds of Yankee fans all around, but as a cabbie, I had the best access. So I got a little dirty. “Frank, do you really want me to yell that Frank Robinson is sitting here?” I was smiling. He looks at me, “Gimme the ball!” Score one for blackmail!

Note: Last year, while returning from the National Convention, I’m in the first-class line (not rich, just miles). Standing in front of me is, yep, Frank Robinson, who had been signing at the show. I ask if I can tell him a story from times gone by. Not sure if he remembered it, but he surely appreciated it and smiled.

OK, back to the 1977 cab stand and the team bus. The players slowly start to trickle out of the hotel. First was Yogi Berra as a coach. He had a clipboard, checking players off as they boarded the bus. One by one, they passed within 5 feet of me! Reggie comes out, and sure enough, gets into Robby’s Benz. Then it happened. Mickey Rivers, starting center fielder for a team with just a few famous center fielders, comes up to Yogi with a younger man with him. “Who’s dis?” I hear Yogi ask. “That’s my cousin” Mickey says. “C’mon Mickey, ya know the team rule. Only players on da bus” “Gimme a break, coach, I just want him to get the experience.” Yogi says, “If I did that, then everyone would want to bring someone.”

Now Mickey starts to get both embarrassed and agitated. He raises his voice at Yogi, which is not a good idea. Number 8 was a tough guy that didn’t take any stuff. Now they are visibly arguing with a lot of people watching from afar and me listening very closely.

Mickey starts to try to blow by Yogi, which was a bad idea. Yogi casually grabs the slight Mickey and removes him from the bus. Before it got any worse, Mickey turns and notices me and my cab. “That your cab?” You betcha! “You know how to get to Dodger Stadium?” Get in! “$100 if you beat the bus!” They both get in.

Mickey quickly notices all the Yankee stuff in the cab and relaxes. I don’t remember all the small talk we had about baseball, Reggie, Yogi and the Yanks because I was too busy doing 60 mph down Sunset Blvd., heading toward the Stadium. I can’t count the number of lights I ran and laws I broke! When I got to Chavez Ravine, there was a huge backup of cars waiting for the gates to open. I leaned on the horn and drove on the grass toward the gate. Hey, I was 24 after all and a Benjy was a lot of cash. The gate guards start yelling at me, and I stick my head out of the cab screaming, “I got Mickey Rivers in here!”

Well people start heading toward my cab like I said the POTUS was here. Mickey sticks his head out the window and the guard lets me roll over the grass into an empty stadium. I drive right up to the outfield, Mickey hands me two hundies, signs some stuff and out. I’ve related that story many times but never written it before.

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