By Barry Blair
For the first time in 49 years, the Major League Baseball All-Star Game returned to our nation’s capital, Washington, D.C. and the week-long celebration of our national pastime was a rousing success.
Hats off to MLB, the Washington Nationals, and to the Washington community itself for putting on a great show. The All-Star game has always been on my bucket list, and when I was notified by MLB that I had been selected for the chance to get tickets, I was ecstatic. Off to Washington we went.
There were sold out crowds for both the Home Run Derby on Monday, and the All-Star Game itself on Tuesday, and the fans didn’t leave disappointed on either night. The home-team star, the Nationals’ Bryce Harper, did his part early, winning the Derby by edging out Kyle Schwarber of the Cubs in what some thought was a controversial finish.
He was pitched to by his father and the next day the talk around town was that maybe his dad was getting off his pitches a little too quickly. If nothing else, it made for interesting drama.
It was home runs again the next night, as well, as the American League outslugged the National League in an extra inning affair. It started early with homers by two of the game’s biggest stars in Aaron Judge of the Yankees and Mike Trout of the Angels. The game was won in dramatic fashion by home runs from none other than World Series stars Alex Bregman and George Springer of the Houston Astros.
There were lots of people left standing outside both events in search of tickets. One man boasted that he got in, after forking over $1,500 for a pair of tickets to the game.
The Futures Game, held on Sunday, showcased baseball’s up-and-coming minor league stars, and it continues to grow in popularity. Since its inception in 1999, over 150 players from this game have gone on to make an MLB All-Star Game.
There were numerous opportunities to get items signed at the stadium at all three events on Sunday, Monday, and Tuesday; including the “Red Carpet” entrance for the players. You just had to be a little bit lucky and be in the right place at the right time. It was not unusual to run into current and former players all around Washington.
For collectors, the place to be was the All-Star FanFest that ran from Friday until Tuesday at the Walter E. Williams Convention Center in downtown Washington. Lots of former and current players were on hand and opportunities to get their autographs were available, thanks to MLB and many of their sponsors. Some participated in clinics and question-and-answer sessions. Several Hall of Famers appeared at various events over the five days. They were John Smoltz, Cal Ripken Jr., Juan Marichal, Rollie Fingers, Johnny Bench, Gaylord Perry, Andre Dawson, Tim Raines, and Dave Winfield. Some were there strictly to meet fans and sign autographs, while others made appearances on behalf of different sponsors.
Ripken was there representing Snapple, then stuck around for some photos and autographs before leaving. Once he started signing, he was mobbed by fans. Cliff Floyd appeared with him, but interestingly enough, was mostly ignored, standing off to the side, as everyone clamored for a piece of Cal. Smoltz, a color analyst on the Fox broadcast of the game, appeared on Monday morning on behalf of Old Dominion Freight Lines. He signed for an hour, for those who had stopped by their booth earlier in the morning to obtain a ticket. As you can imagine, it wasn’t long before they were all gone.
There were lots of former players who had played for the Washington Nationals at some point in their career scheduled to appear at the three autograph stages set up around the floor. They included Ryan Church, Justin Maxwell (an interesting note on him is that his father use to be the White House dentist), Chad Cordero, Matt Capps, Jerry Hairston, Jr., former manager Davey Johnson (he drew one of the largest crowds, I was told), Nick Johnson, Preston Wilson, Dimitri Young, Kevin Frandsen, Austin Kearns, John Lannan, Jason Marquis, John Patterson, Jose Vidro, Brad Wilkerson, plus several others. There were even a couple of former Washington Senators players on hand as well. Current Nats star Ryan Zimmerman was brought in on Tuesday to sign, but only for a half hour. All Stars Max Scherzer, pitcher of the Nationals, and Francisco Lindor, shortstop of the Cleveland Indians, were available for an hour on Tuesday morning to have their picture taken with fans. There were long lines for both of them.
Also on hand were Fred Lynn (hit the first All-Star Game grand slam off of the Giants Atlee Hammaker), Manny Sanguillen, Carlos Baerga, Steve Finley, Bert Campanaris, and former base stealing whizz, Maury Wills, who was the All-Star Game MVP for the Dodgers in 1962 in the game played in Washington’s then D.C. Stadium (later named RFK Stadium). Former Red Sox star Kevin Millar, now a star of the popular Intentional Talk show on MLB Network, was a popular figure on the floor.
FanFest also welcomed former Olympic Gold medalists Lisa Fernandez, Jennie Finch, and Natasha Watley for clinics and autographs. Joey Chestnut, of hot dog eating fame, was there as well.
The ever popular bobblehead dolls were an item, with a Nationals twist. On Friday, the first 3,000 in at FanFest received one of Zimmerman. On Monday, to commemorate the Home Run Derby, the same number received a Bryce Harper wobbler. On Tuesday, once again for the first 3,000 in the door, it was one of Scherzer, who was the National League’s starting pitcher that night.
The Topps baseball card booth was a big hit. They had special made All-Star game cards of top players for anyone who opened two packs of cards at their booth. They were from their newest entry, the Big League brand.
Mike Trout seemed to be the most popular one going from what I observed. Interestingly, one of the cards was of Kris Bryant of the Cubs, who didn’t make the team. They had a specially made All Star version of the 2018 Topps set available for sale as well. Also, you could pick up posters of Aaron Judge, Manny Machado, and Bryce Harper from Topps Bunt.
There was a lot of activity around their Take-A-Card-Leave-A-Card Board, where you could select a card that you liked for free as long as you left one in its place. Pack Wars, long a staple at the Topps booth at The National Sports Collectors Convention, made its appearance at FanFest, drawing large crowds of enthusiastic collectors. You could also get your very own baseball card made wearing the jersey of your favorite team.
It was announced that Topps just signed a contract extension with MLB to keep them and their brands as the exclusive supplier of baseball cards through the year 2020, continuing a tradition that runs back to their first baseball cards appearing in 1949, and the first sets in 1951.
There were several card and memorabilia dealers located throughout the building. One enterprising fellow had stacks of cards for every player that was to appear on the FanFest floor on sale for $2 apiece. He appeared to be doing a brisk business. One was selling Topps cards by the pack, which was good for those who wanted to pick up a couple of packs to be able to take to the Topps booth to rip open and get their special made All-Star cards.
Hunt Auctions held the official auction of FanFest over the course of the event. Highlights were a Babe Ruth bat from 1918-20 that brought $117,500 and an original 1921 photo by Paul Thompson of a young Ruth that brought $49,350. A Mickey Mantle hat given to teammate Tom Tresh in 1968 sold for $58,750 and one of his bats from the same time period realized $21,500. A Mel Ott contract from 1934 brought $18,800. Another original photo by Thompson of Walter Johnson was worth $21,500 to a buyer.
David Hunt, president of Hunt Auctions, was quoted as saying, “The history and popularity of the game of baseball was clearly evident in the outstanding prices realized during the auction.”
It was interesting watching it as there were bidders present and also those that bid by phone and on the internet.
In addition to the more than 35 former and current MLB players who were available to meet with fans for autographs and photos, there were more than 50 attractions and sponsors with exhibits located throughout the convention center floor. Fans were able to win exclusive prizes by using their GEICO All-Star FanFest Experience Pass to scan in a personalized QR code and become eligible for prizes, including tickets to the Futures Game, the Home Run Derby, and the All-Star Game, along with lots of other prizes.
On Wednesday, it was off to the Library of Congress, which was hosting a ‘Baseball Americana’ exhibit in their building located right across the street from the Capital. The exhibit featured items from their collections and their lending partners that covered the history of baseball from its earliest days up through today, trying to convey the impact that the game has had on our country. The exhibit shows items ranging from early rule books from the 1800s to a section on fans scoring games in their line up cards.
There were two items in the exhibit that I found most interesting. One was a handmade, color coded chart kept on hitter’s tendencies by Hall of Fame manager Whitey Herzog from the 1980s, which is certainly an early forerunner to the current use of sabermetrics in the game. The other was a Ty Cobb player’s contract with Detroit that paid him $4,000 a season in the early 1900s – at a time when the average player salary was $400.
If you are looking for any baseball book ever written, if it has been copyrighted, they have at the library. The exhibit started at the end of June and is scheduled to run for the next year.
My congratulations to all of those involved in making the All-Star experience in Washington a great one. The games move next year to Cleveland, and to Los Angeles the year after that. If you get the chance to go, don’t pass it by.
Barry Blair is an author/writer who lives in Jonesborough, Tennessee. He is a frequent contributor to Sports Collectors Digest and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also visit his website www.rightfieldpress.com.