After a successful National Convention this past summer and yet another Chicago Sun-Times show in late November in Rosemont, Ill., it might be a temptation to suppose that the small card show operators, the true entrepreneurs, are being squeezed out of the Chicago marketplace. Nothing could be further from the truth, however, as evidenced by the recent emergence of Mike Accomando and his When It Was A Game Productions as a factor on the local scene.
Operating under the radar for the last few years, Accomando and his company have been building a loyal fan base in the Western suburbs of Chicago by holding small, inexpensive signing sessions with a number of obscure, hard-to-find players whose signatures might be needed by diehard collectors to fill gaps in their collections.
Those diehard collectors go to the big shows for the Hall-of-Fame autographs they need, but they have been relying on Accomando for guys such as former White Sox players Jim Landis and Ken Berry, and former Cubs Bob Speake and Taylor Phillips. Accomando also recently brought in former Phillies Whiz Kid pitcher Bob Miller, with “Lefty” Bob Miller, an original 1962 New York Mets pitcher, stopping by to say hello. The latter Bob Miller lives near where the show was being held, so he decided to come by to see his namesake, whom he had not seen for a number of years. After having a nice chat with the former Whiz Kid, “Lefty” Bob Miller even signed a few free autographs before he left.
Accomando has also brought in some former mid-level players, such as Hal Naragon and Bob Friend, to sign for his customers, but he mostly concentrates on the guys who are still affordable. He also invites a few local dealers to set up tables at his shows, but that is basically just a small enhancement to add value to the collector experience.
Accomando points with pride to his most recent show at which the aforementioned Landis, Berry, Speake and Phillips appeared, along with Pete Ward, Carlos May, Ray Herbert, Denny McLain, Alvin Dark, Eddie Fisher and George Altman. But the real coup at that show was a gathering of Negro League players that included Hall of Famer Monte Irvin, as well as J.C. Hartman, Johnny Washington, Sammy Drake, Ernie Westfield, Bill Greason, Carl Long, Jim Zapp, Hank Presswood, Nathan “Sonny” Weston and Joe B. Scott.
It was great to see those guys come together at what constituted a “reunion” show for the Negro Leaguers. No one is getting any younger, and some, like Irvin, are in wheelchairs or otherwise need help to get around. But the players still love to tell their stories, and the fans still love to listen to them. The remarkable thing about these guys is that none of them seems to have any noticeable trace of bitterness left over from the shabby treatment they once received from the baseball establishment.
It would be hard to say that all is forgiven, but for the most part, these players seem to enjoy the recognition they now get from Major League Baseball and the fans.
Accomando, along with Gary Crawford, a local collector who devotes a lot of his time to helping the Negro Leaguers capitalize on marketing opportunities that come their way, brought the guys to this show so they could enjoy each other’s company and make a few bucks in the process. Whether the show itself made money because they were there seemed entirely secondary to the mere fact that they were, indeed, there.
There was also an added benefit for collectors because some of the Negro Leaguers, like Irvin, Greason and Drake, also played in the major leagues and thus filled in some gaps that collectors might have had on the major league side. It was also nice that Crawford brought in a surprise birthday cake for Carlos May to celebrate his 60th birthday, while everyone was there to sing to him and help him blow out the candles.
One of the other players who was genuinely thrilled to be at the show was Phillips. Although he played in the major leagues for several years, including a couple with the Cubs and a World Series title with the Milwaukee Braves in 1957, not many people remember him. So, coming to a show like Accomando’s helps remind people that he once made a difference as a player.
After finishing his baseball career, Phillips went back to his native Georgia and took a job with the post office. Eventually, he worked his way up to postmaster in his old hometown and then, ultimately, retired. But he still enjoys being around baseball and has devoted a lot of his retirement to teaching the game to local youngsters.
Having grown up in a small town, Phillips’ favorite team as a youngster was the Atlanta Crackers, a Double-A team that was affiliated at the time with the Boston (and later, Milwaukee) Braves organization. Phillips considers himself lucky to have played for the Crackers twice during his career.
“I caught them on the way up, and on the way down,” Phillips said. “In fact, they were the last team I played for, in 1964.”
Phillips was not a collector as a youngster or as a player. He said he doesn’t even remember if there were any baseball cards around when he was a kid, but he does remember his reaction when he first saw himself on a card as a professional player.
“Humbling. Very humbling,” he said.
As for memorabilia, he did not trade stuff with his teammates “It just wasn’t done,” he said. But he did keep some of his own stuff.
“I have a glove I used in high school. I also have my high school uniform, which has no numbers and nothing across the front. I have the complete uniform from 1957, from the World Series with Milwaukee. I have the hat, the pants, the shirt, the belt, the socks and the warm-up jacket in a cabinet at home.”
Phillips, who played in the majors for six years, also talked about his sports heroes when he was younger.
Detroit had a left-hander, Hal Newhouser, and then there was Warren Spahn. In fact, one of the greatest thrills of my life was to eat with Newhouser. He was a scout for the Orioles at the time, and they had just signed Dean Chance. We were in Indianapolis at the time and Dean asked me if I wanted to go to lunch with him and Newhouser, and Newhouser was going to buy. That was a great thrill.”
Based on the obvious success of Accomando’s recent shows, and with guys like Taylor Phillips lighting up the fans, it seems safe to say that he will remain a force on the Chicago scene for some time. Hopefully, he will be able to build himself up to the level of the guys who have gone before him.
Once upon a time, if you wanted to do anything on the card show scene in Chicago, you went to Jeff Blatt to work things out. Subsequently, it was Bruce Paynter, followed by George Johnson. Now, as Johnson becomes a part of the corporate climate in the memorabilia field, the door remains open for a new entrepreneur to come along. Accomando seems to be that guy.