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(Editor’s Note: This story originally ran in the Sept. issue of Tuff Stuff’s Sports Collectors Monthly as the final part in a four-part series).
I think the year was 1979 or 1980, I can’t remember for sure. I know I was about 10 years old and I was going to my first race with my dad at the Milwaukee Mile.
At that time, my dad was a huge race fan, whether it was NASCAR, Indy cars, snowmobiles or whatever. He enjoyed watching almost anything go around a track at high speeds, while I on the other hand, preferred football, baseball and basketball. But Pops had hyped up how great it was to watch a race from the infield/pit area for so long that I left on our trip almost as fired up as I would’ve been if we were on our way to the Super Bowl.
In the weeks leading up to race day, I spent some time with him watching a couple races on TV and had quickly adopted A.J. Foyt as my favorite driver. I can’t pinpoint exactly why I was drawn to Foyt, maybe it was his no-BS style on and off the track, and I’m sure his winning ways factored in as well. Whatever it was, Foyt was my guy and I was determined to get his autograph come race day.
After weeks of build up, race day finally arrived. In the days leading up to it, I had transformed into a huge racing fan and came to the track equipped with a couple of pens for all of the autographs I was going to get. My dad had no problem picking me up a race day program for all of the autographs, especially since we now shared a similar passion for the sport.
I tried to soak it all in and appreciate all that I had been missing, all while keeping my eye out for drivers passing along the walkway. Because I was still relatively new to the scene, I was forced to consult my program for pictures, but when I spotted a face that I recognized, I was quick to pounce. Before long, I had picked up autographs from Tom Sneva, Al Unser and Mario Andretti, but no A.J.
My dad warned me that we could end up heading home without ever seeing Foyt, but my new-found confidence never wavered. It was getting to be close to race time and my chances of running into him were getting slimmer by the minute. Luckily, nature came a calling and I was forced to take a quick break from my quest and make a dash to the restrooms.
As luck would have it, on my way back to our area, I literally ran into A.J. Foyt on the infield near his trailer. After apologizing for my clumsiness, I quickly asked him for an autograph. He muttered something under his breath but still obliged.
I was so happy that I started running back to our area in what felt like the same type of speeds the drivers would later experience on the track. I found my dad and proudly displayed my latest autograph treasure. He seemed genuinely happier at that moment than I can ever remember before or since.
A few years later, I grew out of racing and returned to baseball and football while my dad has stayed true to his sport of choice. While we don’t continue to share the same passion, my day on the infield at the Milwaukee Mile with my dad is one I’ll treasure forever. Part of the memory will always be the great autographs I got, but they pale in comparison to an afternoon of bonding with my dad.
Big Memories With The Big Hurt
My story begins with a challenge. My dad used to own a card shop, and we would have baseball card collecting shows. One evening when my dad dropped me off to spend the weekend with my grandmother, he made mention that he would love to have Frank Thomas come do an autograph signing at one of his shows seeing as how Frank Thomas is from Georgia and all. I said I will call him. My dad said “Yeah right, you will not be able to get in touch with him.” So I set out on my endeavor. I called directory and asked if they had a listing for Frank Thomas and to my surprise there was a Frank Thomas, but I knew it would not be that easy so I called the number and a lady answered the phone. I asked nervously is this Frank Thomas – the one that has a son that plays professional baseball and she said no. I sighed but then my ears perked up as she said, “But my brother is his father. Hold on let me get you his number.” It wasn’t but a minute and I had the number.
I nervously dialed the phone number I had been given and I heard another lady’s voice answer the phone and I asked, “Is this Frank Thomas the baseball player’s residence?” The lady stated “No, but I am his mother.” I put into telling her how much of a fan I was of her son and how I would give anything to be able to talk to her son. She said “Well, he isn’t home right now but if you will call back on Christmas Day he will be here.” So I hung up and awaited for Christmas day. On Christmas day, I called the Thomas residence again and this time a young lady answered the phone. I did not know until later it was Mrs. Frank Thomas, “The Big Hurt’s” wife. I asked if I could speak with Mr. Thomas and she said “He is busy.” But I explained that his mother had told me to call back on Christmas Day and she would let me talk to him. The lady stated, “Oh, well hold on one sec” and then I heard his voice. I heard a deep “Hello.” Oh my goodness it was Frank “The Big Hurt” Thomas. I wanted to faint.
I explained how I was a huge fan of his and I asked him if I sent some stuff to his mother’s house would he sign it for me? He said “Yeah, no problem.” So I thanked him for his time and before hanging up I ask him about appearing at my dad’s show, but he said he was busy filming Mr. Baseball with Tom Selleck. So I thanked him and hung up. Later I sent three baseball cards and a baseball to the Thomas residence and I got back all three cards and ball signed. This truly is one of my most memorable encounters with an athlete.
Crash Davis Meet Donnie Baseball
The day before this picture was taken (July 8), I was just getting to the Renaissance Vinoy Hotel in St. Petersburg, Fla., with my family to see the Yanks vs. the Devil Rays the next day. I had no clue the New York Yankees stayed there. I had been living in Miami for three years. I’m originally from the NY/NJ area and was dying to see the Yanks play. As I was pulling up into the valet parking area, my wife noticed that Don Mattingly was there signing autographs for a mob of people outside of the hotel. I saw all the Yankee T-shirts and put two and two together and then realized that the Yankees were staying at this hotel. My wife said “Go, go, there is your favorite player. Go get his autograph.”
I jumped out of the truck and then glanced back to my truck and noticed it was rolling forward. I had accidentally left the car in drive or neutral. I could have jumped back in since it was only rolling forward about one mile per hour toward another parked car. But, I saw my wife jump from the passenger side to the driver said. (No problem, right?) I yelled “Brakes, hit the brakes!” But my wife hit the gas pedal instead of the brakes and rammed into the parked car. I couldn’t believe it. My wife was freaking out, crying. My son in the back seat was crying. It was chaos! We called the police but no citations were issued. It was an accident.
While all this is happening, Don Mattingly steps away from the crowd and gets into his car that was there to take him to the stadium. I was crushed. I got no picture and no autograph and my car was wrecked. But looking on the bright side, no one got hurt. It took me two hours to fall asleep that night. The next morning we got up early to check out since we were going to have breakfast with some old friends from N.J. who had recently moved to Apollo Beach (near Tampa). And then we were going to the 1 p.m. game and heading home to Miami after that. I went down to get the car and pack it up to go and I was all bummed out. When we got outside of the lobby, my wife pinched me on the arm and said, “Look who’s sitting there on the steps of the hotel.” It was “Donnie Baseball” himself. I couldn’t believe it. I asked him for a picture and an autograph. He even remembered that I had crashed my car the day before. What a nice guy. Best experience I’ve ever had with an athlete and it turned out to be my favorite baseball player of all time.
Right Place At The Right Time
When I first started playing baseball in little league, I started out as a third baseman. So like many youngsters first starting out in the game, you start to idolize a player that plays the same position as you. One of the best third baseman in the league at the time was George Brett. I really enjoyed watching George Brett play against the White Sox and watching his highlights. When I turned 12, I started collecting autographs outside of Comisky Park. I was thrilled to get the opportunity to see the Kansas City Royals and one of my favorite players in George Brett.
It was nice, sunny day in the middle of summer and a few collectors and I were sitting outside the main office doors waiting for the visiting Kansas City Royals to arrive at the ballpark. It had been a pretty decent day, with many of the players signing autographs. Finally Brett arrived in a cab. One of the other collectors got to him before me, as I was slow to approach him because I was so nervous. There he was, one of my boyhood heroes in the flesh. The other collector asked him to sign an oversized 1985 Topps card. He grabbed it signed it and them flipped it back at the collector. It bounced off his chest and fell to the ground. As the collector struggled to pick up the card off the ground, Brett then threw the pen over his shoulder. He reached out to grab my card but I shied away, afraid to have him do this to me. He then continued on and walked into the ballpark.
I remembered feeling so disappointed. Not only did I not get his autograph but he scared me. I thought he was going to throw something at me. Here is a player I tried to emulate. But he was not a very friendly person. I went back to the ballpark the next day and the scenario almost played out exactly the same way. A collector approached him with a book of cards. He took the pen signed his name really big over one card and onto another then flipped the book back at the collector who struggled to make a catch. Since the collector was struggling to get his book together, Brett then took the pen and just dropped it on the ground. But I was feeling brave that day and asked Brett to sign. He signed my card and handed it back to me along with the pen. Maybe I got lucky or maybe he liked kids. I do not know. I can tell you I still felt pretty intimidated, but this time I got the autograph.
(Editor’s Note: Our sister publication Tuff Stuff’s Sports Collectors Monthly is currently accepting reader submissions regarding their "Dream Collectible" While everyone would like to own a T206 Wagner card, we want to hear about the item you would love to own for personal, not monetary reasons. I myself am a huge Pittsburgh Steelers fan and I would love to own a collage-type poster of all their Super Bowl winning teams in Steeler history signed by many of the team’s prominent players. Sure it would be worth a pretty penny, but the sentimental value would be priceless. That’s my "Dream Collectible," now we want to hear about yours. If you’d like to submit your "Dream Collectible" story, please send 3-5 paragraphs and any related photos to email@example.com and yours could end up in a future issue of Tuff Stuff’s Sports Collectors Monthly.