How I Ruined My Ted Williams and Mickey Mantle Autographed Baseball
Let me set the stage. The date was June 13, 1971. I was three weeks short of my 16th birthday. My sophomore year at Lakewood High School was winding down. Finals were over, summer was about to begin, and my mind was on baseball.
Given my age, I wasn't paying close attention to the news outside of the baseball world. Little did I know (or care) that the New York Times published the Pentagon Papers, a top-secret Department of Defense study of America's involvement in the Vietnam War, in the Sunday newspaper that very day.
Closer to home (literally), I had no idea that Frank Sinatra was honored with a gala farewell that evening at the Music Center in Los Angeles. Ol’ Blue Eyes returned in November 1973 in "Sinatra - The Main Event" at Madison Square Garden.
Now, thirty-eight years later, I'm much more attuned to political news and Sinatra's music has its own playlist on my iPod. But, on the morning of June 13, 1971, I was thinking about one thing and one thing only: Ted Williams and the Washington Senators were in town to play the California Angels.
Courtesy of my Dad, who was Director of Public Relations and Promotions for the Angels, I had a pair of tickets that afternoon. I invited my longtime friend and high school basketball teammate Matt Cooper to the game. Matt had turned 16 several months before and he not only had a driver's license but his own car, a 1968 Pontiac Bonneville. Having a friend with wheels is important to any teenager. We went to a lot of games that summer.
On this particular day, Matt picked me up at my house between 9:30 and 10 a.m. Although the Angels-Senators game wasn't scheduled to begin until 2 p.m., we had one pit stop to make before heading to Anaheim Stadium. The Sheraton, a castle-themed hotel right off the Santa Ana Freeway, was the home of the Senators when the club was in Anaheim.
I was determined to add Ted Williams' signature to a ball that had been autographed by Mickey Mantle. Williams and Mantle. Now THAT would be an autographed baseball to pass down to my children. I had the ball, a blue ballpoint pen, and my game face on. I knew exactly what I wanted. I wasn't interested in getting Paul Casanova or Tim Cullen or Del Unser or Larry Biittner (double "i" and double "t"...I spelled it right!) to sign an autographed book or even their baseball cards. On this day, I was going to get their manager's signature. And nothing else.
Matt parked his car within steps of the team bus. We positioned ourselves between the hotel exit and the bus, waiting for "Mister" Williams, as I would call him, to emerge from the lobby. Ever the gentleman — at least with kids — Williams stopped in his tracks and paid special attention to the ball that I handed him.
As Williams was affixing his beautiful signature on the sweet spot above Mantle's gorgeous autograph, he said to me, "This is a special ball. You've got two Hall of Famers on there. Make sure you take good care of it."
Hall of Famers, ehh? Hmm. I was actually thinking much bigger than Williams. I thought I had the signatures of two of the greatest players in the history of the game on that ball. But he got me thinking, "I could turn this ball into one devoted to Hall of Famers." And Hall of Famers to be. See, Mantle had not been inducted into the HOF yet. While the Mick was retired, he was still three years away from his day in Cooperstown.
Just about the time my mind was focused on securing the autographs of Hall of Famers, out walks Denny McLain. You know, the 27-year-old pitcher with back-to-back Cy Young Awards in 1968 and 1969 and a Most Valuable Player Award, too. McLain, in fact, was the first pitcher in the history of the American League to win the Cy Young and MVP in the same season. He had three 20-win campaigns under his belt, including 31 victories in 1968, the first to win 30 games in a single season since Dizzy Dean in 1934. I mean, this guy was 117-62 with a 3.13 ERA. Little did I know that his ERA+ was only 110 at that point. I knew I should have been paying more attention to sabermetrics back then. Damn. Damn. Damn.
With "now this is my chance to add a third Hall of Famer to my ball" ringing throughout my head, I hand McLain my prized possession and ask him politely for his autograph. He grabs it and signs his name diagonally right smack in the middle of a separate panel on the ball.
I remember being more upset about the location of McLain's autograph than the signature itself. I don't know if Denny scrawled his name on my ball not knowing that Mantle and Williams had already signed it or if he did so purposely given his dislike for the Washington manager. Either way, the latest autograph didn't compare in stature or beauty to the other two. But, hey, a Hall of Famer is a Hall of Famer, right?
If anything, I was so psyched by the prospect of adding to my themed baseball that I checked the Angels schedule and learned that the Boston Red Sox were going to be in town on Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday. Matt and I headed back to the visiting team's hotel on one of those late afternoons or early evenings before what was then an 8 p.m. start time.
This time I set out to get Carl Yastrzemski's autograph. Yaz was only 31 at the time, but he had an MVP, a Triple Crown, three batting titles, and five Gold Gloves to his credit. Heck, he even had an OPS+ of 142 going into that season. As was the case with McLain, forget the fact that Yastrzemski was in the middle of his worst season ever. I know a Hall of Famer when I see one and these two guys were Hall of Famers, let me tell you.
Like McLain, Yaz positioned his less than bold signature on another panel that would make it difficult for anyone else to add their name next to his. I also added one more autograph either that evening or on the same day when I got Williams and McLain to sign my ball. The signature is none other than that of Joe Cronin, who was the president of the American League at that time. A major league player (1926-1945), manager (1933-1947), general manager (1948-1958), and/or president (1959-1973) for 48 consecutive years, he was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1956.
I did well with Williams, Mantle, Yastrzemski, and Cronin, but "not so much" with McLain. While four out of five ain't bad when it comes to most baseball endeavors, 80 percent doesn't get the job done with respect to putting together a Hall of Fame autographed ball. As it turns out, I would have been better off getting McLain's father-in-law to sign the ball — at least Lou Boudreau was a Hall of Famer.
You might say that I learned one of my first — and hardest — lessons about pitchers... if not that day in June, then certainly two years later when the 29-year-old McLain was released by the Atlanta Braves, never to appear in a major-league game again. He "retired" with 131 wins and one disgruntled fan in Long Beach.
Denny McLain may be Dennis Dale McLain to his mom and dad. But he's Denny Effing McLain to me.
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