Roberto Clemente's Autograph
I am not now, nor have I ever been, a collector of autographs, baseballs, baseball cards, etc. As a kid in the '50s, I'd buy baseball cards to look at, memorize the stats on the back and to flip them (heads or tails, against the wall, anything we could think of). The following spring, I'd throw out last year's cards and start again. The most fun about getting autographs was you got to be next to the player to ask for it. That was thrill enough for me. It never crossed my mind that people in the future would make money from collectibles.
I was a Pirate fan living in New York City during the '60s. There weren't many of us. Roberto Clemente was my guy. In the same way that Mickey Mantle or Willie Mays or Sandy Koufax were your guys if you were a Yankee, Giant or Dodger fan. I loved him, wanted to play like him and tried to emulate him on the field. And I wanted his autograph. I can tell you literally dozens of great Clemente stories that I was around for during this era. Here's one of my favorites.
Getting Clemente's autograph was not the easiest thing in the world. He went through his baseball life with a chip on his shoulder. Not that he wasn't justified. With the exception of Jackie Robinson, I doubt any ballplayer was treated as badly by the press as Clemente was and he took every slight personally. He was black, Latino and spoke not one word of English when he came here in 1954 at the age of 19. Sportswriters, perhaps just not used to dealing with Latino players, would quote him phonetically, which made him look bad. "I theenk I have goood seeson." Learning to speak English was not easy for him.
You had to ask for his autograph when he was in a good frame of mind. Me and my buds would go down to the hotels where the teams were staying when they were in town to play the Yankees or Mets. Most teams stayed at the Hotel Roosevelt, the Pirates at the Hotel Commodore. We'd get there on Saturday mornings just before the bus would take them to the Bronx or to Shea and ask for their autographs in the lobby. Most would sign, some wouldn't.
I first got Clemente's autograph on August 18, 1964, which I knew was his 30th birthday. I was rowing boats six days a week all summer as a dock boy at Brooklyn Day Camp. I called in sick that day and went to Shea for an afternoon Pirate/Met game. Back then, I used to write to the Pirates for glossy photos of the players and they'd always oblige. So I had a few pages of Forbes Field stationery with me.
After the game, I waited outside the clubhouse for the Pirates to board their bus. Clemente comes out and a bunch of kids swarm around him. "Can I have your autograph, Roberto?" For whatever reason, he wasn't signing that day. Frank Oceak, the Pirates 3rd base coach, sees me holding my pen and paper and tells me, "Talk to him in Spanish and he'll sign for you." The proverbial light bulb goes on over my head! I took three years of torturous Spanish classes with Mr. Capitano in Junior High School!! "Roberto, Feliz Cumpleanos," I say. He puts down his suitcases, smiles and signs his name on my Forbes Field paper. I kept telling myself that Roberto Clemente likes me. A great moment.
Many decades later, the autograph on that paper is worth quite a bit. Supply and demand. Clemente didn't sign that many and died at age 38. Pete Rose has made his living by signing his name for the past 22 years. I took my Clemente autograph to a card show one time and showed it to a dealer, who immediately offered me $500 for it. Which told me it was worth much more than that. It is not for sale.