Card collecting had also alerted me to a problem attending the task of set completion. The cards in Topps' sixth and seventh series always appeared on store shelves in my area in late summer, when they would barely get in circulation before being chased from the shelves by football cards. The analogous hurdle for the autograph collector came when the Triple A season ended and farmhands came up. There was little time to collect those September call-ups from Tidewater and Memphis, but they belonged in the metal box, too. I had to scramble to get Bob Johnson's autograph, as well as Jim Gosger's. The signatures of Bob Heise and Jesse Hudson. And Les Rohr. Les Rohr is right in front of Nolan Ryan in the metal box. Though he appeared in only one game that season, giving up five hits, a walk and three earned runs in 1? innings (an ERA of 20.25), Rohr is just as essential to me as Ryan. His is a minimalist name—Les is Rohr—and a rendering of that name is all he sent me. Some of the other September Mets, new to the majors and likely intrigued by fans' solicitations, seemed to want to do more than merely sign. They wanted to engage in dialogue.
"I don't have any photo," Jesse Hudson scrawled on the back of his file card. I must have asked Jesse for one, to use as trade bait.
Bob Heise had added, "Best Wishes." And Bob Johnson, inexplicably, wrote "Thanks."
Whatever for? Thank you.
To the extent that one can control such things, I modeled my handwriting after Jerry Grote's. A very slight leftward slant; prominent initial letter; much smaller subordinate ones.
Grote was my absolute favorite, and nothing about him seemed unworthy of emulation. I would glow while reading encomiums about him in
The Sporting News
—Lou Brock once called him the toughest catcher to steal against, tougher even than Johnny Bench
. I had seen Grote hit his first major league home run on TV; had coerced my dad into taking me to a particular pregame promotion at Shea Stadium, where Grote met with and signed for his public; had even, through the willful titration of prepubescent hormones, developed a crush on Grote's lovely wife.
Only later would I learn that Grote was considered one of the game's great sour-tempered sonsofbitches. He left baseball briefly in 1979 with the soi-disant goal of spending more time with his family, but his wife soon left him.
Yogi Berra's Berra is a matter-of-fact scrawl, over when it's over. But his Yogi has some surprisingly baroque touches. The styles of those first and last names coexist stubbornly, not unlike Yogi's subway series of stints as a player, a coach and a manager with both of New York's baseball clubs.
Yogi's dual allegiances raise the age-old and profound question: Why follow the Mets and not the Yankees? Today it's easy to answer: One ball club is owned by a book publisher, the other by a convicted felon. But back then, it was much more complicated. I think I ended up with the Mets because 1) I had no older brothers and 2) both of my parents were overwhelmingly apathetic toward baseball. There was no hand-me-down prejudice toward excellence, of the sort that might be imparted with indoctrination into the game from an elder—I had no kin critiquing my swing with, "You have to watch Mickey Mantle. Now there's a stroke," or "If you'd been around in '27 you'd have seen the greatest team of all time, the Yankees."
The Mets, like me, were green and still learning.