Like other fringe groups of that era, sports memorabilia collectors of the '60s communicated with one another through a crude, almost underground press. The hobby's samizdats were cranked out in towns with names that seemed to have been lifted from a Kerouac itinerary: Yarmouth, Maine; Coffeeville, Miss.; Lake Ronkonkoma, N.Y. My favorite was Sports Collector's News (the exact pluralization and positioning of the apostrophe I can't quite remember), a dittoed journal produced in some Wisconsin backwater by a man with a Ukranian surname. SCN wended its way to most of its readers via third-class mail, so by the time each copy reached our mailbox it had (fortunately) long lost the clammy scent of duplicating spirit that I had learned to fear in grade school as heralding a pop quiz. It had (unfortunately) also long lost much of its legibility.
It indulged every idiosyncracy. Nominally a monthly, but in fact a maddening occasional, SCN helped galvanize the farflung collectors of cards and books and autographs who, but for the News, would have been oblivious to one another's existence. Oh, there were other publications: The Sports Trader, published by a Mississippian who feuded openly with SCN's editor, was a spare shopper, packed with ads from card collectors. But SCN ran more articles than ads, and its editor favored autographs over cards. In SCN's many pages of blurred purple I learned how to store signatures, how to assess them for authenticity and—this was crucial, for we lived in upstate New York, hours from the nearest big league park—how to write away for them.
Collectors were implored to follow the strictest canons of etiquette when requesting an autograph through the mails, so as not to besmirch the hobby's good name. We were to enclose a fan letter, with an obligatory line or two about how we hoped that his sore shoulder would mend, or that he could avoid getting optioned to Memphis. We had to provide the courtesy of a stamped self-addressed envelope. And, for signing, we were to include a couple of 3 X 5's—more than one if we were bold, so as to have duplicates with which to trade.
Once, in a gala Christmas issue or some such, SCN even published a short story. The plot centered around a fictitious collector who tried everything to get the signature of a certain star. This star, alas, had a policy of not signing. Ultimately our hero wrote his hero a check; to cash it, the player had to endorse the check's backside, and the protagonist got the coveted signature with his next bank statement. To a kid innocent of the ways of commerce, the tale was bewildering. But it did provide me with a reassuring trump card, for several Mets were proving to be recalcitrant.
The story's very publication confirmed for me that readers of SCN were the humanists of the collecting world. They tended to favor the article over the advertisement, the warm signature over the cold card. It was a fellow humanist, whose SCN ad I had answered, who would turn my collecting life around.
To this day I'm not certain where Seminole, Fla., is, though I suspect one could hit fungoes from its center to St. Petersburg, where the Mets trained each spring. Mark Jordan lived in Seminole, and with day trips to St. Pete he came naturally to obtain all sorts of arcane Mets memorabilia, for which I sent him large chunks of my pocket money. As I sift through some of those items, it occurs to me that Mark must have pillaged Al Lang Field after every spring game. Here's a 15� Grapefruit League scorecard; a mimeographed radio script detailing what the Mets' play-by-play men would drop into their broadcasts back to New York; even a green-tinted lineup card, filled out in Gil Hodges's hand and signed by him, surname only.
Most of all, Mark Jordan had autographs. He would get them in person, in black felt-tip (as the hobby papers recommended), and on the reverse of each file card he would fastidiously type the date and circumstances of acquisition. As we began exchanging letters, I savored my good fortune. I made my Mets affections clear. Mark sold me some signatures, while I, dipping into my modest cache of programs, yearbooks and media guides, bartered for others.
Mark and I weren't pen pals, exactly, and to this day I know almost nothing about him. I imagined him to be tow-headed and living with his father in a house with a two-swamp-buggy garage, for my only exposure to young male Floridians came from the TV series Flipper. In one letter Mark referred offhandedly to an autograph as a " John Henry," and I was impressed that he could make such a worldly allusion. At that point, neither of us had undergone enough schooling to nail down the difference between John Henry and John Hancock.
Flipping through the box, it's obvious which John Henrys I got from Mark. They have his inscriptions on their backs: "Jim McAndrew in person 3/20/69," for instance.
I had resolved to get as many Mets as possible without Mark's help—on my own, through the mails—and snap up the occasional one I could in person. We lived near the upstanding minor league town of Rochester, N.Y., home to the Triple A Red Wings, Baltimore's top farm club. Rochester had the liability of breeding Orioles' stepfans, whose presence would later cause me great aggravation. But it also permitted me to corner Met-to-be Jim Bibby during one of the Tidewater Tides' swings through town. Bibby signed the back of a Wings' program for me, and I carefully cut out his autograph and taped it to a file card.