Several years ago I contacted R.J. (Jack) Smalling, an Ames, Iowa, insurance salesman, to enlist him in my search. Smalling is to autograph collecting what Ted Williams is to hitting, both fount and exemplar. In addition to having one of the largest collections of baseball autographs extant, Smalling has for years compiled The Sport Americana Baseball Address List, which includes a mailing address, or date and place of death, for nearly everyone who has ever played in the majors. Hobbyists use the addresses to obtain signatures and the necrology to fix their value. Like undertakers and lawyers, autograph collectors profit from death, and Smalling relies on a nationwide network of sources to track down death certificates for the most obscure ex-ballplayers. (Only one '69 Met player, Daniel Vincent Frisella, is dead. He was killed on New Year's Day, 1977, in a dune-buggy accident near Phoenix.)
Soon enough Smalling wrote me to confess that he was similarly bamboozled in his search, for Agee's current address. Yet he did have a 3 x 5 Tommie Agee kicking around the house, which he enclosed, gratis.
The "T" up front is vaguely J-like, and there's a healthy loop in the "o," both features that match Tommie Agee facsimile autographs.
But the first name has been spelled Tommy.
And so I'm in a metal box filled with autographs, bound for Queens. This box is a graffiti-defaced subway car on the A train, though I'm not taking it in the direction that Duke Ellington had in mind. Smalling's latest Address List has only an old entry for Agee, at 112-08 Astoria Boulevard in East Elmhurst, not far from Shea. But I have heard that he keeps a saloon called The Outfielder's Lounge, and there's just such an establishment in the phone book, at 114-12 Van Wyck Expressway in Ozone Park.
Just into Queens the A burrows above ground, before bending abruptly south toward Kennedy Airport and the Rockaways. I alight at that elbow, descend from the trestle and begin walking east along Rockaway Boulevard through the land of hyphenated house numbers: past Aqueduct Race Track, past storefronts of Italian-American fraternal organizations, and finally into a tidy neighborhood that straddles the Van Wyck Expressway.
At 114-12 there's no sign of an Outfielder's Lounge—only a brick building with a corrugated steel grate over its facade, and a sign reading SUPPER CLUB/ CATERING/DISCO. I duck into the Car Clinic next door and tell the mechanic I'm looking for Tommie Agee. Agee and his bar have been gone for a few months, he says, and suggests that I try a spot up near Shea, hard by the Grand Central Parkway on-ramp.
"On Astoria Boulevard?" The site he describes sounds much like the address listed in Jack Smalling's book. "Is that the place he used to own?"
"That's it. It's not his place anymore, but that's where you'll find him."
A cabbie takes me to 112-08 Astoria, a restaurant called the Stadium Inn. It's early on a Saturday evening in July, and there's a small group around the bar—black, well dressed, middle-aged. I take a stool and ask the barmaid whether Tommie Agee ever stops by.