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I am Frankly Baffled by the booming business in autographs. And, yes, the once innocent if always idiotic pursuit of celebrity signatures is now, without question, a business. But I am not here to pass moral judgment on what is merely another manifestation of civilization's headlong plunge into the abyss. I am baffled because I spent the better part of my boyhood trying not to get autographs.
This is not to say that hordes of famous ballplayers and movie stars habitually chased me down the street, pen and pad at the ready, beseeching me to accept their scribblings. No, my problem back then was that my father, a perfectly sane man in other respects, stoutly believed that any contact with greatness, however brief, was essential to the advancement of a young fellow on the way up, even though his son was demonstrably not that fellow. Whenever he and I would go out to the old Oakland ballpark, which was often, he would urge me to rush down to the first row of seats and press my score-card on players loitering nearby. I lived in horror of such moments.
I should say right here that I was not an especially shy child. On the contrary, I rather fancied myself the class cutup. But my savoir faire would vanish in the presence of one of my idols on the Oakland Oaks of the Pacific Coast League. These celestial beings, I was convinced, should not have to be pestered by the likes of me. I preferred to place them on a pedestal, assume a respectful distance and admire them from afar.
Actually, I was scared to death of them. My dad thought I was nuts. "There's Les Scarsella," he would whisper loudly as the Oaks' sainted first baseman emerged from the dugout. "Go get him."
I would approach to within three feet of Scarsella and then turn to stone. "Well, what happened?" my father would inquire upon my empty-handed return. "Oh, he was too busy," I would lie.
So, despite my father's best efforts, I remained completely autograph-free almost through puberty. Then, in my 14th year, an autograph literally fell into my lap. We were at the Oakland ballpark, as usual, on a bright Saturday afternoon, when, just before game time, my father decided to pay a visit to some friends several sections away. Not once that day had he pressured me to buttonhole any of the players, so I was in a blissful state, with my unsigned scorecard on my lap, when there suddenly loomed above me an enormous and familiar figure.
"Hey, champ!" fans all around me were shouting. "Hey, Max!"
Now, there was no more ardent sports fan alive at that time than this little autographophobe, so I instantly recognized the newcomer as Max Baer, the former heavyweight champion of the world. Baer, who retired from boxing in 1941, had long made his home in northen California, and had become one of the most popular of all Bay Area sports personalities, a man as well known for his charm as for his big right hand. I sat there in his shadow, mouth stupidly agape, face crimson, body frozen in place. I said nothing, naturally, and I was certain Baer hadn't even noticed me, so busy was he glad-handing well-wishers and joking with the fans.
And then he did something absolutely astonishing: He sat on my lap. He sat down there even though the seat my father had vacated was clearly available to him. He ruffled my hair, no mean feat since my locks were then lacquered into a monstrous pompadour by gallons of Wildroot Cream Oil. The ex-champ must have weighed about 250 at the time, and even with the hair-cream tonnage, I was maybe 110 pounds, but I could scarcely feel his bulk, so artfully had he situated himself on me.
Baer had the whole section in stitches with his robust good humor, and soon people from other parts of the ballpark were running over to see what was up. My father, mercifully, was not among them. I sat there mortified beneath the old fighter, scarlet features obscured by Baer's massive torso. And then, with a wave of his mighty arms, he got up. The crowd cheered and applauded, and as Baer bowed in acknowledgment, he caught sight of my slightly crumpled score-card. He snatched it from me, scratched something on it with his fountain pen and, smiling broadly, handed it back.