In January 1962, Milwaukee Braves pitcher Warren Spahn changed my life. I was 15 years old, an avid sports fan who read everything I could about baseball. A magazine had just published an article about Spahn, with one of the nicest photographs I had ever seen. It showed the smiling Spahn, in uniform, against a bright red backdrop.
During that same week there was another photograph of Spahn, in the New York Herald Tribune. He was on a pitcher's mound, wearing sweat clothes and spikes, with his right leg kicking high in the air. The caption said that Spahn was working out at his home in Hartshorne, Okla.
Something in my mind clicked. I had sporadically collected autographs before. Now, hoping against hope, I put the magazine photo in a nine-by 12-inch manila envelope with a piece of shirt cardboard to keep the photo from bending. I added a self-addressed stamped envelope and a note telling Spahn that I was a fan and would be eternally grateful if he would autograph the photo and send it back to me. Then, trusting the U.S. Postal Service, I mailed it to " Warren Spahn, Hartshorne, Oklahoma."
Ten days later, my return envelope came back. Spahn's picture was inside. He was smiling at me. And across his chest, in blue ink, were the words: TO TOM HAUSER, BEST WISHES, WARREN SPAHN.
I freaked. I had never gotten anything that good in the mail before. Warren Spahn had written to me. And then that something in my mind clicked again. I had a baseball yearbook that featured every major league roster and listed every player's hometown. Some of the players lived in large cities, but others came from more rural places. Richie Ashburn lived in Tilden, Neb. Roger Maris, who had hit 61 home runs the previous year, made his home in Raytown, Mo.
I went through my collection of magazines, tore out the photos of 10 players who came from small towns and mailed them out. And when the baseball season began, I sent photos to players in care of their respective teams. Each mailing cost eight cents in postage, plus another six cents for the lighter return fare; my father provided the manila envelopes, and the shirt cardboards came from the laundry. Every day after school, I came home to check for returned envelopes in the mail.
The world was different in 1962. The New York Yankees were always in the World Series; the Boston Celtics always won the NBA championship; Pete Rose had yet to put on a major league uniform; and there was no such thing as a Super Bowl. The westward expansion of professional sports had only just begun. Large network TV contracts were unknown. Marvin Miller was with the steelworkers' union. Kids wore sneakers, not hundred-dollar specialty shoes, and we collected sports memorabilia for fun. Baseball cards were traded and flipped, not stored in plastic binders. The idea of an auction at Sotheby's was so foreign to sports as to be absurd.
The ballplayers were different, too. Ninety percent of the photos I sent out were returned; in most instances, with obvious care. Many of my heroes put their own return address in the upper lefthand corner of the reply envelope. Others wrote, "Photo—Do not bend," on the outside. Quite a few—Roberto Clemente, Len Dawson, Bobby Hull, Bill Mazeroski, Maurice Richard, Jim Taylor—enclosed photos of their own in addition to the ones I had sent. Others enclosed letters. Mel Allen wrote that he was "quite flattered that you have asked for my autograph." Larry Wilson thanked me for the kindness of enclosing a return envelope. Most of the players didn't just sign their names. They took care to write something special on their photo—"To Tom...Best Wishes...Good Luck...."
Dizzy Dean and Jack Dempsey both wrote that I was their "pal." So did Sugar Ray Robinson. Gene Mauch signed a photo that showed him insisting to an umpire, "I'm telling you, Tom Hauser is my friend." Sonny Liston wrote, "Best regard [sic] from Sonny Liston." Sonny obviously gave his regards sparingly. Later, I got a second photo from Liston on which "best" was crossed out and rewritten because initially it had been misspelled.
Many of the athletes I wrote to were generous with their time. Raymond Berry, then an All-Pro receiver with the Baltimore Colts, signed, "To Tom, with best personal regards, Raymond Berry, John 3:1-18." This was before it was fashionable for ballplayers to wear their religion on their sleeves, so I wrote Berry back, asking why he had signed with a reference to the Bible. Over the next year, he sent me three long letters explaining his philosophy of life.