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Keeping Score: Big city autograph hunting in the days of yore

  • These signatures of various pro athletes are from a time when the fun  of getting autographs was the thrill of the chase. CONTRIBUTED PHOTO


Friday, December 30, 2016

Good morning!

In the late 1950s and early ’60s, New York Giant football player Andy Robustelli owned a grinder shop above the dam in Gill. This was when the Mohawk Trail was a two-lane highway that meandered through every town in Central Mass. and getting to Fenway Park was a grueling trek for a carload of 10-year-olds.

After the games our parents would let us roam the lobby of the Kenmore Hotel looking for players to sign autographs. Mark Enoch was the best at it. His dad taught math at Deerfield Academy and he lived with his parents on the north end of Main Street.

In those days, getting autographs was more for the thrill of the chase and the opportunity to say that for a fleeting moment that we had stood in the presence of what we thought at the time was greatness. 

This was when spring training games didn’t sell out and fewer than a million came to Fenway Park to watch the last place Red Sox. Nowadays fans pay $35 for T-shirts and $40 to watch a spring training game with lineups composed of minor league players. Two months from now the World Baseball Classic begins, and Colombia is scheduled to play Canada on March 11 at noon  in Miami. Over in Fort Myers, Red Sox fans will fill up Jet Blue Park but Miami Marlins Park will be empty. That’s where I’ll be, at the empty ballpark watching Canada’s Russell Martin and Colombia’s Jose Quintana play for love of game and country.

Earlier this month Mark mailed me a page out of his pocket-sized notebook from the 1963 season. On a single, small sheet of paper were the names Bill Goodman, Bill Consolo, Ike Delock, Bill Monbouquette, John Dell Isola, Art Spinney and Jerry Cassale.

There’s an autograph store in Cooperstown that proclaims, “We’ve got the autographs your mother threw away.”

To the contrary, Mark’s held onto his autographs and has found they really aren’t worth much. “Having them sign cards would have been more lucrative but not much. You'd think my Jesse Owens would be worth something, but nada. I was offered $10 for Hank and Tommy Aaron — most HRs by brothers — by a collector in New Jersey, but that's about it. I liked the sport of it. Most of them were obtained in hotel lobbies where we were staying.”

Mark was a Braves fan from the team’s days in Milwaukee and he still reveres southpaw Warren Spahn. His father grew up outside Pittsburgh and rooted for the Pirates.

When he was 10 years old his dad took him to Philadelphia to watch the Pirates play a three-game series. “I have the entire '60 Pirates team except Smokey Burgess. Dad and I were outside of the hotel on a Sunday morning and Smokey was getting into a cab to go to church. He was polite in his refusal. My father explained that he was a devout Catholic and autographs weren’t appropriate on the Sabbath.

“Dad grew up with Honus Wagner his hero, and he yelled at the crowd the first time he saw Roberto Clemente take a few swings, "I've never seen anything like this! Are you people asleep?!”

Of the names Mark mailed me, Consolo’s is the only signature that’s difficult to read. Consolo played for the Red Sox but not in 1963, and he was called Billy, not Bill, yet a Google comparison verified that it is indeed the signature of the one and only William Angelo Consolo.

The other names were neatly written in the cursive style the teachers of our time diligently taught us. Goodman was the 1954 AL batting leader, Delock was a journeyman .500 pitcher who was used mostly in relief, and Casale was a right-hander with a career 17-24 record.

 Two were football players. John Dell Isola played for the New York Giants and Art Spinney played at Boston College and later for the Baltimore Colts. He subsequently helped develop Poly-Turf for Biltrite Rubber Co. of Cambridge.

“Spinney played in the classic 1958 overtime championship game against the Giants which is said to have made the NFL what it is today,” said Mark.

Monbouquette — Monbo or Mombo as everyone called him — is the prize name on the list. Mark laughs at the time the Red Sox right-hander blew me off inside New York’s Commodore Hotel. Mombo was scurrying down a staircase toward a revolving door and out to the team bus, putting on a tie and glancing back to yell, “If I was your parents, I’d take you home and tan your asses!”

Around the same time I approached Carl Yastrzemski while he was walking across the hotel lobby and reading a letter. When I asked for his autograph he never looked up. He just kept reading and said, “Bug off, son.”

Monbouquette was a handsome, Meford-born athlete who wore No. 27 before Carlton Fisk came along, and 96 of his career 114 wins were for the Red Sox. He died less than a year ago, on Jan. 17, and the headline that accompanied his obituary in the New York Times said, “Pitching Ace When Red Sox Struggled.” 

He was 78 years old, and he died six days before Ernie Banks, the Cubs third baseman who hit a two-run homer off him in the 1960 All-Star game. The Times’ obit included an anecdote about Monbo’s no-hitter against the Chicago White Sox in 1960. The final out, Luis Aparicio, checked his swing on an 0-2 count. When homeplate umpire Bill McKinley called it a ball, a voice from the stands bellowed, “They shot the wrong McKinley!”

“I had to step off the mound and chuckle,” said Monbouquette, who fanned Aparicio on the next pitch.   

Nowadays autograph hunting is big business and kids lean over the railing at ball parks to get their money sigs the way youths stand on street corners in the inner city.

That might be a stretch, but before a spring training game in Jupiter a few years ago the St. Louis Cardinals were hosting the Baltimore Orioles. Two kids were wearing Orioles jerseys and holding loose leaf binders, standing in the first row near the visitor’s dugout getting autographs.

I didn’t think much of it until the next day when the same two kids were wearing Orioles jerseys and imploring Baltimore players to sign their baseball cards.

They were wearing the team garb as a guise. They weren’t fans, and the jerseys were merely a means to an end. 

The man I presumed was their father was standing nearby, expressionless and unexcited. I approached him and said, “You’re raising your kids to be con artists.”

He looked at me like I was crazy and moved a few steps away. Must’ve been the glint in my eye, I just wasn’t up with the times.

Chip Ainsworth is an award-winning columnist who has penned his observations about sports for four decades in the Pioneer Valley.