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My first autograph ever was from Clifford Earl Torgeson. He was a tower of a man, Earl Torgeson – 6-foot-3, with glasses as thick as his chaw of tobacco.

Sure there were bigger names on the Phillies that year, like Ashburn and Ennis and Roberts, but Earl Torgeson and I had so much in common. We both batted left, we both threw left and, most of all, we both had an Earl Torgeson first baseman’s mitt.

I used to treat that glove like it was a member of the family. I cleaned it, I oiled it and, on nights when I played a really good game, I slept with it.

I got that autograph by going to Connie Mack Stadium hours before the games started. While some of the players were taking batting practice, I called out to Torgeson. “Earl, will you sign my glove?”

I was thrilled that he did. And he seemed thrilled that a kid like me had actually bought his glove and wanted it signed.

My autograph collecting went on for years. By the time I was 12, my father realized how serious and dedicated I was about it. And he decided it was time. That’s when he opened the third drawer of the linen chest in the dining room and reached all the way to the back and brought out The Ball.

The Ball was covered in tin foil to protect it from the elements and my mother’s pearly pink nail polish. As he carefully peeled off the layers of foil, he told me the story behind it. When he was young, he volunteered to work at a sports banquet. He filled the water glasses of the stars on the dais. In exchange, some of those stars gladly signed a baseball he’d stuck in his pocket.

Then he handed the ball to me like a manager handing off to his closer in the seventh game of the World Series. “This is yours now,” he said. “Promise me you won’t play with it in the yard.”

The promise made, I carefully examined The Ball. Most of the names were easy to read. Connie Mack. Jimmie Foxx, Red Grange, Pinky Higgins. And more. My eyes opened and my mouth dropped. This wasn’t a ball. This was a national treasure. I got some new tin foil, wrapped The Ball carefully and put it in the safest place I had – the back of my underwear drawer, behind the tighty whities.

The Ball never left my room. On rare occasions, I would bring friends upstairs and show it to them. “You should sell that,” one said. “Do you know what it must be worth? Thousands of dollars.”

Actually, more like tens of thousands. But that’s not the point. There are some things in life that are sacred, there are some things that are more important than money. You can’t put a price on a father’s love for his son.

Today, baseball players don’t seem to get that. Want a Phillies’ autograph? You don’t even have to go to a game. Just go online. Roy Halladay $200. Chase Utley $150. Cliff Lee $110. Ryan Howard $80.

Hall of Famer Mike Schmidt ($160) laments this. Sort of.

“The sports memorabilia industry came to life,” he says, “and the autograph, as we once knew it, was history. Unfortunate, yes.

“Companies like Upper Deck sprang up and paid celebrity athletes megabucks for exclusive rights to signatures on products.  Somewhere, lost in the crowd, must be little [kids] who just want a memory. That is the sad part of it. Hall of Famers, including me, sitting behind tables selling autographs.

“That little guy who, along with his father, had a chance to meet and get an autograph remembrance of the moment spent with his hero is gone. He’ll most likely never again get that experience without paying for it.”

Schmidt, who admits to making millions from the sale of autographed balls, is right. The party’s over. Now, it’s pay to play.

Me? Will I sell The Ball? Of course not. A few years ago, tin foil and all, I gave it to my son. Like a manager handing off to his closer.

April 2014
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