Saturday, June 16, 2012

Robinson made good on autograph promise

A ball autographed by the 1951 Brooklyn Dodgers (similar to this
example from a recent Heritage auction) is a treasured childhood
memory representing Jackie Robinson's fulfilled promise to a

For whatever reason(s) I was never a particular fan of Jackie Robinson. I suppose the biggest reason for my animus was that he was a Dodger during a period when they were often in contention with my Milwaukee Braves for the National League pennant. 

In recent years, my reading of back issues of The Sporting News from the 1950s really hasn't changed my attitude about Robinson. I'm not keeping any tally of positive and negative articles, but if I had to guess, I'd say the editor of TSN also had an ax to grind against Robinson, or at least wasn't an ardent member of his fan club.

Nevertheless, there was a decidedly favorable short article in the Aug. 22, 1951, issue. The article should be of special interest to baseball memorabilia collectors.

Jackie Robinson made a promise to 14-year-old Johnny Nagelschmidt at Cooperstown, N.Y., and kept it, with interest. The youngster had approached the Brooklyn second baseman at the annual Baseball Shrine exhibition with the Athletics and asked for his autograph on a crumpled scorecard. As league rules prohibit such autographs, Jackie sorrowfully declined, but took the lad’s address. The youth received a ball, with the signatures of the entire Brooklyn squad and a note.

The Hall of Fame game at Abner Doubleday Field drew a crowd of 9,029 fans on July 23. The Dodgers beat the A’s 9 to 4, scoring five runs in the ninth inning. Robinson was 0 for 4.

As recently as 1987, Nagelschmidt still had that special ball. But the story he told to Syracuse Post-Standard columnist Frank Brieaddy differed considerable from the account in TSN.

It may have been that TSN got the story wrong in 1951, or it may be that the passage of 35+ years had muddied the memories of that lucky lad.

Brieaddy's column was published to mark the occasion of the 40th anniversary of Robinson's major league debut.

The column was titled, "A Special Memento From Robinson Era." Providing some background on the event, Brieaddy wrote, "Nagelschmidt was reared in Cooperstown. As a young man, he enjoyed watching the greats of the game pass through once a year for the Hall of Fame game."

He quoted Nagelschmidt, "We used to have quite a time growing up down there. A couple of years, Ty Cobb and Connie Mack would come by and we'd stroll up and down the streets talking with them."

Nagelschmidt recounted how on July 23, 1951, he was a 14-year-old selling scorecards at the game. "When the game was over, I grabbed a scorecard and started getting autographs."

The youngster had gathered quite a few signatures from both teams outside the locker rooms, including Robinson's. When the Dodgers' bus left Doubleday Field, Nagelschmidt decided to race the bus to the hotel in hopes of adding more signatures to his scorecard. 

"Being a local boy, I knew all the gardens and back yards and stuff, so when the bus pulled up to the hotel, I was running alongside," Nagelschmidt was quoted. 

"And Jackie Robinson rolled his window down, offered me an autograph. I said I already had his. He said, 'Well anybody that wants one that bad deserves to have them all."

So Robinson took young Nagelschmidt's program and passed it around the bus for everybody to sign.

Nagelschmidt recalled that the bus only stopped briefly at the hotel, and that the players didn't get off. Other youngsters began to swarm the windows, begging for autographs.

"They were getting ready to leave," Nagelschmidt said, "and I went over and asked him for my scorecard. He had mistakenly given it to somebody else."

Robinson offered to make it up to young Nagelschmidt and took his name and address. "He volunteered right away that he'd send me the ball," Nagelschmidt said. "But, you know, I still wasn't expecting it."When the ball arrived by mail a couple of weeks later, Nagelschmidt said he was "one thrilled kid.  It was covered at the time by all the area newspapers."

That team-autographed ball is Nagelschmidt's only memento of that time in his life.

"When I went into the service," he told Brieaddy, "my mother got rid of everything. My baseball card collection; they're all gone."

Nagelschmidt's encounter with Jackie Robinson isn't his only memory of autograph hunting during the Hall of Fame game. "Back in '48 (it was actually 1947)," he told Brieaddy, "the Yankees and the Braves played and I went to Joe DiMaggio. I was about 11 years old and I asked him for his autograph and he promptly became the first adult to use profanity at me."

Brieaddy's column concluded, "Nagelschmidt didn't like the Yankees after that. But he became a Dodgers fan and a big fan of Robinson's from 1951 to this day. Said Nagelschmidt, 'I'm sure glad he lost that scorecard.'"

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