Sparky Lands The Pope's Autograph

Posted: May 19, 1994

You think Babe Ruth was a tough autograph? Well, he wasn't. In fact, the Babe willingly signed for anyone who asked him. Not so with the pope.

I'm not talking about the Phillies' Paul Owens. I'm referring to John Paul II, the real pope, and the autograph he recently signed for Detroit Tigers manager Sparky Anderson.

Jim Hawkins, longtime Detroit baseball writer-turned-hobby-show promoter, returned from a visit to spring training with an amusing tale about the pope's autograph.

Last winter, a dinner was planned to honor Anderson and one of those staging the dinner sent a ball to the Vatican requesting the pope's autograph. Back came the ball, unsigned, and a terse reply, saying, "The pope does not sign baseballs, it is against all papal protocol."

Undaunted, Bishop Norbert Dorsey, of Lakeland, Fla., where the Tigers have spring training, took the baseball with him on a trip to Rome and personally appealed to the pope. Whatever he said worked and not only did the pope sign the ball, but he personalized it.

"To Sparky A. Cum benedictione (with blessing) Johannes Paulus."

Was Anderson happy?

"I'll put that ball in a vault; it's priceless," he said "It's the only ball ever signed by a pope."

LEAGUE ALL THEIR OWN

This weekend at least five former All American Girls Professional Baseball League players, including Lavone "Pepper" Paire Davis, the model for the Geena Davis role in "A League of Their Own," will be at the Eastern Pennsylvania Sports Collectors Club's 47th Philadelphia Baseball Card and Sports Memorabilia Show at the Fort Washington Expo Center.

Davis, a star catcher in her playing days, was a technical adviser for the popular film. The women will sign autographs all three days. They bring a raft of memorabilia with them when they do shows. If you haven't met them yet, you are in for a treat.

BACKS UP CLAIM

The fourth series of Megacards's "Conlon Collection" of great old-time baseball player cards has been on the market now for several weeks. It's loaded with more great photos of players who were in their prime during the lengthy career of Sporting News photographer Charles Martin Conlon.

Of interest to older Philadelphia fans will be a subset featuring the players of the 1929 Athletics. It is one of a total of 15 subsets within the 330-card '94 issue.

When Megacards announced its fourth series, it also said collectors purchasing an unopened wax box would be able to complete a set from its contents.

Knowing about card packaging, I cringed when I read that. Being a card collector, I bought a box to find out for myself and, sure enough, it was 16 cards short of a full set. Was I surprised? Really, I wasn't. Was I annoyed? For sure.

I wrote to Megacards and within a couple of weeks received my missing cards and a nice letter from Parker Allison saying the fact I was missing 16 cards was "a highly unusual and disturbing number."

Knowing some of the really off-the-wall requests that come into Fleer quality control in Philadelphia, I can only believe Megacards has opened a real Pandora's box with its full-set-in-a-box guarantee. I give it credit, though, for standing by its claims.

HALL OF FAME AUTOGRAPHS

A close friend, who deals heavily in baseball star autographs, called me the other day and announced he was selling off his Hall of Fame autograph collection, because the recent inclusion of Phil Rizzuto and Leo Durocher told him the Cooperstown brain trust has drastically lowered the entrance requirements and cheapened membership.

I'm told, too, there's a very enlightening book coming out shortly that digs into the politics of Cooperstown and gives the reason why certain players will never be enshrined - worthy or not.

Upper Darby's Jim Donahue, who piloted the successful two-year campaign to have Rich Ashburn's eligibility restored, is probably thinking that despite his efforts, Ashburn's chances at enshrinement are no better then they ever were.

Rizzuto had only one decent season (1950, batted .324) and never won any kind of offensive honors. He obviously had more cronies then Ashburn and the current Veterans Committee reads like a who's who of the ex-Yankees shortstop's old pals.

You know the drill by now. Ashburn played 15 years to Rizzuto's 13. Ashburn was the National League batting champion twice and had a lifetime batting

average of .308. Rizzuto's was .273. Ashburn had more hits then any player in the decade of the '50s and compiled 2,574 hits during his career (No. 53 on all-time list.

Where was Rizzuto? Don't ask.

Ashburn was a leader in six different offensive categories (13 times) during his career. Where was Rizzuto? Couldn't find him.

In fact, guys like Snuffy Stirnweiss showed up more frequently than Rizzuto during his "prime" years. But we all know Scooter has a lot of friends and was destined to make the Hall of Fame because he played in New York and was a nice guy.

But the Veterans Committee message that tells me Ashburn will probably never be inducted was when it used a second selection to anoint Leo Durocher for induction.

Durocher, you might recall, once said that if he wasn't inducted during his lifetime he didn't want to go in. Guess what? Leo died in 1991. He'll go in anyway.

What did he have going for him? The same New York connection, of course, but nobody will ever confuse Durocher with being lovable, and there were better managers who will never be inducted.

Look up Billy Southworth's career stats if you doubt me. Come to think of it, maybe I ought to sell my Hall of Fame autograph collection, too.

Ted Taylor has been a lifelong collector of baseball cards and sports memorabilia. He has run memorabilia shows in the area and has written for various publications. Taylor is the director of Hobby Relations for Fleer Corp.

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